Out of Context | God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

posted by Ty Garvey | Feb 7, 2022

When I was a young, dumb, and slightly arrogant 19 year old Christians Studies major at a small Baptist college in central Mississippi, I had a conversation one afternoon with my mother. I have zero recollection of what the conversation was about, but I remember her saying to me at one point, “God helps those who help themselves”. I sat there and thought about that statement for a little bit.  Something seemed off about it. And though at this point in my life I had not read the entire Bible, I concluded there was no way that was anywhere in there. So I decided to make an educated guess and I responded, “You know, I don’t think it says that in the Bible”, to which she replied, “Really? I’ve been told that so many times in my life that I guess I’ve just always thought it was in there”. Turns out, it is not!

However, I can’t blame my mother for thinking that it was. She grew up in east Tennessee with strong Southern Baptist roots and that was a phrase that was commonly used around her and to her.  It turns out that she’s not the only one who heard that phrase with frequency and assumed it was a part of scripture. According to a Barna poll that was conducted in the late 1990’s, an astounding 81% of American Christians believed that this is a concept that is taught in scripture. That is a large percentage. Such a large percentage that it is worth asking why so many Christians believe this phrase comes from the Bible. The phrase is not found verbatim anywhere in scripture, no matter what translation you prefer to read. But are there maybe passages that imply it's concept?  In order to answer that question, we first need to try and figure out what someone means when they use the phrase.

There are those in Christian circles who have a big problem with this saying if it is applied to the issue of salvation. Their criticism, and it's a very fair one, is that it is in direct contrast with the grace of God.  Scripture unquestionably teaches that human beings are fully incapable of being “good enough”, or doing enough righteous things to ever earn their salvation. We are simply unable to help ourselves into a reconciled relationship with God.  

In Matthew 19 a rich young man approaches Jesus and asks the question, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. He says that’s no problem, he’s done all of that (good for him!). So Jesus tells him that all he has left to do is to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. We are then told that the young man “went away sad, for he had many possessions”. Jesus then goes on to give this illustration about trying to fit a camel through the eye a needle, and how the difficulty of that equates to the difficulty for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Peter then speaks up and says, “Then who in the world can be saved?”. Jesus’ response is a simple one; “Humanly speaking, it is impossible.  But with God everything is possible” (Matthew 19:16-26 NLT). The young man asks Jesus what he must do.  The interesting thing is, Jesus actually tells him.  The more interesting, and dare I say, convicting thing, is that the young man was unwilling to do it.  And as easy as it is to shake our collective heads at him, the truth is none of us are really willing to do what it takes.  The sinfulness of our own nature won’t allow us to.  When it comes to salvation, we simply can’t “help ourselves”. Fortunately Jesus tells Peter, and by proxy all of us, that there is still a hope for us that lies with God and God alone.  I don’t think any honest Christian or biblical scholar can point to the message of scripture and say that our salvation is based in any way upon our own works.  So when people, particularly Christian people say “God helps those who help themselves”, there is certainly no biblical grounds for them to mean it in a salvific sense.  However, it’s possible they mean it in some other sense, and it's possible they have some passages of scripture that can support that meaning.  So let’s explore that next.

Here are a few passages of scripture that may at least conceptually

agree with the idiom in question:

  • Deuteronomy 28:8 (NIV) - The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to

  • Proverbs 6:10-12 (NIV) - A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man (also various other passages from Proverbs, such as 12:11, 12:24, 13:4, 21:31).

  • 1 Timothy 5:8 (NIV) - If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

It seems to me that the common thread between all of these passages is the desire for security.  It may be financial security, or it may just be a feeling that your needs are taken care of. Security is something that we all want and I think it's a perfectly normal desire. So could security be what proponents of “God helps those who help themselves” are really trying to promote when they make this statement? Let’s assume that it is, and let's assume for a second that under that connotation, the statement is possibly true.

When we speak of security in America we are most often talking about security either in the financial sense, not having to worry about where our next meal is coming from or in being able to do the things we want to do when we want to do them, or we are talking about a freedom from the fear of being harmed.  If those are the things we are speaking of, then is it true that God helps those who help themselves? Now obviously, if you are a perfectly able bodied human being and you choose to just sit around on your couch all day and do nothing, then I think it’s asinine for you to be upset or angry when you can’t afford to eat dinner at night. If you want security, you should go do the things that are required for you to try and have it. However, the problem is that, in a lot of cases, even if you go do all those things, security still isn’t possible.

There is a single mother who is trying to raise children on her own. She works 2 or 3 jobs just to try and make enough money to put food on her table for her children and herself, but yet for a whole slew of systematic reasons, she simply cannot seem to escape the poverty that she and her children are in and is never able find that sense of security that we all long for.  Are we in a position to realistically say that she is not legitimately trying to “help herself”?  If God helps those who help themselves, then why isn’t He helping her?

On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, there is a man who was born into generational wealth. He spends all of his days simply doing whatever it is he wants to do on whatever whim he may have and he never once worries about where his next meal is coming from or even considers his own security as something that is possibly threatened. He has never had to help himself in any way because there has always been someone there to help him. Just as he was born, he will die generationally wealthy. If the statement we’re exploring is true for this question of security, then why does God seem to help this person disproportionately so much more than others when it appears he did nothing to help himself?

Of course, both of these examples may be on the more extreme sides of the pendulum, but they are also very real examples. But for those of us somewhere in the middle of that pendulum, I’m sure we’ve all felt a time in our lives where no matter what we did, we just couldn’t seem to get ahead or to make things right despite all of our trying. So then why wasn’t God helping us?  Maybe it's because the statement we’re exploring simply isn’t true no matter how you look at it.  Maybe it’s because collectively we are not biblically literate enough to know that we are attributing a statement to scripture that actually has its roots in the Greek tragedies that were written in 400 BC and therefore, the god being referred to was any number of one of the gods that the ancient Greeks claimed to worship. Maybe it’s because God, our God “sends rain on the just and the unjust alike” (Matthew 5:45 NLT). So now we are left in the same place Peter was and we are left wondering that if this statement is not true, then what hope do we have?  And with us standing in the same place as Peter, Jesus unsurprisingly has the same answer; “...with God, everything is possible”.  

In his sermon on the mount Jesus tells us, “God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for Him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs” (Matthew 5:3 NLT). Let us put aside this foolish thinking that we have any power to help ourselves in any legitimately meaningful way. I challenge us to even take it a step further and to stop thinking about helping ourselves all together. Let us realize our need for God, and therefore realize that it is not us or our own well being, but rather the Kingdom of Heaven that we should be in the business of trying to help usher in. That is the task that Christians are called to do. The heart of one of our values at The Orchard is that what is good for the Kingdom, is good for The Orchard. I think that is also true for us as individuals. What is good for the Kingdom, is good for me and you. “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and He will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT).  There is nothing that we need that isn’t provided by the Kingdom, so let us always seek that above ourselves.