Not a few statements of folk wisdom become gospel in the minds of many. Perhaps no statement exemplifies this trend more than “God helps those who help themselves.” A large number of people, especially in America, are convinced it is found in Scripture; some would even consider it one of the Ten Commandments! And yet you will search the Scriptures for “God helps those who help themselves” in vain; it is not found explicitly in the pages of the Bible. Where did this sentiment originate? Does it accurately reflect what is taught in the New Testament?
“God helps those who help themselves” is most often attributed to Benjamin Franklin; he no doubt used the phrase, but it has an earlier history in English and ultimately derives from Greek tragedians and Aesop. The sentiment makes perfect sense in Greek thought and religion, in which the gods would provide favor or censure based on sacrifices and other forms of performance. Throughout time humans have attempted to come to grips with the uncertainties of life and the capriciousness of their condition by taking hold of any justification that seems to work to explain circumstances, and few have proven as tempting as effort versus laziness. God blesses those who work diligently for themselves; therefore, if I have been blessed, it is because of my good efforts. If you have not been blessed, it means you have not worked hard enough. And so we should not find it surprising how “God helps those who help themselves” likewise resonates in America on account of its meritocratic mythology: those who get ahead are those who have put in the effort to do so, and those who have been left behind have no one but themselves to blame.
But does the concept hold? Does God help those who help themselves? There are certainly times and circumstances in which He does. The Proverbs are full of comparisons between the diligent and the lazy and the wise and the foolish, and the industry of the diligent and wise is commended (e.g. Proverbs 6:10-12, 10:4, 12:27). Jesus and the Apostles commend work and effort: diligent servants are rewarded at their master’s return in Matthew 24:43-46, 25:14-31. Paul encouraged Christians to work as to the Lord diligently in Colossians 3:23, and chastised those who would not labor as acting contrary to the apostolic tradition and as worse than unbelievers in 2 Thessalonians 3:1-15 and 1 Timothy 5:8. Peter expected Christians to entrust themselves to a faithful Creator while doing good (1 Peter 4:19). Jesus promised His disciples that they would be amply rewarded in the resurrection for all which they renounced in this life (Luke 18:28-30). God therefore fully commends labor and diligent effort; God has previously blessed many people because they proved diligent, like Abraham, and doubtless continues to do so (e.g. James 2:14-26).
And yet there are good reasons why “God helps those who help themselves” is not written in the Scriptures. The sentiment may work in certain contexts and circumstances but it is by no means absolutely true.
First and foremost, the Scriptures teach that humanity is utterly dependent upon God. God is our Creator; He made all things; without Him there is nothing and we can have nothing (Genesis 1:1-2:3, 1 Corinthians 8:6). Humans have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23); we are all guilty of transgression, and no matter how many good deeds we might do, we cannot deserve, earn, or merit salvation or standing before God (Romans 3:20, James 2:9-10, 1 John 3:4). Our standing before God comes through faith in Jesus, itself entirely dependent on the grace and mercy God has shown to us through Jesus (Romans 5:6-11, Ephesians 2:1-10). We absolutely must turn to God in obedient faith and strive to follow the ways of Jesus (Romans 1:5, 6:14-23, 1 John 2:3-6), but God has helped us long before we could do anything to help ourselves. Thanks be to God that He helps us even if we cannot help ourselves as in terms of our sin problem, for without His grace and mercy we could never obtain any standing before Him!
Yet even if we set aside the matter of our standing before God, the Scriptures amply demonstrate plenty of situations in which “God helps those who help themselves” rings hollow. Job served God faithfully and for a time lost almost everything (Job 1:1-2:10). In the Psalms Israel often wondered where God and His promises had gone, for they sought Him with a full heart and yet the promises had not been satisfied (e.g. Psalms 44, 88, 89). The Apostles followed Jesus faithfully; God sustained them through their difficulties, but they remained poor and often oppressed throughout the rest of their lives (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11:23-30).
The Scriptures demonstrate that the righteous should be blessed and the wicked left destitute, but yet realistically recognizes that many times the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper (e.g. Job 21:1-34, James 5:1-6). Therefore, if a person prospers, does it have to be on account of their efforts and their righteousness? No; plenty have prospered in wickedness, and not a few have gained great wealth by virtue of birth and not effort. Likewise, if a person remains destitute, is it because they did not work hard enough and were sinful? No; plenty of good, hard-working people have not materially advanced their station in life for a host of reasons that have little, if anything, to do with wickedness. We always do well to remember how many of the most righteous and godly people in history have been very materially disadvantaged; God did help and sustain them, but it certainly did not look like the American Dream or any previous analogue.
Christians do well to be skeptical of the premise and use of the sentiment “God helps those who help themselves.” None of us are self-made people; all of us prove dependent on God and the love and care we receive from other people. Without a doubt we must strive to serve the Lord and work diligently, following the apostolic tradition handed down by Paul (2 Thessalonians 3:1-15); Christians have no right to manifest an entitled or lazy disposition regarding life. Nevertheless, we must not fall prey to easy binaries which derive from Greek thought and not from the pages of Scripture (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Colossians 2:8); a person might suffer because of their sin or perhaps because they are proving faithful to God (1 Peter 2:18-25), and one’s material condition need not exemplify one’s standing before God (James 2:5-6). May we strive to serve God in Christ no matter our worldly standing so as to obtain the resurrection, and encourage our fellow man to do the same!
Ethan R. Longhenry