Is it true that “God helps those who help themselves”?

What do people actually mean when they say “God helps those who help themselves?” Do they mean God is more likely to get involved in their lives if they’re doing their part? For instance, will God more likely help us find a job if we’re out there looking for one? Or that he’ll more likely heal us if we’re doing our best to stay healthy, or more likely protect us if we do up our seatbelts, or more likely favour us if we’re working hard? Because if that is what people mean, is there support for it in Scripture?

There’s support for it in fable. One source quoted is Aesop’s fable of Hercules and the Waggoner, from 6th century Greek mythology. The Waggoner couldn’t free his cart stuck in the mud and prays to Hercules for help. Hercules replies, “Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel. The gods help them that help themselves.” In other words, don’t just sit there expecting the gods to do all the work, get in there and do what you can for yourself and then the gods kick in. In modern evangelical jargon it’s “God won’t steer a parked car,” meaning there has to be action on our part for God to help us. Or, that God only acts on our behalf, or grants us his favour, if we show some initiative and exert some effort ourselves first.

If that’s true, though, does that mean the opposite is also true, that God doesn’t help those who don’t help themselves? Or that if we don’t do our bit, God won’t kick in with his bit, or that Hercules won’t help Waggoners who don’t put their shoulders to the wheel?

But if God only kicks in if we do our bit first, what happens if we can’t do our bit, like we can’t pray because we’re too upset or angry? We desperately need his help but our prayers feel empty and useless. Does God not help us until we pray hard enough? But if we can’t pray hard enoiugh, what happens then?

Well, first of all God understands our dilemma, Romans 8:26, where Paul writes “We do not know what we ought to pray.” Hey, it happens. We have no idea how to pray about a situation, or we’re too frazzled to pray at all. So what happens now? Fortunately, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us.” The Spirit doesn’t wait until we can help ourselves – he’s quite willing to go ahead and help us when we can’t help ourselves. And that’s the God that Paul focuses on, not the gods of Greek mythology.

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