A while ago, I wrote about my difficulty with the advice, “Let Go and Let God” and similar. When the pendulum doesn’t swing towards abdicating responsibility for our own lives in the name of God, it can swing too far in the other direction: taking all the responsibility for our lives as if God doesn’t exist or isn’t involved in the creation God so lovingly crafted. I have just as much trouble with this; it’s essentially functional atheism and it’s just under the surface of claims like “God helps those who help themselves,” though it may not seem like it. After all, it can sound like good advice – it’s got “God” in it, anyway! – to those who are prone to shoulder more than their fair share of responsibility. But it’s precisely the propensity towards legalism that I want to be wary of here (not to mention that the phrase isn’t found in Scripture – it has, however, been attributed to deist Ben Franklin).
When we say God helps those who help themselves, we are putting the onus on ourselves, or whoever we happen to be advising in this way, to do something to fix or change the situation before God will come alongside and aid in our human-driven efforts. But it’s the other way around: God took the initiative and we cannot work our way to God. The difference between humanity and God (which Soren Kierkegaard calls an “infinite qualitative distinction”) can only be bridged by God, which happened in Christ. Thus, our human efforts, while important – we each have responsibilities given to us by God – are supplemental to the work God is already doing in the world and has been doing since the first dawn of the first day. Nothing humanity does can properly be placed before anything God does or has done.
When we say God helps those who help themselves, we are implying that we have to earn God’s assistance by our own merit somehow. Not only is this an extremely potent recipe for debilitating anxiety and very effective way to block the ability to receive the free love of God, but it goes against the grain of the Gospel. Christ died while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8) – as in, we did nothing to earn the offer of salvation and eternal life with God. Again, that was all God’s doing; God took the first move. Why, then, should we *now* have to earn what was already, once and for all, offered freely on the Cross. “It is finished,” Jesus said (John 19:30).
When we say God helps those who help themselves, we are also implying that God will automatically approve of whatever we are doing to “help ourselves.” But God does not ratify all human actions simply because they are done in the name of “help;” there is such thing as waywardness and sin. God is loving – which means God is merciful, which means God is just, which means God can get angry. A god who does not care about sin does not have the ability to put the world to rights; but the Promised Kingdom is one in which every tear is wiped away and death will be no more (Rev. 21:4). Currently, there are a whole lot of ways we attempt to help ourselves that just lead to all kinds of death.
But when we say God helps those who help themselves, we are implying that we actually can “help ourselves.” I’ve already written about “self help,” that it is really no help at all – we were not made to be isolated, self-contained individuals but for interdependent, mutually self-giving community. We cannot help ourselves out of sin; it is hard to heal and we cannot do it by ourselves. It seems to me not that God helps those who help themselves but God helps those who cannot help themselves. In terms of sin and our need for grace, that would be everyone.