Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves?

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I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
—Psalms 40:1 ESV

Franklin said it, I believe it, that settles it!For more than a decade, I’ve been praying about an issue in my life. It’s not a sin issue, but a general guidance question troubling me. In some ways, it extends back to my youth.

The number of counselors who’ve added their advice to the problem increases over time, but the one similarity in all their counsel comes down to the old aphorism attributed to Ben Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves.”

I don’t know what it is about American Christianity that forces every Christian to abide by this rule. Our collective “doing” fervor spills over into the way we live out our faith, as if waiting isn’t just the hardest part—it’s simply stupid.

One of the most neglected verses in American Christendom states:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.
—Psalms 127:1 ESV

We bristle at the notion that we can’t do it ourselves. Yet look around at the expediency that passes for ministry in large swaths of the American Church and you’ll spy plenty of ministry projects in which the ministry built the house, God having little say in the construction. People will ooh and aah at the pretty thing that arose from nothing. Perhaps years later, the same folks will wonder why the pretty thing failed miserably.

Jesus said this:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.”
—John 5:19 ESV

An uncommon principle in American Christianity, that we should do nothing unless we see the Lord leading. I wonder what Christianity in this country would look like if we did nothing except what we saw the Father doing? Might this not transform every aspect of how we live the Faith?

I’ve talked out my own issue with some well-known ministries and their response always concerns me doing something, anything, so long as I’m doing. Doesn’t matter if the Lord’s building the house or not. Just do. Because it’s how they operate their own ministry.

Talk to leaders in Third World countries, though, and they wait until the Lord moves. This idea of “God can’t steer a parked car” doesn’t exist in their Christian playbook. They seek God until he makes a way where there is no way. They don’t go around trying to dynamite doorways out of granite just to be doing something.

Of course, my encounters with these do, do, doers of the word always leaves me wondering if I’m the one in the wrong. But then I read passages like this and I wonder:

“…apart from me you can do nothing.”
—John 15:5b ESV

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.
—Psalms 20:6-7 ESV

There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.
—Proverbs 16:25 ESV

I also wonder if the doing zealots actually foul it up for those of us who wait—and vice versa. We’re the spanner in the works. Get us slothful waiters out of the way and maybe others could actually accomplish marvelous works for God the good, old-fashioned, American way.

I may be the nutjob here, but no way exists to avoid a verse like this:

Thus says the LORD: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the LORD.
—Jeremiah 17:5 ESV

Go the arm of flesh route one too many times and the inevitable falling away occurs. And perhaps that’s the problem with the Church today. Too much dependence on singing Old Blue Eyes’ classic tune, “My Way,” got us into this jam.

Or maybe it’s just me.

27 thoughts on “Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves?

  1. I find your post quite interesting. It drove me to read Nehemiah 1-2. It seemed the the vision belonged to Nehemiah, but he was working in the interest of the kingdom, and he acted prayerfully and submissively.

    I think part of the problem with American Christianity is that we tend to numb ourselves to the troubles and disgrace around us, and never let ourselves get brokenhearted enough to take action.

    Where we tend to take action is in the small circle that we allow ourselves to get close enough to feel the pain. Mainly ourselves, but somewhat our family, and somewhat less our church and our friends and co-workers. We seek God’s favor where it affects us, and are pretty indifferent everywhere else.

    In nations where suffering is more prevalent, I think the Christians are more actively brokenhearted for those around them, and more passionately prayerful.

    I think we need to pray and fast more. I believe we should have unrealistic vision for what we want to accomplish, and know that the only way it happens is through God’s providence.

    • Josh,

      Sorta.

      I don’t believe that God intended us to be so globally aware. Prior to about 150 years ago, most people had no idea what went on even 100 miles away from where they lived. No TVs, no radios, no daily regional/state/national/global newspapers. EVERYTHING was local.

      A person can only handle so much info. Back then, the only point of focus was within about twenty miles of one’s home. In that limited space, a Christian could actually have a ministry to real people and focus on those people, primarily neighbors, alone.

      Today, a mudslide occurs in Ecuador and someone’s asking me to pray for them, pay for them, and so on. But so many horrible things happen in one day around the world that I truly think as connected as we Americans Christians are, we develop compassion fatigue. We’re expected to help the whole world and that burden burns us out.

