July 26, 2012

Does God only help those who help themselves?

Photo by Nat Arnett — sxc.hu
I just finished leading a study group at church using Cheri Cowell's excellent book Direction. I'll write a full review later, but for now, I want to look at an interesting aside in the book.

As part of a larger discussion of the lack of biblical literacy, Cowell cites a 2001 Barna survey that found, among those who identified themselves as Christians, the most widely recognized Bible verse is "God helps those who help themselves."

Do you see the problem there?

It's not from the Bible.

Cowell went on to emphasize the importance of biblical literacy, but I was left behind wondering whether this well-known aphorism has a detectable origin, or whether it's just one of those things handed down orally from the depths of time.

Indeed, we can find its origin if we look hard enough. A cursory Google leads you to Benjamin Franklin, but some additional digging turns up Algernon Sidney's Discourses on Government, published in 1698. The relevant passage appears under the heading "Section 23: That is the best Government, which best provides for War."
"...kingdoms and commonwealths acknowledging no superior, except God alone, can reasonably hope to be protected by him only; and by him, if with industry and courage they make use of the means he has given them for their own defence. God helps those who help themselves; and men are by several reasons (suppose to prevent the increase of a suspected power) induced to succour an industrious and brave people: But such as neglect the means of their own preservation, are ever left to perish with shame."
It's highly unlikely that enough people read Sidney for this to achieve a tipping point. But it is highly likely that Franklin read Sidney, which explains how that little nugget wound up out being reprinted out of context in Poor Richard's Almanac. But that is no doubt where enough people read it for it to become so popular as to be held up alongside the wisdom of Solomon and Jesus, if not actually mistaken as their words.

Cowell notes in Direction that spiritual illiteracy is a result of our sound bite culture. The scriptures are dense and hard to understand. It takes more work to understand them than many people are willing to apply. And even those who do read the Bible don't read much of it.

The worst of it is that Sidney's statement, which so many believers mistake for a Biblical truth, actually contradicts basic Christian doctrine. While it's true we are called to put to good use the talents God has given us, we are not called to do so in service to ourselves. We are called to serve others.

So if God doesn't help those who help themselves, whom does he help? "All who call on him in truth."
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
Psalm 46:1-3

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