“God helps those who help themselves” has to be the most quoted verse that’s not in the Bible. But it’s one of our favorites when pointing to the fault of someone else for not being able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” (Another popular proverb that is the anti-thesis of the gospel message.)
The phrase, “God helps those…” is actually credited to the Greek storyteller Aesop and made even more famous by Benjamin Franklin. What made me laugh is the reported popularity of the phrase among pickpockets and shoplifters.
As with the other half-truths that have just enough truth to fool us into believing they’re absolutely true, there are passages in the Bible that could be interpreted as supporting the idea that God’s help is predicated on us doing our part:
Lazy people should learn a lesson from the way ants live. They have no leader, chief, or ruler, but they store up their food during the summer, getting ready for winter. How long is the lazy man going to lie around? When is he ever going to get up? “I’ll just take a short nap,” he says; “I’ll fold my hands and rest a while.” But while he sleeps, poverty will attack him like an armed robber. (Proverbs 6:6-11)
Don’t you remember the rule we had when we lived with you? “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.” And now we’re getting reports that a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings are taking advantage of you. This must not be tolerated. We command them to get to work immediately—no excuses, no arguments—and earn their own keep. Friends, don’t slack off in doing your duty. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-13)
But context is everything when we read the Bible. The assumption throughout the Bible is the strength of community. Commenting on Cain’s rhetorical question as to whether he was his brother Abel’s keeper, the biblical message is a resounding, “YES!” The Bible does frown down upon laziness. Work is not to be avoided. But when it comes to reaching out to help each other, Jesus’ own example of washing the disciples’ feet in the upper room and then saying his disciples should do likewise is the benchmark for his followers.
Jesus healing the man at the pool Bethzatha points me in the right direction. Whether I’m the guy stuck by the pool, making excuses for why I’ve been stuck there for thirty-eight years, or I’m being led by the Spirit of Christ to reach out to somebody who seems to have lost their forward momentum, the message is again “both/and.” Jesus acts to heal a guy who hasn’t been doing a whole lot to help himself, and at the same time the guy has to get up and do his part.
John 5:1-9 (TEV)
After this, Jesus went to Jerusalem for a religious festival. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool with five porches; in Hebrew it is called Bethzatha. A large crowd of sick people were lying on the porches—the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed. A man was there who had been sick for thirty-eight years. Jesus saw him lying there, and he knew that the man had been sick for such a long time; so he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” The sick man answered, “Sir, I don’t have anyone here to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets there first.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man got well; he picked up his mat and started walking. The day this happened was a Sabbath,
The very definition of “grace” is gift—not something we earn—grace is freely given to one and all. Grace and healing go together, and as Paul says so clearly in Romans 3:23, none of us deserve it. So whether I’m the one in need of someone throwing me a life ring because I’m drowning, or I’m the one who is given the extraordinary gift of being in a position to throw a life ring to someone else—God helps those who can’t help themselves—and even those who won’t help themselves.