      If we weren’t so globally aware, I think things would be different.

      So I’m not going to beat people up over an inability to drop everything and serve typhoon victims in Fiji. But if they can’t help their neighbor next door, then there’s a problem. I think the reason we find that so hard to do comes from the burnout and the feelings of utter helplessness in the face of so much global need. Like Pavlov’s other dog, we get so tired of the electroshocks, we just lay in our corner and whimper.

  2. Peyton

    Thanks, Dan. You make me feel better. I feel so un-American and un-Christian at times with all my not-doing!

    At the Home of Martha and Mary

    As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

    “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

    Luke 10:38-42 (NIV)

    Or, of course,

    The arm of flesh will fail you,
    ye dare not trust your own.

    • Peyton,

      I almost quoted “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” in the post, but stuck with the Bible verses. Great minds think alike!

      I think we have to watch the Mary/Martha passage because it can be used as an excuse to do nothing—-ever. I’ll counter that to everything there’s a season. Sometimes we wait and sometimes we work. Jesus’ chastisement of Martha came because she was working in a time when He desired that she pay attention to Him. When He later left, THAT would be the proper time to work. The work didn’t go away. It just wasn’t the right time to be working.

  3. francisco

    Decision-making is not an easy task. And it is even harder because discernment precedes it. And who is discerning? how do we get discerning? I like what Jonathan Edwards wrote in his introduction of David Brainerd’s diary:
    “Mr. Brainerd did not obtain that degree of skill at once, but gradually…He often in conversation spoke of the difference between melancholy and godly sorrow, true humiliation and spiritual desertion, and the great danger of mistaking the one for the other…”
    and speaking of the false religion Brainerd encountered, Edwards adds:
    “[…]Nothing like [false religion] puffs men up with a high conceit of their own wisdom, holiness, eminence, and sufficiency; and makes them so bold, forward, assuming and arrogant”
    Bottom line, Dan is what you have been pointed out several times here: what is deep down in our hearts, what are the true intentions of our hearts? whom do we want to impress with what we do? whom are we more concerned in pleasing? does our definition of success matches God’s definition? Anyway, thanks for sharing from someone wrestling with a similar issue and with questions that I am asking myself to.

    • Francisco,

      I know my own personal lack is discerning truth for my own person—a trait I assume troubles many. I discern things for others very well, but not so much for me alone. Unfortunately, my experience has been that other Christians don’t do a very good job discerning things about/for me, either. 🙁

  4. Do we work or do we wait? Studying Proverbs brought up this strange, yet obviously not oxymoronic, parallel:

    “A man’s gift maketh room for him, and bringeth him before great men. He that is first in his own cause seemeth just; but his neighbour cometh and searcheth him” (Proverbs 18:16-17 KJV).

    “Seest thou a man diligent in his business? he shall stand before kings; he shall not stand before mean men” (Proverbs 22:29 KJV).

    “Put not forth thyself in the presence of the king, and stand not in the place of great men: for better it is that it be said unto thee, Come up hither; than that thou shouldest be put lower in the presence of the prince whom thine eyes have seen. Go not forth hastily to strive, lest thou know not what to do in the end thereof, when thy neighbour hath put thee to shame” (Proverbs 25:6-8 KJV).

    We must have both giftedness and diligence. But diligence without giftedness will lead to nothing. To put it more bluntly, a man without a gift will have no room. However, as this points out, the gifted man shall be brought before great men, and the diligent man shall stand before kings, but he should be invited. He should not put forth himself as the gifted, hard worker that he is.

    Another good example of working vs. waiting is represented by this Proverb: “He that tilleth his land shall be satisfied with bread: but he that followeth vain persons is void of understanding” (Proverbs 12:11 KJV). When Elijah met Elisha, the three-year drought had just ended, in which King Ahab had sent Obadiah to find any kind of pasture for his horses and mules. But Elisha was tilling his field with twelve yoke of oxen (1 Kings 19:19-21). Elisha knew how to work, and he worked the field he had. But when Elijah arrived, who was neither a vain person nor void of understanding, Elisha forsook all to follow him.

