God helps those who help themselves?

** This is part 3 of my series on Christian cliches. They’re meant for good but end up doing more harm in the long run**

God helps those who help themselves?

Does He?


As you can see in this video, Stephen Colbert takes Bill O’Reilly to task for wrongly attributing this [sad] cliche (amongst other things) to Jesus, yet he is not alone. In February of 2000 George Barna did a poll asking if “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves” and the results were eye-opening:

  • 53% of Americans agree strongly [that is could be found in the Bible]
  • 22% agree somewhat
  • 7% disagree somewhat
  • 14% disagree strongly
  • 5% stated they don’t know

Of “born-again” Christians 68% agreed, and 81% of non “born-again” Christians agreed with the statement. Despite being of non-Biblical origin, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Seventy-five percent (75%) of American teens said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.

The problem with this belief is that is directly conflicts with the Bible’s view of God’s kindness towards people, none of whom deserve it – “grace”. It suggests a spiritual self-reliance inconsistent with the God of the Bible. The essence of this cliche is that if you work hard and take care of your own business, God will intervene where necessary. In other words, do your job and God will do his. While we have responsibilities as those who bear the image of God, God is NOT OBLIGATED to intervene in our lives or act in prescribed ways, simply because we did our part. God does not owe us….anything! He is not in our debt; we are in His.

Let me be clear – THIS IS NOT IN SCRIPTURE. People treat it like it is, but it’s not. Benjamin Franklin penned this in the Farmers’ Almanac in 1757 and it can be found from other non biblical sources even earlier. God does not help those who can help themselves, simply because no one can help do so. We cannot save ourselves from our bondage to sin, nor from the wrath of God, so He does. Our own power fails us when we rely on it, rather than God. To believe that God helps those who help themselves, is not only foolish, but it’s proud. Pride motivates the belief that we can do everything by our own gusto and go-to attitude. That we can pick ourselves up by our spiritual & moral bootstraps, but, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”. This is hard for us here in the U.S. but we must learn to work through God’s grace and not our own works.

**Over the next few weeks I would love to address other Christian cliches, if there are some that you’ve wondered about please let me know in the comments below and I will try to address them in the upcoming weeks.**


About Jon Nelson

I am just a nobody trying to tell everybody about Somebody [Christ Jesus]!

Posted on September 11, 2012, in ...from Jon, Christian cliche, Life, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. It may not be spiritual but there is some merit …I believe we are too help those who are poor …we should also teach them how to better themselves and improve there standing, economically speaking

    • Maestro- thanks for the comment. I dont disagree that the statement has “some merit” but the point of this post is to discuss the Biblical merit of the saying. That being the case I have a question for you. If someone (let’s say in a 3rd world country) is faithful to God, works hard all their life, yet never is able to “better themselves” has God abandoned them?

  2. I think you’ve answered the cliche with another cliche, which is to frame everything in grace vs. works, pride, vs. humility, self-reliance vs. dependence on God etc. While the survey you cite demonstrates the general ignorance of society, if you asked “Does the Bible teach heaven is a place in the clouds with cherubs playing harps and that the devil carries a pitchfork?” you would probably get a similar response. As for the saying itself, I think you miss how it is commonly used. You write, “The essence of this cliche is that if you work hard and take care of your own business, God will intervene where necessary. In other words, do your job and God will do his.” Instead, I think this saying is most often used to urge another person on to make a effort. The saying is usually used in daily life and not about salvation so I’m not sure why you jump there. Those that “help themselves” are those who do make a effort. Saying that God will help them does not suggest “God will intervene where necessary” but that God will aid in their work. This is not contrary to the Bible as God surely rewards faithfulness, and faith is always acting. We must come to a understanding of synergia, our co-operation with God’s grace, the truly Scriptural and historical understanding of these issues. There is nothing in the saying to suggest God “owes” anyone anything, but He does what He does out of His infinite compassion as the only Lover of Mankind.

    • Liam is right. You can count on the help of God in all things, which we should, but if we’re also lazy and expect food to magically appear on our table, we’re fools.

      As sir Ramsey says. “We have to do the sowing. God will provide the rain.”

    • Liam,
      I so love when you comment, I really enjoy the engaging conversation. I know that our differences in theology may lead you to call what I’ve said a “cliche” but the statement you are addressing is actually an discussion of Soteriology much more than “an expression, idea which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect.”
      What I’m addressing is not the situations that you’ve described so well but the everyday usage in a context where it doesn’t work. It’s used, more often than not, in conversations in which a person has “helped themselves” so to say and nothing happens. It’s used on people who do not [always] have the ability to help themselves. It’s used in politics constantly, as Colbert pointed out, to justify doing everything for another person or nothing at all. Unfortunately, you come from a position of common sense and not the world of extremes that we live in. So in your head, and in mine, we find a balance in this phrase where most use it as club or bat to beat others down. Furthermore, this idea does set up a “if-then” conditional statement that causes a fundamental misunderstanding of grace as a free gift. This is the construct of this blog and unfortunately it’s not addressing those using common sense but the everyday person who doesn’t actually think about what they are saying or who they are saying it to.

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