God Helps Those Who Help Themselves?
“God helps those who help themselves” is not in the Bible.
We are in a sermon series about jargon we throw around without thinking about them too deeply. We’ve all said this stuff, and they’re true to a point, but eventually, they break down and sometimes cause harm. Examining these sayings teaches us how to avoid unintentionally hurting people while growing our knowledge of God.
Today we are examining “God helps those who help themselves.” A Barna Group research survey found that most Americans believe this is one of the most important biblical teachings. That’s interesting because the phrase never appears in the Bible.
Although the saying boasts ancient roots and was likely appropriated from other religions, Benjamin Franklin popularized it in Poor Richard’s Almanac. The slogan caught on, embedding itself into the fabric of the ideals of American ingenuity, our work ethic, and views of God.
The half-truth of “God helps those who help themselves.”
The slogan sounds like something the Bible would say. Scripture writers, aware of our propensity toward sloth, named it a sin. Scripture is peppered with passages encouraging us to work hard, take personal responsibility, and do our fair share. Hard work is lifted as a critical virtue.
Scripture frowns on freeloaders who take advantage of others. Listen to how the Apostle Paul (author of 2/3 of the New Testament) scolds freeloaders or those who can do for themselves but don’t.
We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people, we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good. 2 Thessalonians 3:11-13.
He repeated this emphasis when he learned that because people believed Jesus would return at any moment, some asked, “Why work? What’s the point?” It still happens. This spring, some “prophet” predicted Jesus would return in June so many people quit their jobs.
Examining the myth of God helps those who help themselves.
One problem, however, with the notion of God helping those who help themselves is that it makes it sound like God’s favor and material blessings are reserved for the hard-working faithful–as if prosperity is evidence of a faithful life.
If you assume material prosperity is how God helps us, then there is a temptation to believe that the more you have, the more faithful you must be. That’s why we see mega-church preachers darting around on private jets, gobbling up mega-mansions, and bouncing around the stage wearing $5,000 sneakers. They are projecting an image of being blessed and preach that financial prosperity results from being a good Christian—like them.
They make it sound like when we work hard and keep our noses clean, whenever we pray, it’s like ringing for a bellhop where God comes running to do our bidding. Instead, we should see ourselves on call for whatever service God needs, no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient.
Saying God helps those who help themselves makes poor people sound lazy and unfaithful.
The expression gets used when justifying why we don’t want to help people. It’s often used to demonize impoverished people, making blanket assumptions about their laziness. But picture the hardest-working people you know. How many of them are billionaires? 61% of this country’s hard-working people live paycheck to paycheck. When someone is struggling, and they hear God helps those who help themselves, they tend to internalize shame, thinking God turned against them. I try to do the right thing and work hard ’til I bleed, but I feel like I’m drowning.
At the conference I attended last week, we heard a story from a 50-year-old combat veteran pastor who heard God’s call. He incurred a lot of debt to go to seminary and followed God’s call to serve a small church in an impoverished neighborhood in Da las. (One of those places is a “food ghetto” with no grocery stores, and it’s a 3-hour ride on public transportation back and forth to get food). Serious health issues arose, and he lost his teeth, among other issues. He was trying his best to preach without teeth. He grew so desperate he nearly took predatory loans (the kind where you borrow $5 but wind up paying $5K to pay it off). The ministerial pension benevolence fund stepped in and got him through the crisis, but that isn’t available for many.
In a world where healthcare costs lead to generational poverty and homelessness, what good is it to proclaim faith our faith but not advocate for a system that works for all?
The poor are with you always” is descriptive, not prescriptive.
The companion expression to “God helps those who help themselves is, “The poor you will have with you always.” This was never meant to be God’s prescription of how the world should be, but it’s the accurate description of what greed and corruption do in the world as it is. This saying in the Bible comes from Deuteronomy 15, which institutes a debt relief program where people find relief from crippling cycles of debt. Verse 11 says:
There will always be poor people in the and. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your fellows who are poor and needy in your land.
People of faith are called not just to care for the poor but confront the systems that keep people down. What if we took our cues from Deuteronomy and created new forms of debt relief for people instead of making it another talking point in the culture wars?
Caring for the poor means addressing systemic issues.
I’m sorry, but I just can’t help myself. I must mention that the poor need our help because it’s so easy for our society for the billionaire class and massive corporations to buy political influence that results in policies designed to keep people in poverty. Too often, politicians pray at the beginning of a legislative session and then immediately adopt policies that p-r-e-y upon people with low incomes.
