“God helps those who help themselves.”
This sounds like something that makes a lot of sense when you first hear it, doesn’t it? We see examples throughout Scripture of men and women who seem commended by for their ingenuity—Abraham, David, Joseph, even Jacob to some degree… all are men we see (apparently) take matters into their own hands and come out on top and in God’s favor.
On top of that, we’re told by the Apostle Paul to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12b); we’re to be active in our faith, not simply sitting back and doing nothing. So it almost sounds like this could be a biblical truth, doesn’t it?
Where does “God helps those who help themselves” come from?
One of the earliest forms of this saying goes back to Aesop’s fable, Hercules and the Waggoner, where the moral of the story is “the gods help them that help themselves.” The modern variant, “God helps those who help themselves,” was allegedly first coined by the English political theorist Algernon Sidney and later popularized by Benjamin Franklin, a Deist. In case you’re wondering, a Deist is one who believes that while a supreme being did indeed create the universe, that supreme being does not involve itself in human affairs. Therefore, miracles and special revelation (such as healing, prophecy, the virgin birth & resurrection of Jesus, and the inspiration of the Scriptures) don’t actually happen.
At the risk of oversimplifying, according to this view, God just isn’t interested in his creations. He’s got better things to do.
Okay, we know the origin. So, what does the Bible really say? Does God really help those who help themselves?
The better news the Bible give us
Nowhere in Scripture will you find the idea that God helps those who help themselves. It’s not there. Instead, you find the opposite. For example, when Paul wrote about trials, he said that he and his team were “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:9). Their burden was so great they felt they’d received a death sentence (10). That’s a big deal—like entirely contradict the platitude big. Jesus also described our redemption and the forgiveness of our sins as something reserved for those who can help themselves. Instead, he described us as sheep, needing a shepherd to come and rescue us (Luke 15:4-6).
God does not help those who can help themselves because, from this perspective, we cannot help ourselves. We cannot save ourselves from our bondage to sin, nor from the wrath of God, so He does. Our own power fails us when we rely on it, rather than God. To believe that God helps those who help themselves, is not only foolish, but it’s proud. Pride motivates the belief that we can do everything by our own gusto and go-to attitude. That we can pick ourselves up by our spiritual & moral bootstraps. But, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Pet. 5:5).
How do we respond?
We know that the idea that God helps those who help themselves is false, so how do we respond? I need to spend some time asking God to reveal to me in what ways I live like this is true. And as He reveals them, my desire is to repent. I have no doubt that there are areas in which I am doing this, and I hope that I am learning to be humble enough to admit them.