Half Truth: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Cookies with sign, Help Yourself“God helps those who help themselves.” That’s today’s half-truth. The problem of a half-truth, of course is that it is not the whole truth. It is only part of the story. At first a half-truth sounds like something we believe but once we give it some thought, we are not quite sure what we are hearing.

It’s important that we examine half-truths, because the public conversation all around us is filled with them. Especially in a time when political campaigns go on forever, we are constantly bombarded with slogans, bumper stickers, common places, code words, and other forms of half-truths. If we ponder what we are hearing we soon realize they are emotional appeals not studied positions, and we are not sure exactly what they mean.

“God helps those who help themselves.” Most of the people I hear say this speak as if it is a biblical teaching. Four out of five Americans think it is one of the most important verses in the scriptures. Actually, it is not in the Bible at all. Jesus never spoke these words. Ben Franklin wrote them in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.

Of course, they do express one of the assumptions made throughout the scriptures. We are to act, not sit back and wait for God to solve our problems. We are to work hard spreading God’s love. Some of us know there are passages that castigate the lazy, such as Thessalonians warning that those who don’t work, don’t eat. Few realize these passages are always set in communities that are freely sharing what they have. Assuming the rich are sharing with the poor, they emphasize that does not mean the poor become freeloaders. Everyone is to do their share according to their ability.

After acknowledging this, I am still a little uneasy about the way people use this half truth. Every time I hear people say, “God helps those who help themselves” they are speaking against helping other people. They are trying to convince me God has given everyone the ability to help themselves and then use this to justify not taking care of the needy.

That flies in the face of biblical teaching that continually speaks of God having special compassion for the weak and expecting his people to care for them. You hear that in Psalm 82’s claim that this is what makes our God different from other gods. In this ancient song used before monotheism was recognized, God is pictured at a council in heaven berating other divinities for not giving justice to the weak and the orphan as he does. Our God claims only he maintains the right of the lowly and the destitute, only he rescues the weak and the needy from the hand of the wicked.

In other words, God might have given everyone the ability to help themselves, but human sin and accidental evil have broken some people so they cannot help themselves. Widows and orphans were code words for those who could not support themselves in those days, just as single mothers are in our time. The Bible makes clear God expects his people to set things right by helping those who cannot help themselves.

It is also interesting that I have always heard people use “God helps those who help themselves” in an economic context. And of course when we speak about money, we seldom talk sense. A perfect example is our difficulty with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Every time I have discussed this parable people’s first response is it is their least favorite parable, because it is so unfair. The owner hired workers throughout the day, making a contract with those hired earliest for the usual daily wage. At the end of the day he paid all the same regardless of how long they worked. In other words, he made sure everyone had enough for their daily bread. When the first hired complained they should be given more, he replied they should not begrudge his generosity. And of course that is exactly what we do, we resent this type of kindness.

Yet the very people who hate this parable love the Prodigal Son which is virtually the same teaching. The only difference is this one is told in an economic and the Prodigal in a family setting. One talks about a generous employer and the other a generous father. In both the generosity makes sure everyone has enough. In both some who already have enough, in one case workers who have worked longer and in the other an elderly brother, complain that they should have been given more.

I think all of this has led me to believe we usually use “God helps those who help themselves” to justify ourselves. We are saying something like I might not be a regular churchgoer and I do not pray much, but I am a hard worker. I think God gives us all we need. If everyone just worked hard to take care of themselves like I do, we would have no problems. This kind of thinking turns our half-truth into an eleventh commandment, “Help yourself.” All God expects is that you will “help yourself.”

Which leads me to what I hear when people say “God helps those who help themselves”. As someone who grew up Pennsylvania Dutch, “help yourself” had a very special meaning. All of us from many different cultures gather here to worship the same God, and I am not sure if “help yourself” means the same to all of us.

I can best explain what I hear by reporting the experiences that formed my understanding. One of my favorite childhood memories is sleeping over at my grandparents. My brother and I would wake up to hear my grandma whistling in the kitchen, We could smell her squeezing the oranges and cooking the breakfast. Eventually she would call, “Time to get up boys.” We would jump out of bed and run down to the table that was set with all sorts of wonderful foods we ordinarily did not get at home. My grandmother would laugh, spread out her arms and say “Help yourselves, boys”

“Help yourself” were words heard often in our Pennsylvania Dutch neighborhood. They always came from someone who had done everything and now invited you to help yourself to what they had prepared for you. They were spoken at large family reunions when vast quantities of delicious foods were set before you and at small gatherings when tasty snacks were offered. They were always associated with gift giving when people shared what they had with the invitation, “help yourself.” I often words like “You don’t have any sea shells. I have plenty. Here, help yourself.” Or, “You don’t any money to pay the bill. I have more than I need. Here help yourself.”

So when I hear our half-truth, I hear my grandmother laughing as she invites me to help myself. “God helps those who help themselves” comes out something like God has prepared the table and now invites us to help ourselves. Of course, that still is not the whole truth. We never get to that, but it is a lot further along than a half truth. Grandma’s “help yourself” includes sharing with each other what she had so adequately supplied. My brother and I knew we could share her wonderful breakfast. We passed the food, so everyone had enough. There was plenty for all, if we shared.

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