A long the busy streets of Burbank, comedian and talk show host Jay Leno, once approached random people on the sidewalk with a biblical question. People were asked to name one of the Ten Commandments. With no close second, the number one response was “God helps those who help themselves.” This is a strange response, in light of the fact, there is no such commandment or even verse in the Bible. Another survey of America indicates 82 percent of the population is sure this is a Bible verse. Benjamin Franklin introduced the saying into American culture in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1736. Since then it has been mistaken for scripture, a Bible misquote.
Most people would call this type of short and concise phrase a proverb. Proverbs are short, pithy sayings meant to convey a jewel of wisdom. This particular saying is popular because it promotes a work ethic, something considered wise and valuable, especially to our Western culture. While this misquote is attributed to the Bible, it is worth asking if there is some biblical truth to what it says.
The Bible book of Proverbs contains thirty chapters of wise sayings. The majority of these were written by King Solomon, who asked God to give him wisdom (1 Kings 3:9). Unlike the many proverbs which you might hear people quote, this book of Proverbs (with a capital P) comes to Solomon from the inspiration of God. Sometimes insight into conventional wisdom, sometimes a new revelation about how to do life, each Proverb is a piece of wisdom dispensed by God through this ancient king’s pen.
In regards to the topic of work, Solomon writes in Proverbs 6:10-11 “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber and want like an armed man.” This idea of being diligent in work reappears in Proverbs 12:11, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” This idea of working continues on to the New Testament in I Timothy 5:8, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”
These three passages each emphasize the need to be a dedicated worker. However, do they really equal the idea of God helping those who help themselves? Each verse stresses the reality that work brings forth results. But each lacks the central theme of the misquote itself. None of these verses, or countless others about work in the Bible, indicate work will earn the help of God. The misquote tries to tie a cause and effect to itself: work well and you will receive God’s help. None of the stated verses speak of God’s help at all. The saying in question makes God’s help conditional. If you endeavor to help yourself, then God will help you. Therein lies the problem with the saying and its relationship to the Bible.
Jesus walked the earth in a culture which connected work with God’s favor. If one worked hard enough, they believed God would intervene and reward. Jesus’ teachings ran contrary to these notions. Luke records a parable where Jesus makes this point.
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:9-14 ESV).
We live in a world similar to the parable. Like the Pharisee, we have a flawed nature and way of thinking. The pharisee stands by himself, representing his self-reliance and achievements. Our culture respects and honors such people. The self-made person is lifted up as the ideal. We perceive reliance on each other as a weakness. The better person figures out his own problems, creates his own resources, and is entitled to the good things in life which come his way. Like this pious man, we are proud when we can say we are “not like other men.” We compare our lives to others, sometimes despising those who have had more help in their achievements than ours. We want to be seen as standing alone, in need of nothing. Any help that does arrives comes as a reward to our individual efforts, proving “God helps those who help themselves.”
In contrast there is the tax collector. He stands far off because he feels unworthy. He is despised by most. He understands his shortcomings. When is the last time you’ve seen a powerful person take this stance? Our world is often one of perceptions. Humility, needing others, and asking for grace or mercy are signs of weakness. This thinking is bent and broken. We do fall short. We do have sins and weaknesses. We were not created to walk alone but with God, understanding our need for him. It is rare to find people who stand far off with the tax collector. Think of the last time you heard someone ask for mercy. It does happen, but it is rare and often seen as a bother.
Which man does Jesus say is justified, helped by God? The tax collector. Shocked? The people who listened to Jesus often were. People in Jesus’ time labelled some people as holy. They believed this holiness bought them favor with God. Jesus transforms this value by placing the tax collector above the Pharisee. The biblical concept is quite the opposite. God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Jesus presents a new way of thinking. He is not destroying the need to work or for one to be contentious in their work. He is, however, challenging that work and self-sufficiency are not means to gain the favor of God. They just won’t do it. They will not grab God’s attention. Work may put food on the table. It may bring in a wage to pay your bills. Work may bring a deep satisfaction of accomplishment. But work will never earn you a righteous standing with God. Your work is never a means of being forgiven and accepted by God.
