There are many phrases I hear on a weekly basis that are used in Christian settings (and non-Christian settings), yet have no Christian roots. The most common phrase I hear is this: “God helps those who help themselves.” This post is dedicated to biblically educating fellow believers on how to think through phrases like this as they come across them in everyday life. So here we go.
All right, this phrase is simply nowhere in the Bible. It’s become somehow embedded in Christiany language, and although I see the value of the expression (stop whining and do the work yourself!), I cannot honestly say that it’s a biblical idea. But is it true? Well. Yes and no. But mainly no.
Although Benjamin Franklin gets most of the credit for this phrase, the earliest occurrence we have of this expression was in one of Aesop’s fables entitled “Hercules and the Waggoner.” It’s a very short fable, it’s rooted in Greek polytheism (the original words were “The Gods help them that help themselves”), and it’s right here. Sorry Benny boy.
THE BIBLICAL RESPONSE: There’s somewhat of a mixed response from the Bible, depending on the topics of salvation versus daily work ethic.
I. THE GOD OF THE BIBLE DOES NOT HELP THOSE WHO RELY SOLELY ON THEMSELVES FOR SALVATION
When it comes to salvation, God will only impact the soul that admits it cannot save itself by simply doing good things. Even if we do good things, and thereby “help ourselves,” the penalty for our wrongdoing is still due in full, or God wouldn’t be a just God. It would be idiocy for a jury to decide that a criminal should not have to pay the penalty for his record of wrongdoing just because he listed off other ways he had been good. It also wouldn’t make sense for a parent to avoid disciplining her daughter who acted out just because she cleaned her room last week. In other words, the good-doing is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t erase our wrongdoings. Someone has to pay for those.
There is always a consequence or a penalty for wrongdoing. It’s how God ordered the world. It’s why we tattle on our siblings when we’re 4 years old. It’s why we write horrible reviews for businesses that treated the customer in a very unkind way. We feel like their wrongdoing should be heard and we should get a gift certificate or they should have to pay in some way. It is universally ingrained in all global citizens that transgression or misconduct has to be dealt with and paid for somehow; it’s in our DNA. It’s how we understand justice.
In Christian salvation, Jesus pays the penalties for all of those moral wrongdoings that we accumulate over a lifetime. A lifetime. I mean I can’t even calculate how many ways I sin daily, much less over a lifetime.
Every wrong motive.
Every manipulative thought.
Every fight when we said something hurtful.
Every angry outburst.
Every time we didn’t do the right thing.
Every time we thought we were just a little bit better than another human being.
Every time we judged someone different than us(even if it was in our subconscious).
Every moment we were impatient instead of patient.
Every time we selfishly chose our preference instead of someone else’s.
Every time we were envious or coveted another person’s life or stuff.
Every time we gossiped instead of encouraged.
Every time we negatively compared to another person.
Every time we were the least bit (or the most bit) arrogant.
Every time we used another person’s wrongdoing as a record to hold over their head.
Every time we overused any substance that altered our rational judgment.
Every time we used our language in a condescending tone.
Every time we sinned on even the smallest scale.
And that list is a simple sampling of the sin each of us holds in our heart on a daily basis. Those examples only scratch the surface.
Imagine paying off every single little incurrence of wrongdoing by yourself! I’m sitting here trying to think of how many times I sin on the daily—whether unintentional or intentional; it’s hard to calculate. I mean that’s a lot of debt (and I would know—I have big student loans! Womp womp).
Logically speaking, if we face God one day, that long list of moral failures necessitates a penalty, no matter how much good we’ve done. They all have to be paid for at some point. And that’s not God being mean. That’s God being just. That’s God operating by the same system He put into place—bad stuff has to be dealt with. Having “good” on your record doesn’t get you off the hook from the consequences of poor choices. If that were the case then no one would ever get disciplined for anything. This is one of the main elements in Christianity that makes a lot of sense. Sin (or whatever you want to call it) has consequences and it would be unjust of God to allow offenses to go scot-free, no matter how big or small. He must be impartial that way or He would not be a God with perfect attributes. All wrongdoing from every person must be paid, or else He’d be picking favorites. If Hitler has to be held accountable for his sins and choices, then so do I and so does everyone else. A child who name-calls should face appropriate consequences just as much as the child who stabs his classmate with scissors. It’s fair. It’s just.
So the Christian message is this: Jesus steps in our place and he takes the brunt of the punishment for all of that. He trades places with us and takes the consequences for all of those things for us. So in Christian salvation, God offers salvation to the one who can’t possible pay off all their sins. In this way, God cannot help the person that will only rely on his own efforts. Jesus only offers the payment in full to the person that can’t possibly help himself, to the person who realizes that the debt is too high to pay off.
There is also a multiplicity of verses that portray God as one who helps those who cannot help themselves, of which I’ll give you just a few to seal the deal:
II. BUT, GOD DOES EMPOWER PEOPLE AS THEY WORK
We see that God does offer help and salvation to the truly helpless; however, this does not mean that he wants us walking around unable to lift a finger in our walk with Him. Regarding the topic of work ethic, God is one who honors effort, most definitely. For example, King David tells his son to be strong and courageous in his actions, because God will empower him as he works in the service of the Lord. There are also countless passages about God valuing hard work and calling us to it in both the Old and New Testaments.
The difference in Christian good-doing is the motive behind it. We don’t do it to earn spiritual brownie points. We don’t do it to prove anything to God. We do it out of thankfulness for what He’s done for us. Our salvation wasn’t a result of our good work; however, we should choose to be all the more diligent in good-doing because of the grace He has given us. When your heart is changed by something like grace, your actions start changing as well.
What if a shooting happened in your local bank or classroom, and one brave soul told the shooter he would take the place of everyone in the room, and the shooter kills him instead of everyone else. Your actions should show what you’ve experienced, right? You’d walk around completely overtaken by the fact that someone was loving enough to take your place when they didn’t have to. You’d want to offer acts of kindness to others out of a thankful spirit and a fresh outlook on what it means to be alive. You’d want to do good because of the radical way someone loved you. That’s what it’s like with Jesus.
I don’t have time to unpack all of that, but suffice it to say the idea of “doing good deeds as a response of what God has done for you” is what most of the book of I John is about. This means that since God went through so much effort and work on our behalf, we are to offer hard work and effort on the behalf of others—whether that’s our neighbor, our boss, our friends, our spouses, etc. Our salvation was free, yes, but only for us. It wasn’t free for Jesus. He paid for it at an astronomical cost, so every action of the Christian toward God and the world should radiate thankfulness and joy and humility and patience because of the great gift they’ve been given. In other words, we should be so changed at our core that our daily work ethic post-salvation naturally becomes higher, not lower.
As far as I can tell, God is a helper of those who can’t help themselves as well as a God that honors our good-doing. Thoughts? New ideas? Let me know what you think!
*study resources from blueletterbible.org and the ESV Study Bible