    What is your gift? It will make room for you. Be diligent in whatever business you have, too. But wait to be called up higher. Till the field you have, and wait for that person who is neither vain or void of understanding to follow.

  5. I don’t think you’re crazy at all. I’ve been accused of many things for standing solidly by my belief that apart from Christ I can do nothing. Of course I mean that I can do nothing of eternal value. Yet I’m often accused of being fuzzy and hyper spiritual, mystical, and just plain weird. I just believe that I should only do what God is telling me to do (whether through Scripture or other ways), nothing more and nothing less. When I live like this–by the Spirit–I’m much more joyful and much less stressed out.

    • Julie,

      Your comment illustrates my problem. When I try to do only what God’s telling me to do, other Christians love to tell me I’m not doing enough or I’m doing the wrong thing or I’m doing too much. After a while, all that unsolicited advice wears on a person. For someone like me, who second-guesses every single thing that directly impacts me as a person, that’s paralyzing. And then I wonder if my paralyzed state is exactly the state I should be in—perhaps paralysis, waiting, is what I need to do since the way isn’t clear.

      Or maybe not.

  6. Dee

    In our small group we have been studying this very concept through the life of David. Every time David consulted the Lord before acting he was successful. Whenever he went out on his own he really messed up.

    Then there was the time when David, having built his own palace, wanted to build a house for God. He asked the priest’s opinion. The priest, using common sense, told David that God was obviously with him and that a temple sounded like a good idea. Go ahead, run with it. But God that very night gave the priest a very different message for David. This story shows that even well-meaning and godly men can make mistakes when they do not seek God’s will before they take action.

    I have always been a proponent of “God gave you good sense so just use it and keep working until He tells you otherwise.” I now realize the folly of that course of action. Now I need to figure out how to determine God’s will. This is a little trickier for me since I have no ephod or priest to tell me what God’s will is. But I do have the scriptures and the Holy Spirit for guides.The point is, we should talk to God and listen before we take action.

    This might give you a specific answer to your dilema. But I am confidant that God will direct when you ask him.

  7. I don’t think our Apathy is a local/global thing so much as a class thing. There is pleanty of suffering people in our own neighborhoods that we ignore.

    In Mike Yankowski’s book “Under the overpass” for example, he talks about how people would walk right past him and treat him as invisible. He lived on the street for a year, and wrote an outstanding book about it.

    I think some of this apathy can be attributed to our faith in government, and our offloading of social responsibility to bureaucracies.

    I think it comes down to this. If we aren’t acting, we should be praying.

  8. Josh,

    I still think global burnout creates local apathy, though you’re right about our attitude toward Uncle Sam’s benevolence. In that, we show ourselves to be priests and Levites passing by the man mugged by the side of the road. Someone else will care. Someone else.

    At the risk of being misunderstood, I think we pray too much and act too little. This blog, in many ways, is NOT about praying, reading the Bible, and going to church. It’s about putting our life in Christ into action.

    I say that as someone who’s only ventured out of the house twice in the last frigid week, so hypocrisy reigns here. 🙁

  9. Diane Roberts

    I amen your entire post. The American Christian (and I used to have this problem BIG TIME) doesn’t get that his or her opinion is not what God centers the universe around. He centers it around His opnion, will, desires and thoughts. So, wouldn’t it be more expedient for us to find out what God is thinking, rather than always centering around what we think?

  10. Helen

    Amen and pass the potatoes, Dan!

    Waiting is the hardest part. Because you feel judged for not doing what American culture dictates and because you want to get on with your calling!

    A Christian woman I admired told me years ago if you don’t know what to do, wait and that advice has NEVER failed me. God has a way of making it plain, even when you feel paralyzed. When He finally says, “It’s time” it never fails to amaze me how everything fits like a puzzle. I went through a time of waiting that lasted years, was blessed, and now I am having to wait again.

    Even while we wait God sends us on other missions, even ones we may not realize at the time; e.g. a word aptly spoken.

    • Helen,

      I’ve experienced what you discuss, though my experience has been more sporadic, I think. That’s all my fault, I’m sure. Waiting isn’t easy, especially when society isn’t patient with waiters.

