“God helps those who help themselves.”
Most frequently, I hear the phrase from people in relation to the poor and/or homeless. “Well, as the Bible says, ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”
Except it doesn’t say that.
Benjamin Franklin said it. And others before and after him. But Jesus didn’t. No one in the Bible did either.
Paul did say something like it. What he said is recorded in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “If anyone is not willing to work, he should not eat.”
In some people’s minds, the two phrases go hand in hand. Paul’s words to the church in Thessalonica are even heard on Capitol Hill in debates on funding for the poor.
I get amused by those debates. People use the same Bible to support their completely contradictory views. A person who wants to cut aid to the poor quotes the “don’t work don’t eat” text.
A person who doesn’t want to cut aid to the poor quotes verses like Leviticus 23:22.
Using the Bible can be so confusing!
Back to Paul. Obviously, Paul wasn’t writing to Americans. He didn’t see a homeless person on the street and say, “If you don’t work you don’t eat.” What he did see were church members not working because they thought Jesus was going to come back any minute. “Why go to work when Jesus might come back?”
I like N.T. Wright’s take on that: “Jesus is coming- plant a tree!”
Back to “God helps those who help themselves.”
Using this phrase to avoid helping the poor misses the whole point of Jesus and the Scripture.
Those who enact unjust polices are as good as dead, those who are always instituting unfair regulations, to keep the poor from getting fair treatment, and to deprive the oppressed among my people of justice (Isaiah 10:10-2). Let’s put that on a plaque and hang it in the halls of Congress!
Don’t mistreat widows or orphans or foreigners or anyone who is poor…(Zechariah 7:10).
If you don’t help the poor, don’t expect to be heard when you cry out for help (Proverbs 21:13).
The Lord’s Spirit has come to me…to tell the good news to the poor…to free everyone who suffers (Luke 4:18).
Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well” – but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do (James 2:15-16)?
So, let’s forget about this phrase absolving us of our responsibility to help the poor.
Let’s feed and clothe.
Let’s challenge and change unfair legislation and structures.
Let’s identify with the poor.
What’s good about the phrase?
*It reminds us that God uses people to change the world. We’re partners. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). It’s a “God plus us” thing.
*It reminds us that we do have some responsibility. It doesn’t make any sense to ask God to help me not eat so many potato chips unless I quit buying potato chips.
“There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.” J.K Rowling
Here’s my biggest problem with the phrase: It seems to me to go against grace – you know, “unmerited favor” – as I learned in Sunday School.
God gives me love and acceptance when love and acceptance are undeserved.
“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” Paul writes.
I love this from Philip Yancey, “There’s nothing I can do to make God love me more. There’s nothing I can do to make God love me less.”
Now that’s something we should be saying!