There are a number of enduring images I will remember from the Pandemic of 2020 — Healthcare workers wearing their full-body protective gear, people wearing gloves and homemade face-masks as if they were normal wardrobe attire, and empty grocery store shelves void of certain items like beef, chicken, Lysol spray, and, of course, toilet paper.
Maybe the most disappointing image seared into my memory banks is one of a lady leaving a grocery store with a cart overflowing with what could be a decade’s supply of multi-roll packages of toilet paper. Forgive my cynicism, but I could not help but think that people like her justify their hoarding-like behavior by reciting, “God helps those who help themselves” as she congratulates herself for seizing the moment.
I immediately felt guilty at having such a judgmental spirit (or was I just jealous). And wondered if my behavior would be any different if I were ever again to find a store that had toilet paper. We are all sinners, and, during such times as these, greed does not discriminate. Then, I began to ruminate over how much that well known biblically sounding proverb had infused itself into our American “I can do it” psyche.
But is “God helps those who help themselves” biblical? Is it Christian?
Most people think it is, though they cannot quote chapter and verse. This age-old axiom actually dates back to the days of Aesop’s Fables. Its popularity in American culture finds its roots in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, where it first appeared in 1733. It most definitely is not in the Bible.
As I examined my own conscience and pondered the implications of this not-so-biblical proverb, I sensed that “God helps those who help themselves” in reality contradicts the spirit of the Scriptures.
As a man who has known the helplessness that comes from personal loss, this so-called truism smacks of spiritual narcissism. As a man who has been humbled by his limitations, both physical and intellectual, I have learned the foolishness of seeking to become the Master of one’s universe. This seductive slogan, I concluded, has steered many down a self-centered path.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I recently heard my wife use that phrase. Sensing the need to keep my beloved from doctrinal error, I hastened to offer loving counsel. In a voice that no doubt sounded like Moses on Mt. Sinai, I declared, “That’s not in the Bible. At the very least, it is a twisted version of a sound principle. At its worse, it’s just heresy.”
I know. That didn’t sound very loving. Stay tuned. Being humbled has become an art form for me.
Confident I had proclaimed the righteous truth, I glanced at my wife to behold a thoughtful countenance upon her face.
Ignoring my patronizing tone, she patiently explained:
“I know that God helps the helpless. (Isaiah 25:4) But didn’t Jesus promise the disciples they would catch fish if they cast their nets on the right-hand side of the boat? (John 21:6) But they only caught the fish after they obeyed and cast their nets? If you pray for God to help you find a job, don’t you have to get up and start applying for jobs? Asking for God’s help doesn’t mean we sit and do nothing. I only meant that God’s blessing comes when we obey Him and strive to live a life of service.”
My response of “Oh, OK.” never sounded so humble.
We both agreed the phrase might be understood by some to champion the virtue of initiative. Unfortunately, others may use it to justify selfish behavior or a self-help gospel.
Our discussion turned to what Scripture REALLY does say.
“My help comes from the LORD…” Psalm 121:2
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46:1
“The Lord is my helper…” Hebrews 13:6
“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16
“For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Romans 5:6
Our Scripture search revealed two things I had forgotten. One, the Holy Spirit is referred to as the Helper four times in the Gospel of John. Two, Scripture speaks of the spiritual gift of “helps” in 1 Corinthians 12:28.
So does God help those who help themselves? Or does He help the helpless, the humble, and empower those who seek to help others? Trusting God, being an obedient servant, practicing discernment, and demonstrating godly initiative are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, who are we trying to help, ourselves or others? And if we have the gift of “helps” what better time to exercise that gift than during a time such as this.