“God helps those who help themselves.”
That is probably one of the most quoted non-existent verses from the bible. You could say that it sounds the closest to James 4:8, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.” But yet, not entirely. It has been coined the phantom verse” by another blogger – Hezekiah 6:1. But before we disregard the quote entirely as an unbiblical quote, I think it ought to be examined more closely.
When it comes to salvation, it is clear that God helps those who cannot help themselves. And in fact, He is displeased with those who claim that they can help themselves. No one is excluded from this helplessness.
As it is written:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.”
We are born into sin (Psalm 51:5) and live being slaves to sin (Romans 6:20). Being in sin is described as being dead (Ephesians 2:1-5), the dead cannot resuscitate themselves. Sometimes we are falsely led to think that we are somehow capable of saving ourselves, the bible tells us that:
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)
Even our best efforts at being righteous are polluted. The translation in the NIV is “filthy rags”. Our best efforts to bring about our own salvation is like washing dirty clothes in dirty water. See also Titus 3:5.
This quote is busted for salvation.
Discipleship is the natural progress of salvation. Our salvation does not lead us back to the same life we have lived, it leads us to a drastically different life. You could say it is the process of growing into Christ. The process of discipleship is by no means simple. It is to practicing our faith in thought, word and deed (James 1:22) – abiding in Christ (John 15:5-8) to produce fruit (Galatians 5:22-23), taming our tongues (James 1:26, 3:9-12), committing to a church (Philippians 2:3-4), loving other disciples (John 13:35), evangelising (Matthew 28:19). A sort of summary of discipleship is: to be like Christ.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.
I have often wondered if this verse is only applicable to Jesus’ first disciples, since He was speaking of his suffering and their journey as His disciples. But the minute anyone decides to become a Christian, it is clear that it applies to all disciples. Anyone who decides to submit their life to Jesus and apply this faith in all areas of life will soon find how difficult, tedious, painful and almost impossible this task is.
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Does that mean that without applying our faith to our life we are not saved? Absolutely not, no amount of our works can achieve salvation. But the evidence of our salvation (faith and election) is in our works (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:18). To be diligent at our own discipleship is to be sure of our salvation.
So we go back to the original premise: does God help you when you help yourself? Phrased in the current context, does God help disciple you when you help disciple yourself? Well, to be absolutely correct, God helps you even before you help yourself. That is exactly the role of the Holy Spirit, who has also been called our Helper (John 14:16).
The Holy Spirit was at work in us before we even receive Christ (John 16:8-9), dwells in us the moment we believe in Christ (Galatians 3:2) and won’t ever leave (John 14:16-17). When we practice our faith in our thoughts and actions, it is to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). It goes even further: our willingness to follow Christ and be like Him and embark on discipleship is not even of our own choosing!
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
The Holy Spirit living in us actually makes us follow Christ. It causes us to desire discipleship.
The quote is (once again) busted for discipleship.
Maybe the quote is applicable in everyday Christian life. When we lift one end of a sofa to move it, God lifts the other end and helps us. Doesn’t life work that way? Well, not quite. A better explanation of how life work is in the biblical principle of reaping and sowing.
A man reaps what he sows.
It works. Plan and simple. If you are lazy, you don’t get to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). If you are friendly to others, you will have friends (Proverbs 18:24). If you cut yourself, you feel pain. You reap, you sow. Sure, God helps in supernatural ways in normal daily life. But is there a pre-requisite that you need to be helping yourself first? Sometimes not.
I think we can safely say that while the quote means well, it is far from true.