The heresy of God helping those who help themselves

The phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is a popular motto that emphasizes the importance of self-initiative. The phrase originated in ancient Greece, occurring in approximately equivalent form as the moral to one of Aesop’s Fables, Hercules and the Waggoner, and later in the great tragedy authors of ancient Greek drama. Although it has been commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney’s work. The phrase is often mistaken for a Bible quote, but it appears nowhere in the Bible.

Some Christians have criticized the expression as being contrary to the Bible’s message of God’s grace. … The concept is found in many Greek tragedies. Aeschylus in his play The Persians wrote, “Whenever a man makes haste, God too hastens with him.” Sophocles wrote, “No good e’er comes of leisure purposeless; And heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act.” Euripides wrote “Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid.” The Greek proverb “Along with Athena, move also your hand” (Greek, Syn Athenâi kaì kheîra kinei) is similar, – from Wikipedia.

The quote from Stephen Colbert used in the image at the beginning of this post is actually in answer to something that was said by Bill O’Reilly that has to do with the phrase above:

Political commentator Bill O’Reilly employed the phrase, in responding to Jim McDermott who argued, “This is Christmas time. We talk about Good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won’t give you a check to feed your family. That’s simply wrong.” O’Reilly argued for a more selective approach to unemployment benefits, and the importance of individual responsibility, concluding “while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?” Political comedian Stephen Colbert parodied him in response …

The response, of course, is found in the image above. But, Bill O’Reilly is simply reflecting the majority view of Christians in the USA:

The beliefs of Americans regarding this phrase and the Bible has been studied by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna of The Barna Group. To the statement “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves”; 53% of Americans agree strongly, 22% agree somewhat, 7% disagree somewhat, 14% disagree strongly, and 5% stated they don’t know. Of “born-again” Christians 68% agreed, and 81% of non “born-again” Christians agreed with the statement. In a February 2000 poll, 53% strongly agreed and 22% agreed somewhat that the Bible teaches the phrase. Of the 14 questions asked, this was the least biblical response, according to Barna. A poll in the late 1990s showed the majority (81%) believe the concept is taught by the Bible, another stating 82%.

Despite being of non-Biblical origin, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Seventy-five percent of American teenagers said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.

Barna critiques this as evidence of Americans’ unfamiliarity with the Bible and believes that the statement actually conflicts with the Bible’s view of God’s kindness towards people, none of whom deserve it – “grace”. It “suggests a spiritual self-reliance inconsistent with Christianity” according to David Kinnaman, vice president of the Barna Research Group. Christian minister Erwin Lutzer argues there is some support for this saying in the Bible (2 Thessalonians 3:10, James 4:8), however much more often God helps those who cannot help themselves, which is what grace is about (Ephesians 2:4–5, Romans 4:4–5, Luke 18:9–14). The statement is often given as an example of the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism.”

So, it is interesting that in every conservative Evangelical circle with which I have had contact, the phrase about God helping those who help themselves, has been described as not being Biblical and not being correct because it can easily lead to “works-righteousness.” Yet, when Americans are polled, even most “born-again” Christians believe that this is a correct phrase. But, this mistaken belief has consequences.

The consequence of this mistaken belief is the corresponding belief that those who are poor are poor only because they do not help themselves. In fact, belief in this heresy powers the reluctance, nay opposition, that most Americans have to helping the poor, the widow, and the orphan with open hearts and arms. After all, poverty becomes proof that you have not helped yourself. Failure to get a college degree becomes proof that you have not helped yourself. And, employment in a job which does not pay a living wage becomes proof that you have not helped yourself. It is not enough to work full-time. If you are having problems in supporting your family, you have obviously not helped yourself so that God may help you.

We can and do condemn this belief from the pulpit. Let me give a very limited defense to the many pastors who have spoken against this belief. But, here is the problem. Given the polls, it becomes obvious that we have not done enough to stop this heresy. In practice, many pastors descend the pulpit and then promptly begin to speak as though the saying is true. Saint Paul’s dictum about if anyone will not work then neither let him eat is translated in practice to saying that if anyone does not have work—or an employment that provides a living wage—then it must be his fault that he has not to eat.

We consistently find reasons in the person for their poverty. We rarely find reason why we need to help. And, I have not heard one conservative Christian sermon that argues that an employer has the responsibility to ensure that all his full-time workers receive a living wage. After all, “God helps those …” The employer is bound by no other responsibility than that of making sufficient money to keep the business going, even if this means paying less than a living wage to his full-time employees.

If the employee would only creatively exert himself a little more, why then God would most certainly help them to earn a living wage. I have no responsibility as a business owner. Who put me in charge of my employee? (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”) Cain’s sin was not merely that he murdered his brother Abel. Cain’s sin was most certainly also that he failed to conceive of the idea that he had any responsibility for his brother’s well-being. This is the sin of all too many employers and most Christians nowadays.

No, this is a heresy that needs to be stamped out of our national life. God helped us while we were fallen, while we were sinners, nay while we were his enemies. That is the standard that the Bible sets, not the false standard that the Greeks set.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Father Ernesto, Father bless. Thank you for this post!

    It reminds me of St John Chrysostom’s mention of two altars:

    “Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food”, and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”

    And both are important I would think: beauty of the liturgy and the beauty lived out with the poor (who we need) (ie Khouria Frederica Mathewes-Green’s discussion on Beauty and the Liturgy http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mdO1VU6j1c ).

    It’s an interesting tension and there might be deep connections with the Divine Liturgy and our service/communion/kononia with the poor.

    Recently, someone recommended Susan R. Holman’s book “The Hungry are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia”. Hoping to read it soon, so thank you for indirectly reminding me to do so with your post :)

    Asking for your prayers.

  2. says

    Of course we believe in synergy, as exemplified in Chapter 2 of St. Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for God is in you, to will and work for His good pleasure.” But this does not justify the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” as a Christian principle.
    St. John Chyrysostom (I studied him on this matter) repeatedly insisted that we help the poor without scrutinizing whether or not they deserve it. He was vociferous about it.
    The severe dismissal of people who are struggling in America today by those who feel they have worked hard to attain the “American way of life” reveals a mentality in which it is believed that America is all about opportunity for me with no consideration for the common good and our neighbors. This leaves America as an abode of a multitude of “me’s” rather than a people. May God grant that the pendulum swings back the other way.

  3. Peter McCombs says

    Father Ernesto, I think you’re right about this. I belong to a church that puts a high premium on people “helping themselves,” but luckily we have a local leader who understands the true principle of charity and makes sure people have what they need without judging them.

    I am concerned about a trend that I notice in my own family. Recently a relative of mine explained how he carefully calculates the amount of work he can do without exceeding a limit that would remove his disability benefit. He had been in a car accident, you see, but has since recovered most of his former abilities. He has found, however, that less effort is substantially more rewarding than more effort would be. Another relative has remained at home, paying no rent and contributing little to the household economy, living on his widowed mother’s dime. I know that he is a bright and capable man in his mid-30s, but he’s found his “comfort zone.”

    How can the ideal of work and “helping oneself” be balanced with the requirement to render charity regardless of merit? Can charity encourage vice in those who choose a lifestyle dependent on the good will of others?

    • says

      Anything can encourage vice. That is why Saint Paul finally speaks in Romans 14 about those who cannot eat meat in faith. For them it is sin. But, if you can eat meat in faith, then for your it is not sin. The reality is that we can turn anything godly and make something ungodly out of it. That includes those who try to take advantage of the community. For them it is that Saint Paul speaks of those who will not work neither let them eat. But, you had best be very very careful when you designate those who will not work.

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