Ah, that famous mistaken quotation, that much-maligned phrase of my youth. If there was nothing else I learned from Sunday school, it was that “God helps those who help themselves” was assuredly not in the Bible. I have since discovered that its origins lie with Ben Franklin, a fact which gives my sardonic side an impish smile. If the extrabiblical nature of this phrase is news to you, well, spend a few minutes thinking about it before reading this post. Go ponder the fact that we do, in fact, live in an economy of grace where not everyone get’s what we deserve and favor is not simply doled out according to merit.
Alright, you’ve come back? Excellent. Now that you understand that the phrase isn’t Scripture, I want to spend a little time pointing out that it’s also not all wrong.
One of the things that never ceases to catch me off guard is the selective determinism with which people engage issues in the Christian life. Now, this isn’t the big scary monster of philosophical determinism, that hallmark of naturalists and (sometimes-hyper) Calvinists we use to scare our children away from dangerous ideas like the genetic causes of some sins or the fact that maybe there are designs in this world larger than you or I. Selective determinism is instead the ability believers have to conduct their lives in near-sinful negligence of the providence of God except in one or two areas, where they live by the fatalist credo of “It’s God’s will…”
As in, “It’s God’s will to give me a wife if He wants to, so I’m just waiting on His timing.”
“It’s God’s will for the world to survive until His return, so we don’t need to worry about carrying for it.”
“It’s God’s will that I stop sinning, so I wish He’s miraculously make my lust or pride go away.”
Now, let me say up front that these things might well be God’s will. Heck, I’ll one-up you: I’m one of those crazy Christians who believes God’s will includes who will be saved, their perseverance in faith, the hairs on my head and the desires of my heart. I believe that God has willed to provide me with clothes to wear and food to eat. But I’ll tell you something: this trust in God’s will has never once caused me to not put those clothes on before I walk out the door, or go to the store to buy groceries. The cops won’t appreciate my good theology when I’m arrested for public nudity, and neither should they.
The problem with the above statements is that they unintentionally engage in a theological shell game. “If it’s God’s will,” they say, “then far be it from me to get involved.” Put another way, “far be it from me to will it.” This shell game pretends that, if something is God’s will, the last thing I should do is get involved and actually do it. This pretense of humility becomes just the opposite: it becomes disobedience.
Now, of course there is a sense in which God’s will is inscrutable. I don’t know the specifics of His plans. This is why I wear a seatbelt when I drive, and why I tell people about the love of Christ without first peering into eternal decrees of election and predestination. However, none of the above statements fall into this category. Rather, they presume precisely that they do know God’s will, and then claim that this knowledge excuses their involvement.
As many people point out, one of the flaws in this reasoning is that God works through means. He uses the means of our generosity to care for the oppressed and downtrodden. He uses the means of the preached word and the sacraments to establish and build up faith. He uses the means of prayer to achieve His ends. When we turn God’s will into an excuse to sit on our hands, we demand that He work only in unmediated ways, and this is to tell God how He ought to play His own game – to demand the proverbial sign.
However, there is another side to things as well. It is a dangerous thing to set oneself against the will of God. We all recognize this in some obvious ways – the step or two we edge away from the blasphemer, the joy we take in the toppling of an unjust tyrant. However, if it is God’s will that His world be preserved and His people be sanctified, we are not just on neutral ground when we excuse our participation. Instead, we are the ones shaking a fist at heaven while thunder rumbles. Might I suggest that the lonely singleness, the sickness of pollution, and the descent into sin which often accompany pronouncements of “It’s God’s will…” are not just sorry results of inaction. They are in fact manifestations of judgment.
I don’t mean this to be a blanket condemnation of people. Rather, I want it to be an encouragement. God’s will in the world is a direction. It is paddling against the current. When we put up the oars and “trust” in God, we will inevitably be carried along in the other direction.
Instead, we must use God’s will as our hope and comfort as we step out on obedience. They knowledge that God may want to bless us with a spouse (and, if not, that He is blessing us with singleness), the belief that the forces of this decay in the world cannot overcome us if we walk as God’s obedient stewards, and the reality that God’s Spirit works with us in our hearts to defeat sin are the things which enable us to put our hands to the plow. It’s what keeps us from giving up when relationships fail, when species become extinct, and when we slip one more time into that familiar sin.
So then, perhaps there is some wisdom in noting that God helps those who help themselves. To put it better, we might say that God is at work and we are called to work alongside Him. According to Scripture, we are God’s servants, God’s ambassadors, and Christ’s fellow-workers. Our good Lord is at work in the world – let us join in the task. God is helping us – let us become His helpers.