  11. Brandon

    Dan,
    We’re (Heather and I) in the same “struggle” in our church. We have several fellow staff members that seem to think that every time God shows them a need it’s His personal invitation for them to do something about it. The prevailing mindset seems to be, “Don’t just stand there, DO SOMETHING!…anything.” One of the examples from scripture of doing only what God tells you to do is in John 5 in the healing at Bethesda. Verse 3 says, “In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered,…” But Jesus only healed the one. Didn’t He see the needs of the others?

    There is too much doing and not enough waiting upon the Lord in American churches today. Furthermore, what we DO (or don’t do) sometimes gets confused with our “level” of dedication, service or even maturity.

    Great post! Be blessed…
    Brandon

  12. Ah, yes, the famous “wise sayings” (listen to Stan Freburg’s “The United States of America” sometime). I have often wondered how often that quote has led people down the wrong track. How about this hymn instead? “Did we in our own strength abide, our striving would be failing.” Back to that old scoundrel, Luther. We are unable to do good. It is not possible. The only one who is able is Christ, and He works through us when we have completely given ourselves up to Him. The only striving we should be doing is knowing and loving God.

  13. Marta Odum

    I appreciate this topic. “God helps those who help themselves” is sucha widely interpreted concept! God is certainly capable of everything and anything (but failure). So, in any situation, if a person just stood still, sat on their butt, and did absolutely nothing but wait for God, could He deliver them out of their troubles? Of course! But would He? I’m quite sure that depends, and varies from person to person, situation to situation.

    Did the person bring the problem on themselves? If I quit my job tomorrow because it’s boring and some of my coworkers are atheists, I’d better get another one right away! If I stay at home and watch religious programs and read my Bible, will God send a job to my door step? He could, but would he? Hmmmmm. I don’t know. But I don’t think I should test the theory for too long, especially if I have a family to feed.

    I think that, when faced with circumstances beyond our immediate ability to solve, we should employ our spiritual arsenal. We should pray more, fast more, read the Word more, and seek the counsel of our pastor.

    Great post as always, God Bless!

  14. Helen

    I have been thinking about my comment earlier, and the Lord has been dealing with me about waiting issues the last couple of days.

    Waiting is not passive. The Lord uses these waiting times to refine us. I am in an uncomfortable situation right now and the Lord is dealing with me about allowing Him to do what He wills despite my objections to it possibly not being what I want and the fear of loss. People see my outside circumstances and judge me for waiting, but I know I am where I am supposed to be so God can work. I have been in this situation before, and it is not easy and never will be.

    Marta is right, God deals with all of us individually. I appreciate her comment.

  15. Randy Martin

    Ps 119:133 ¶ Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me
    Ps 17:5 Hold up my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps slip not.
    Ps 37:23 The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way.
    Pr 16:9 ¶ A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.
    I just wanted to through some verses in the mix for your consideration because I have seen the evil and/or hardships that can be produced by ministries that forget God or race ahead of God.
    At the same time I have seen and experienced that damage that can happen to a believer that is not following because of waiting on the truck to start itself and drive out of the parking lot.
    Just seeking balance to my own tilted scale?!.

  16. Lee

    The story of Martha and Mary was perhaps more of a lesson in “worry”. Not perhaps as was stated earlier a way of knowing when to wait and when not too. Waiting, I have been for some time, I appy to positions that the Lord has called me to.I heard this recently, ” oil is an annointer, when God calls things run like a well oiled machine.” I know that when the time comes for me to be accepted is when it is right, in the mean time he comforts me, trains me, teaches me and I know is preparing me( I will be ready). We all have talents some we are quite aware of and some only God will bring forth at the chosen time, either way I will not act if I do not feel the goodness and grace of the Lord guiding me. The pressures of society can be quite dubious, stay in the spirit. I once heard said “work from the security of the Lord not for the security.” I struggle somedays(few and far between)on the wait, but find myself turning to the word, hear it, listen to it, speak it. My faith renewed each day lets me know that my place is where I am today, why? sometimes I may not know but God does and though I wish to question him time and time again ,his thoughts are not mine nor are his ways. His blessings continue to astound me, and should I be wrong in waiting , then his blessings I believe would not be there to sustain me.

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