Legislators influenced by megadonors and corporate interests justify their actions with arguments like I heard one of my former senators make. He argued against raising the minimum wage so people because doing so would disincentivize folks from improving themselves and pursuing higher-paying jobs. It used to be that we declared a war on poverty, not a war on the poor.
The faith community is to stand up for people.
The idea that God helps those who help themselves didn’t make its way into the Bible because it subverts what the Bible teaches about God. In scripture, we learn that God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s the point! The problem with saying God helps those who help themselves is that it sounds like God’s blessings are reserved for the exclusive club of self-helpers. But the good book describes scenario after scenario that God rescues the helpless. The whole Old Testament is organized around the story of God rescuing the enslaved people from Egypt. And the psalmist always echoes what happens, “I called out to you in my distress, and you answered me.”
Well, maybe that means God helps those who help themselves and those who call out in distress. But then we must deal with stories like the paralytic Jesus healed who didn’t ask for it or even express faith.
Okay, so God helps those who help themselves, those who call out for help, and those who don’t. But that’s it! You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. God helps the righteous who help themselves and may not call out for help. What’s that? Now you want to “remind me “that God helped scoundrels like Abraham and Jacob, and Jesus said he came not for the righteous but for the sinners. This club doesn’t sound so exclusive. I’m getting the idea that God helps everybody because that’s God’s jam.
Who does God help? Everybody! And that means you, too.
- God will help you when you are up and when you are down and when you’re twisting all about in your sheets with worry or regret.
- God will help you when your body won’t work as it used to.
- God will help you when you stand on the peaks of success and when you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
- God will help you when your faith burns bright and through those discouraging moments when your prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling and fall to the floor.
- Help comes when the doctor says “malignant” or the love of your life says, “We need to talk.”
- God will help you when you are tired, empty, burned out, or never got lit. God’s help is here and there and everywhere!
How does this help come?
You may be asking how does this help come. Look back on your life, and you tell me. Somehow you got through so much to be here right now.
- For some, it was a sense of inner peace that surpasses all understanding when the storms of life raged.
- Sometimes help comes through your family, church friends, or through medicine or a counselor.
- Maybe it was through having a moral compass that guided you.
You probably didn’t even realize it was God helping you at the moment, but when you look back, God’s fingerprints are all over the evidence of what got you through.
The list is limitless.
The list of how God helps is limitless because we have a limitless God who will stop at nothing to help. After all, that’s who God is, and because you are God’s beloved, nothing can change that equation. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.
Help yourself to God’s pantry of goodness.
I wonder if you’ve ever stayed at someone’s home, and they invited you to make yourself at home and help yourself to whatever you want in the pa try. God opens the pantry to you and says, “Help yourself!” What’s in God’s pantry? On the first shelf, you have the essentials—food, nature, shelter. The next shelves have inner peace, a sense of place, and a community of support. On the top shelf—where the good stuff is kept—feel free to drink the wine of joy and taste the sense of purpose where you give yourself away in service.
The alternative to God helping those who help themselves is to be God’s helper for those who can’t help themselves.
Help yourself to the pa try. It’s all there for you but remember not to let it stop at you. To switch the metaphor, God’s mercy and blessings are like a river that should flow through you to help others. When you dam up the river and keep them all to yourself, you damn not just yourself but those needing God’s help from you. You damn yourself not in terms of hell after you die, but you cut yourself off from the blessings that come from service and making a difference. Maybe we should say God help those who help themselves only! Our passage from Philippians 2:1-11 reminds us to see ourselves as servants who help others.
In our church, the doors to the sanctuary say on one side, “Enter to Worship.” Come in. Make your spiritual connection, fill your cup, and get right with God. When you connect with so much love and hope it does something to you. You can’t go out there selfish and hateful. When we leave, we look up at the other side of the door where it says, “Depart to Serve.” Worship and service are two sides of the same door that lead to a meaningful, joyful, abundant life.
God is not your bellhop.
Instead of treating God like our bellhop, we are called to hear the bell calling you to serve. Right now, for those who have ears to hear, God is banging away on that bell in an S.O.S. call for the poor and marginalized people around us. Jump to serve in whatever way, large or small, that you can.
I know it’s time to close, but I can’t help my elf. I want to leave you with this anonymous poem:
Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody
This is a little story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.
Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done
[Ring Bell]. You’re being called to do what you can to help others and, in the process, discover how much you help yourself.