Wednesday, May 11, 2011

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

I'm working from a desk inside my public library today.  Directly in front of me is the "Self Help" section. It sits next to the "Spirituality" section. Starting at this has me pondering, does God help those who help themselves?

That quote is often attributed to the Bible.  It sounds like something you might find in the book of Proverbs, or maybe in a paragraph of rebuke in a letter from Paul. "Those who don't work, don't eat. And God helps those who help themselves." But it's not in there.

Many will tell you Ben Franklin uttered the famous "God helps those who help themselves" line, although some claim he was quoting another writer from much earlier. I'm not interested so much in who said it - for truth can come from any number of sources - I wonder if it is accurate or not.

I imagine it can go either way depending on how you qualify or define things. I know that God helps people. The availability of His help is not in dispute in my mind.  That part of the quote I'm good with.  It's the "those who help themselves," I'm pondering.

My first response is to say, FALSE. God helps the weak.  The defenseless.  The broken and brokenhearted. He helps the widow and the orphan. That's what I think of when I focus on the word "those." When I google this question, I find this is where most Christians land in their response to this quote.

My next thought is to say, wait, God will help any follower who places their faith in Christ. He will help me - regardless of my physical, marital or economic status - if I trust Him to do so. And if I'm not asking for help with something that would be outside His will.  I'm quite sure God won't help me rob a bank or seduce my boss, no matter how much I ask Him to. Or how carefully I plan it out. Or how hard I work at it.

(Then again, my husband is my boss at the university so ... hold on, I'm going to pause and pray a minute.)

And that's where I arrive at the phrase "help themselves" in this quote. Faith certainly helps me - and I've just said God helps those who have faith in Him. And in the Bible, faith leads to action. Faith leads to works. God's biblical heroes sometimes "wait" on Him to move, instruct or direct, but they are not idle players in the ancient stories.

But most of the books I see lining the shelves in the Self Help section, like little soldiers ready to be put to work, make little to no mention of God. I don't think Ben would be down with that. Here's an interesting fact about Franklin.  He tried, at the Constitutional Convention, to mandate the practice of daily common prayer. It never came to vote but read this part of what he said towards that:

"I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth -- that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that "except the Lord build they labor in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: ...I therefore beg leave to move -- that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business..." 

Clearly, Ben wasn't being dismissive of the absolute overarching role of God when he said that He helps those who help themselves.

Funny that I sit here in this public library today, thinking of Mr. Franklin. Ben began the very first lending library in America. Franklin - the man who trusted God to help him in his work - brought many good things to this nation. Maybe his quote isn't fully on the money, yet I don't think it it's off base either. 

But, what do you think?


  1. AnonymousMay 11, 2011

    I think that you alwasy make me think! And laugh. I'll have to ponder this. Provoking post.


  2. It seems to me that phrase uses "you're not good enough" pressure...helping me feel less than if I'm not working my utmost to help myself (and that God will not assist me unless I am working "perfectly" to help myself). So, I like to rephrase it as, "God helps us help ourselves." And He sends other helpful folk when we aren't able to do even that much.

    Thanks for teaching us a little bit about Ben Franklin. He was a very brilliant and wise man. :-)

  3. Yeah, I can see that Leah.Good point. On the face of it, the quote flies in the face of my beliefs as outlined in Chapter 7 of It's No Secret.

    But I think perhaps the quote does not completly outline Franklin's beliefs/understanding. I like your rewriting of it better!

  4. That quote has put a lot of people to pondering on the validity of it. I really like your research into Ben Franklin as well. As for his quote, I think that He really intended to get the people to seek God before trying to go about their business. Isn't that what we are suppose to do?

  5. I like the progression of your thoughts and I agree. It makes me think of the quote by Dallas Willard that says, ""Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning."

    There is a certain amount of work on our part that seems implied throughout scripture - Galatians 6:9 for example "let us not become weary in doing good." Of course, we know it is God working in us - but by our decision based in free will. Quite the double sided coin, huh?

  6. AnonymousJune 22, 2012

    My son refuses to help his sister any more. He says the bible says God does not help those who doesn't help themselves. I know God helpd those who helps themselves is a human quote, plz pray for my family.


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