Tuesday, December 04, 2007

God helps those...

...who help themselves. I expect that is what you thought of when you read the title, right?

I read an article a few years ago about this phrase. It made two interesting points. First, it is impossible to find the "saint" in Christian history who supposedly coined the phrase. Second, that this appears no place in Scripture.

The author of the article literally tracked through dozens of books and publications, tracing their footnotes, looking for the original source of this phrase. It had been credited to everyone from St. Augustine of the 5th Century, to John Wesley, the 18th Century founder of Methodism, to John Wesley's mother. All told, the writer found more than 20 different citations citing as many sources for this phrase, none of which turned out to be true!

The author went on to note that a survey of the average American walking down the street would probably be nearly certain that this phrase appears somewhere in the Bible. It does not.

He went on to make an excellent point: if anything, the opposite truth is found in Scripture. God helps those who rely on God. God helps those who cry out for help. God helps those who need grace. I think this is why the writer could not find "God helps those who help themselves" in any writings of saints. They all know that the opposite is true.

I was sharing this in a sermon two weeks ago. There is a family in our community of faith who have been doing amazing things with their elementary school age kids. They are teaching them how to get into worship in a traditional setting. They have begun reading and singing the hymns, and saying the prayers, and listening to the sermon, and even talking about the sermon later. (As you can imagine, this warms my heart and gives me great hope.)

So imagine my joy today when the mother emailed me to say that her daughter came home flustered from having a substitute teacher that day in school. Apparently, her regular teacher encourages students to help one another. (I think this is fabulous. What a great way to encourage team work, shared learning, and generally looking out for one another.) The substitute was not accustomed to this type of goings on in the classroom, and was fussing at one of the students for being helpful. The substitute used the phrase"God helps those who help themselves" in her admonishment.

The daughter came home and said "but Mommy, Pastor Amy said that is not true, didn't she?" And it opened the way for another conversation on the topic.

I visited with a grieving family today. I shared my thoughts on the importance of feeling emotions, and of teaching our children (especially our boys) that it is OK to cry, to feel bad and sad and angry and guilty and all of the things that accompany things like an untimely death. How much better would the world be if we stopped pretending that we humans have no vulnerabilities, that "God helps those who help themselves" and instead live in the truth that God helps those who cry out for help?


  1. I think the phrase appeared in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac - whether it was original with Franklin or not, I do not know - but there's another wrinkle in the possibility of its origin.

  2. Interesting...
    I would have to double check my memory, but I think Ben Franklin was a deist... which would mean he held a view of God most often described as "clock maker"... meaning God set the world in motion, much like a clock, and then sits back and watches it from afar... which is of course much different from a personal understanding of God we Christians claim...
    And if he did say it, it would certainly fit with deistic theology.. God helps those who help themselves since deists don't believe God will be doing any of the actual helping!

  3. I've come across this sentiment in my congregation as well. Someone asked me where it was in the Bible, and fortunately, I already knew it wasn't in there at all! I also heard that it was Ben Franklin, but that was second-hand info, so I don't know for sure.

    I also have had people ask me where Lucifer is in the Bible. Not in there, folks! Check your Dante!

    Thanks for the beautiful message--good sermon fodder!