"God helps those who help themselves." It sounds like it's from the Bible, but that couldn't be further from the truth. This falls into the list of phrases that people have falsely attributed to the Bible, such as "spare the rod, spoil the child." And yet the church often perpetuates an idea or ideas that stem from this phrase.
Before we dive into the origin of this phrase, we should probably break down what it means, and why it has far more sinister implications than one would expect. Then we'll explore the origins of the phrase, and what the Bible actually has to say about helping ourselves.
What Is the Meaning of 'God Helps Those Who Help Themselves'?
Tell me if you've heard a Christian come up to you and said something along the following lines:
"You gotta pull yourself up by your bootstraps. No use staying down. No one is going to help you up, so you gotta help yourself up."
Or perhaps you have bumped into Christian self-help Instagram authors or gurus who try to give you the next steps to pull yourself up and keep going.
Before we define our terms, I want to make something clear. There is nothing wrong with going to see a therapist for something mental health-related, a doctor for a physical ailment, etc. We go to specialists when we need medicine or aid. So what I will say below excludes going to the proper counsel to seek help and next steps.
The phrase "God helps those who help themselves," essentially says, God will help you in your trial if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps first. If you put on your oxygen mask first. If you grit your teeth and persevere. On the surface, that seems reassuring. We just gotta push through and rejoice in our trial, right? Isn't that what James 1:2 seems to hint at?
No, not at all. We'll dive into some of the sinister implications in a moment. But for now, let's explore where this phrase first popped up since it didn't appear in Scripture.
What Is the Origin and History of the Phrase 'God Helps Those Who Help Themselves'?
According to Christianity.com, "Many have attributed its origin to Benjamin Franklin but the roots of this idea go all the way back to ancient Greece. Though it has ancient origins, the actual English version of this quote we use today was first penned by Algernon Sydney, an English politician who lived in the 1600s. "
Haynes, in this article, when speaking about Greece is referring to Aesop's Fables and common themes found in Greek plays, where characters are encouraged to be self-reliant and self-sufficient.
But as mentioned above, the actual phrase did not enter our vernacular until the 17th century.
And it has woven its way into our ideologies ever since. Think about it. How many sermons, how many Christian influencers, how many people of the faith have you heard tell you to rely on yourself. To hustle. To, as Tim Gunn would say, "Make it work."
But if we look at the Bible, Scripture seems to preach the exact opposite. Mankind is prone to sin, prone to fall, and we need a Savior to rescue us.
Why Does This Phrase Contradict Scripture?
Let's take a look at some Bible verses that tell us the opposite story of, "God helps those who help themselves."
"God helps those," would have us lean on our own understanding. Scripture commands us to do the opposite. Instead, we need to rely on the Lord.
Jeremiah 17:5: "This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord."
Strange how we've never made a habit of making this one of the most popular verses. The Bible makes it clear. We are not to draw strength from the flesh, from ourselves. We need to turn to the Lord. For the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
1 Peter 5:7: "Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you."
We don't cast our anxieties on ourselves. On our accomplishments. On our relationships or marriages. Because I can confirm those anxieties don't go away. If we cast them on anything but the Lord, they will exacerbate and grow larger.
John 6:63: "It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life."
We could keep going, but the Bible makes it abundantly apparent that we should not rely on our own strength. For that will fail. Instead, we need to place everything into the Lord's hands. God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Why Do We Like the Idea Behind This Phrase?
Something in man's sinful nature does not like the idea that we cannot attain salvation on our own. This is why so many people will try to earn their way to heaven. American culture specifically doesn't help with our, "I did it my way," mentality. We want to earn salvation, and we want to do it on our own terms.
So even though we have found ourselves to be redeemed by the grace of God, we still battle the temptations of our former lives. This includes the want to rely on ourselves. If we take a look at the Fall of Man, Eve wanted knowledge on her own terms. She wanted to help herself to that fruit (most likely a fig, but many people have surmised apples, mushrooms, amongst other items), because it meant she didn't have to rely on God, trust in God completely. And this plunged humanity into sin.
Every sin tries to "help ourselves". God extends grace and salvation to all, but only those who realize they cannot earn it on their own take it.
How Do We Combat This Ideology?
So how do we, as Christians, stop ourselves from indulging in the idea that we are to rely on ourselves before we can turn to the Lord?
First, and most importantly, turn to Scripture. Soak in the words and see how God has time and time again pulled humanity out of the pit. Even the greatest figures in the Bible such as David, Paul, and others needed to rely on him and cry out to him on a constant basis.
Secondly, surrender yourself to God on a daily basis. This false phrase of "God helps those" encourages us to keep part of ourselves away from God. We need to give all of ourselves to him on a daily basis.
Finally, allocate Sabbath days (to make sure you're not spending all your time dedicated to work) and identify areas of your life where you try to "help yourself" in the sense of the phrase above. If you're anything like me, this will be difficult. It may involve asking God where to set boundaries in your life and what parts of your life you have been keeping from him. But freedom comes from surrender, and God can help you in your weakest moments when you turn to him and rely on him.
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Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author 21+ books. More than 1400 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.