Psalms 10:14b, 17-18a, 18:6, 16, and 121:1-2 NRSV
The helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan… O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed.
In my distress I called upon the LORD; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry reached his ears… He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.
I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.
The Barna Group, a Christian polling firm, does regular surveys to track beliefs and opinions in the United States. A question has popped up on several surveys about whether the Bible teaches this next half-truth: “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” Amazingly, as recently as 2013, 52% of practicing Christians agreed strongly that the Bible does just that. In another survey, they found that eight in ten think this is an exact quote that can be found in the Bible. While most of these truisms are usually half-true at least, Pastor Adam Hamilton describes this one as not “even [rising] quite to the level of a half truth - more like a ‘one-third’ truth.” Where does this phrase come from, and why do we teach it? What does the Bible teach us about God’s help, and how can we teach it to others in how this community lives and acts?
Tracing the beginnings of this phrase, we find not Biblical origins, but Greek ones. In fact, in the writings of several Greek playwrights, living and performing 500 years before Christ, is where this phrase starts to emerge. Euripides writes around 482 BCE, "Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid." Another Greek playwright, Sophocles, shares in 409 BCE, "No good e'er comes of leisure purposeless; And heaven ne'er helps the men who will not act." It is not until 1698 that English political theorist, Algernon Sidney, gives us the phrasing we are familiar with in his work, Discourses Concerning Government. For us in the U.S., we can thank founding father, Benjamin Franklin, for popularizing the phrase by including it in his famous Poor Richard's Almanack in 1758. It has since embedded itself in our mental landscape as a great truth, to the point where we even read it into our sacred scripture.
In a way, it makes sense because we love the idea of an American as a self-made individual. We have so many other phrases that are in a similar vein from “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to idealizing “self-made millionaires.” We love the individual who has worked hard for what they have because they did it through their own strength and by their own perseverance, and now, they rightly get to enjoy the fruits of their labors. One of the biggest insults in the political arena is for any politician to be described as born with a silver spoon in their hand. We don’t value privilege, instead looking to merit.
At the same time, what does the Bible tell us? What do we find in its pages? First, we may find that one-third truth that Pastor Hamilton speaks about, but rather than it being summed up as “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves,” it is better summed up by a Benedictine Latin phrase, “ora et labora,” which means “Pray and work.” In 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12, Paul puts it this way:
“Even when we were with you we were giving you this command: ‘If anyone doesn’t want to work, they shouldn’t eat.’ We hear that some of you are living an undisciplined life. They aren’t working, but they are meddling in other people’s business. By the Lord Jesus Christ, we command and encourage such people to work quietly and put their own food on the table.” (CEB Trans.)
In the church in Thessaloniki, some believed that Paul’s message about Christ’s immediate return meant they no longer had to do anything because God would take care of it for them. Instead, Paul reminds them that we all need to pray and we need to work. For example, we just had Vacation Bible School here at the church last week, and I can tell you there was not one person involved who did not pray for its success. At the same time, we not only prayed for its success, but folks also worked to make it successful too. In the beginning, there was a concern that we might not even make it to 30 kids, and yet, I saw a food prep team plan and work to be able to make enough food to serve 50. We ended up with 35-42 kids each evening. We had faith that God would bless us and we worked to make that blessing a reality. We prayed and we worked.
At the same time, the Bible teaches us a very clear message: God helps those who cannot help themselves. Going all the way back to Leviticus, God tells the Israelite people:
“When you harvest your land’s produce, you must not harvest all the way to the edge of your field; and don’t gather every remaining bit of your harvest. Leave these items for the poor and the immigrant; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 22:23 CEB)
Again in our scripture readings for this morning, it says:
“The helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan… O LORD, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed.” (Psalms 10:14 b, 17-18a NRSV).
God tells the people of Israel to leave food unharvested to allow those on the margins of society to have enough to eat and to feed themselves with dignity. Going even further, it is that reminder that everything we have or could ever earn was never ours in the first place. God is telling the farmer, “That field, you planted and harvested, who do you think caused the seed to grow? Who do you think created the sun and rain that helped it ripen? Who formed the very earth you harvested from?” Everything belongs to God, and God will use it to have compassion for who God chooses. Again in the Psalms, the psalmist tells us that the helpless put themselves at the mercy of God and are answered, that part of God’s own character is to answer the needs of the orphan, the widow, the poor, the oppressed, and the immigrant. Elsewhere, in Proverbs, God’s own Wisdom gives a warning:
“Those who close their ears to the cries of the poor will themselves call out but receive no answer.” (Proverbs 21:13 CEB)
When we say these words, “God helps those who help themselves,” we contradict God in hopes that somehow we can absolve our responsibility to those who are helpless, to actually loving our neighbor as ourselves. In fact, plugging our ears up against their cries may cause others to plug their ears against us. You’ll notice that it never says, “Love your neighbor when they deserve or have merited love,” because that is not at all consistent with the character of God.
That leads to that final part of what the Bible teaches, that we all receive the free gift of God’s grace. Namely, if God only helps those who help themselves, tell me how can any of us ever find forgiveness? How can any of us ever escape the pits of sin and despair if not for the grace of God? I think we all have stories and know stories of people lost and mired in drugs, alcohol, gambling, adultery, and theft who found the power to change, to turn their lives around. Was this because they deserved it, or is it because God took mercy on them as God’s own children, having grace where no one else would, to turn people’s lives around? If “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves” is true, we are all in trouble because God has helped us through Christ on that cross while we were undeserving enemies of God. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, in other words, there is no work you can do, no bootstraps you can pull on to get this gift. It is there and ours because God has done the work and God gives it to all.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t be saying, “God Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” We should be echoing American Evangelical, Joyce Meyer, who put it, “God doesn't help those who help themselves; He helps those who can't help themselves!” The thing that should be troubling us is how so many Christians and non-Christians have come to believe the opposite about God. What are we saying and what are we doing in our community of faith? What words do others see and hear in our actions? Is it that God tells us all to stop being crybabies and get to work, or is it that our God loves us and sees us and will move heaven and earth to help us? We all need help. We all need grace. I, for one, am thankful to have a God who never abandons us, values us, and loves us without fail. Amen.
 Barna Group, “Competing Worldviews Influence Today’s Christians,“ Barna Group, https://www.barna.com/research/competing-worldviews-influence-todays-christians/ [accessed June 17, 2023].
 Adam Hamilton, Half-Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves and Other Things the Bible Doesn’t Say (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2016), 54.
 Euripides, Fragment 432.
 Sophocles, Fragment 288.
 Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government (Edinburgh: Hamilton and Balfour, 1750), 1:298.
 Stephen Prothero, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012), 246.
 Hamilton 2016, 58.
Pastor Paul Grossman