This is tremendously freeing in our spiritual walk. Life is not a pursuit of how I can please God through my accomplishments. Rather, life is to be lived by faith, trusting God to do what is necessary to bring us to himself. He has done this through the Cross. God is pleased with the tax collector because he understands his need for God. The Pharisee is unable to see his need for God’s help and believes he can rely on himself alone. He is trying to please God by showing God he has no need for him, because the Pharisee believes he has accomplished everything needed to have a holy life. God is pleased when we work, but it is when we understand we fall short in our own efforts, that we cannot achieve a full life on our own, that God steps in and brings the reward. In Hebrews 11:6 it says, “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”
Our own sinfulness keeps us from seeing our need for God. Like the Pharisee, we keep our own spiritual score. We are proud that we have rules and we can follow them. However, what we don’t see is that we don’t keep our own rules. We are not really able to keep ourselves holy. We say that we believe people should love one another, but when an unlovable person steps inside our lives, we justify our rejection of them by giving ourselves new rules of why we are not required to love them. We become spiritually blind to God’s truths. Our value becomes the pride of saving ourselves. We give an acknowledgement of God’s help, but really trust in our own strength and see our power as a great value. We steal from the glory of God and give the glory to ourselves, boasting in our sufficiency rather than understanding God’s mercy and grace.
The Apostle Paul drives this point home in Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” It is God’s mercy and God’s love which makes us alive, and its given by grace. Grace appears apart from our work. Paul continues in verses 8 and 9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
If the misquote is true, that God helps those who help themselves, then people could boast of their goodness, of the strength of what their works have earned. We want God to help us when we help ourselves, so we might be in control and receive the credit for our salvation. This is why the misquote is powerful, it appeals to our pride. But the truth is, on our own, we are unable to be good enough, work hard enough, and earn the grace God has to give. Grace is not withheld from us, it is simply out of our price range and our ability to obtain it on our own.
Suppose you and Michael Phelps, the Olympic gold medalist in swimming, both received free vacations to Hawaii. The only condition of your free vacation is in your own effort, you must begin on the coast of California and swim to the islands. Once you have achieved this work, Hawaii and whatever you want is yours for free. You begin to swim. You get 5 miles, then you sink. Michael goes 20 miles, then he is gone beneath the waves. No matter how good of a swimmer you are, the goal is not achievable. No matter how good your works are, they will never equal the goodness God requires for you to receive heaven and citizenship in his kingdom. Therefore, Jesus does the work, and gives you the reward by grace. God helps those who cannot help themselves.
Our own works render us helpless when they are tied to gaining God’s favor. Scripture speaks of our inability to do work which saves us from sin and gains us heaven. Therefore, Romans 5:6 tells us, “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” Jesus lived the life, did the works, including the Cross and accomplished what God required. Now he gives it away.
This doesn’t mean our works never elicit a positive response from God. Grace doesn’t prevent us from doing good works. Our faith in God’s provision should result in works. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26 ESV). Our faith, in God’s grace, brings work to its proper place. While our work cannot add to or obtain salvation, we have been made to do good works in Christ. Ephesians 2:10 ESV says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” But even these works are full of God’s grace. They have been given by his grace and they succeed by his grace. We enter a divine partnership in which we help ourselves and others, through the power of God. In this we fully become his workmanship. Our focus is that of a partnership of grace. Works are never apart from grace. My gifting, the resources, and my being are given to me by God.
Thus, there is a sense in which God helps those who help themselves. However, the work cannot be approached as a solo act or earning salvation. There always is a part of us in the equation, we are not meaningless. We are also not able to succeed apart from him. In John 15: 5, Jesus reminds us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” So we walk hand in hand with Christ. His grace saves us. Our works join with his grace, and we rest in the promise of Joshua 1:9: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
God’s eyes are not seeking out our work in order to see if we merit his help. He knows we fall short and yet he freely give us what we need. This is a curious and unusual truth. Its speaks of how we are worth a great deal to God. We are worth the life of his Son. Grace may be free, but it is never cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who lost his life serving Christ in World War II speaks by these elegant words in his book, The Cost of Discipleship:
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.