“God helps those who help themselves!” (For most of the rest of this article, I will refer to this simply as “the help phrase”.)
The question: Is this valid theology? Does this idea fit with our relationship with God? Is it really true to say that “God helps those who help themselves”? Like most of the ways we use words today, we find that the phrase “help themselves” has more than one meaning, depending on the context in which it is used. Therefore, just as the phrase has multiple definitions, so then does our question have multiple answers. Is this valid theology? Yes … and no.
Not surprisingly, it’s easy to find people who agree with the “no” answer. On the web recently, I found a site which cited the “folly” of the help phrase, and pointed to biblical verses from the books of Jeremiah and Proverbs to make its case. The verse from Jeremiah is found in chapter 17, verse 5. In the New Living Translation (found at www.blueletterbible.org) the verse reads:
This is what the Lord says: “Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans and turn their hearts away from the Lord.”
At face value, this verse seems to say to us that anyone who thinks that they can help themselves is a fool, and they are cursed. But let’s look again at the verse from Jeremiah, especially two words which seem to jump out at me: “mere humans”. In the second article of the “What is Sin?” series, we looked at a term which the Apostle Paul used: “natural man”. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul tries to mark clearly the difference between “natural man” and “spiritual man”. Basically, the state of “natural man” is the state that we all find ourselves in, as we are constantly tempted to consider our own needs and desires over and above those of others. The spiritual state is the opposite of this, where the needs of others become more important than our own needs. It seems that even though he was writing several hundred years ealier than Paul, Jeremiah is trying to communicate the same thing. By referring to the idea of someone being a “mere human”, Jeremiah is highlighting the need to overcome our natural tendency to put ourselves first, and to rely on ourselves independently of God.
Looking again at the help phrase then, if we interpret the words “help themselves” as if it were offered up by a party hostess, or a waitress in reference to a buffet line at a restaurant, we can easily agree that this could lead us to consider ourselves first, and others second. The temptation to be sure that we are taken care of, would be great, and could feed into the selfish desires of the natural man. Such behavior, would clearly indicate that we were being “mere humans”. Following the logical conclusion then, if we use the help phrase in this context, it could not be considered valid theology, in the context of our relationship with God.
Seeing the help phrase in this context, its easy to see why many people can’t find room for this way of thinking in their relationship with the Father. But with a New Christianity, we see that there is room for the help phrase in our relationship to God, if we use the words ”help themselves” in a different context.
In the beginning of the 25th chapter of the book of Matthew, we find two parables. With the phrase “…the Kingdom of Heaven will be like this” (NRSV), Yeshua tells the, Parable of the Ten Virgins, and the Parable of the Talentss. (Click on the links to re-read these parables). In the parable of the Ten Virgins, we find that five of the virgins we’re smart enough to bring their own oil. If we apply the face value of the verse from Jeremiah, we could say that those who did bring oil for their lamps were trusing in their own flesh, and that those who did not bring oil were trusting in God to provide the oil for them. However, this opposes what Yeshua declares. By Yeshua’s account, those who “helped themselves” (or those who applied logic to their situation and actually brought extra oil along with them) were those who were admitted to the wedding feast.
The same goes for the Parable of the Talents. Three of the master’s servants are put in charge of various amounts of the master’s money. Upon his return, the master finds that two of the servants put this money to work, and using their abilities and resources, they doubled the amount of money which the master had entrusted to them. The third servant simply buried the money in the ground. Again if we take the verse from Jeremiah at face value, we would have to say that the first two servants were trusting in themselves, and thus were cursed; that the third servant who has “trusted in God” was doing God’s will! But Yeshua declares this conclusion to be wrong. He says that those servants who doubled the masters money did the right thing, and that the other servant was in fact cursed.
With these two parables, Yeshua clearly validates the help phrase! The point here is that when you are faced with a decision, or the need to take action, God doesn’t want you to saddle Him with all the work. Use your own resources and abilities and help yourself as much as possible, because God really does help those who help themselves.
Grace and peace to you all,