I recall a conversation with a friend when I was in college (don’t ask me how long ago that was). In the middle of the conversation, I distinctly remember him making this statement. He said, “After all the Bible says, God helps those who help themselves.” This quote has been repeated countless times over the years and just like my friend many often attribute it to Scripture. In a recent Barna study from 2017, 52 percent of practicing Christians strongly agreed that the Bible teaches God helps those who help themselves. Herein lies our dilemma. Is this really what the Bible teaches or is this a misinterpretation of biblical truth?
The Origin of ‘God Helps Those Who Helps Themselves’
This phrase is used to underscore the necessity for people to take self-initiative. It is still very popular around the globe, especially inspiring those in the self-help community. Many have attributed its origin to Benjamin Franklin but the roots of this idea go all the way back to ancient Greece. Though it has ancient origins, the actual English version of this quote we use today was first penned by Algernon Sydney, an English politician who lived in the 1600s.
Why Does This Quote Pose a Problem?
Many people hold to this ideology being in Scripture because on the surface it sounds like a good idea. Doesn’t it make sense that if I am going to come to God for help…I should at least try to help myself first? After all, some may surmise, God is holy so He can’t accept me in this condition. They reason: I’ll have to get myself right first. God will appreciate my effort and then he will help me.
Unfortunately, that is not true. In fact, man’s attempts to live up to God’s requirements was an experiment that was tried and failed miserably. Remember the Old Testament and the law. In the law, God laid out for his people Israel how he wanted and required them to live. He gave them laws and decrees to govern their life. However, Israel had the same problem you and I have: they couldn’t live up to and fulfill the requirements of the law. Their sinful nature left them severely lacking.
The problem with this idea is that you become your first source of help and strength. God is secondary. Not only is this out of order, but you will also discover from the pages of Scripture that this was never God’s intent. And it all began with your salvation.
What Does the Bible Really Say?
In the book of Romans, Paul makes a very stark comparison between the efforts of man when matched up with the requirements of God. Look at what Paul says,
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh. – Romans 8:1-3
What you couldn’t do (which is help yourself) God did for you. The beauty of how God works in our lives is that he doesn’t require us to try to clean it up or fix it ourselves. He invites us to bring him into the situation from the very beginning, just the way it is. In other words, before you try to do it yourself, bring it to God first. That’s the way salvation works, but that’s also how your walk with Christ works. The reality isn’t that God helps those who help themselves but that God helps those who realize they can’t help themselves.
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How Does God’s Help Work?
The interesting thing about God is that he will help you if you ask him. We see this in Revelation 3 where Jesus says he stands at the door and knocks. That means God gives you the choice to either accept his help or reject it. For those who reject it you will find yourself lost in the struggle of trying. Trying to do better. Trying to live better. You will fight to try to help yourself and often find your strength alone is lacking.
For those who choose to accept God’s help you will discover there is a reservoir of power, strength, and grace to help you with every situation in life. Consider what the writer of Hebrews says:
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. – Hebrews 4:14-16
God knows our struggles. God understands our weaknesses and he has provided a remedy. All the help you need, for every aspect of your life is found at God’s throne of grace. He has made it really simple. The more you depend on God’s grace, the more help you will receive. In other words, the more helpless you realize you are, the more God steps in to help you.
Our lives are not about self-help which looks inward. Our lives are about God-help which looks upward.
God’s Help Doesn’t Remove Your Responsibility
Ok, you have prayed for God’s help. You have approached the throne of grace and done what the Bible has told you to do. Now what do you do? Get to work. Praying and asking for God’s help doesn’t mean you become a lazy do-nothing. God’s help shows up after we have prayed and often as we put feet to our faith. By the way, this does not apply to our salvation. We are saved by his grace alone, nothing else (Ephesians 2:8-9). However, once the issue of our salvation is settled by grace alone, God comes alongside to help us as we live for him and do what he has called us to do.
For example, God will help you with boldness to proclaim the gospel but you have to open your mouth and speak. God will help you find a job but you have to look. God will help you improve your relationship with your spouse and kids but you have to commit to spending time with them. God will help you pass the test but you have to study. In other words, God’s help does not remove your responsibility. Jesus said it best in the Sermon on the Mount:
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. – Matthew 7:7-8
Asking is seeking God’s help for the answer. Seeking and knocking are putting feet to your faith knowing that as you do it with God’s help, believing God will lead you to the answer.
What Is Our Ultimate Help?
The beautiful thing is God never left us alone nor did he desire for us to live this life by our own strength. He gave us a helper.
I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you. – John 14:16-17 (NASB)
These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. – John 14:25-26 (NASB)
The plan all along was never to be God helps those who help themselves. The plan was that God would help us by putting his Holy Spirit in us. He is our source of strength. He is our source of wisdom and peace. He gives us the ability to live the life God has designed for us.
In other words, God is doing for us what we can’t do ourselves. What a wise and wonderful God we serve. He truly deserves all the praise.
Dear God, help me to depend on the Holy Spirit to live this life you have called me to. Remind me to always run to your throne of grace knowing that everything I need is found right there. Thank you for not leaving me helpless but for giving me all the help I will ever need all the days of my life. Amen.