I’m quite sure you’ve hear the statement before. Perhaps it was in the form of an encouragement, perhaps in the form of a correction or rebuke, perhaps even in the form of a defense. Whatever the circumstances may have been, our next common misunderstanding is the belief that “God helps those who help themselves.”
What are they actually saying?
Those who say this and believe it are saying some variant of “If I do my part God will do his.” It can be particularly reciprocal: “If I scratch his back, he’ll scratch mine,” or legalistic: “God will only show his goodness if I am good first,” or manipulative: “God! I did this, so you owe me.”
But what do they think they’re saying? Something much more admirable, to be sure. They’re trying to recognize some degree of ‘synergism’ or ‘working together’ with God. If you’ve followed the recent happenings with TGC and Tullian, you know that synergism is a hotly-debated topic. Nonetheless there is a type of synergism that everyone would agree to: God has chosen to work through means. Under ordinary circumstances, God uses ordinary means to achieve his desired ends—also known as providence. God typically uses rain to water the ground. God typically uses gravity to draw the rain to the ground. God typically uses the mass of the earth to create its gravitational pull. And on and on we go. Similarly God uses humans to accomplish his mission upon the earth. God has instituted and established certain laws and principles by which life abides—just read the Proverbs of King Solomon. In his wisdom, Yahweh has provided for societies to be built, and for economies to subsist. He has given unto men and women work to be accomplished. So in a way… yes: God has provided means to those [helps those] that they might sustain life [who help themselves]. But that is not what most actually mean (see above paragraph).
A greater truth…
Actually, we ought to be ecstatic that “helping ourselves” isn’t prerequisite. Because the reality is that we are all helpless beggars, in treason from the law of God and in rebellion against his person stumbling along and making use of his generous provision—from the slightest breath to the most pronounced intelligence and voice. God is the initiator. He is the first cause. And with his unwarranted generosity, we would be left desolate and destitute destined for asphyxiation. No, but far from it: God looks to those who are humble and contrite in heart (Is.60), he shows grace to the poor (Mt.5) and the ones who weep and mourn. The desperate and needy are precisely those who receive unfathomable mercy and grace from the abounding goodness of God. In other words… God helps those who cannot help themselves.
In grace, Christ has appeared to us while we were trapped in the dominion of death and sin. He has liberated us.
We who could do no good, and could not even lift our eyes to the heavens without worshiping creation—us has he wakened.
Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? Only the one who is pure and upright in heart. That was none of us, but now it is any who believe in Jesus; for we have received his righteousness in place of our own.
God does not need you to be good for him first, so that he can finally pour into you the blessings he’s been longing to give. Contrary to what some people believe, God can break into your heart whether you’ve opened it or not; God can break into your mind whether you’ve opened it or not. God is omnipotent, and you cannot compete against omnipotence. God will do whatsoever he will do. You’re the one who has to respond.
Instead of throwing off the sheets and jumpstarting your life agenda… spend a few minutes or a couple hours in solitary dependence upon the gracious and wise, all powerful God who supplies you with all your needs; who has worked even before you have. And then get out there and accomplish the good works he has prepared in advance for you to do (Eph.2.10).
Others in this series: