Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves?


They replied, “We want to perform God’s works, too. What should we do?” Jesus told them, “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:28–29)

But we have our own ways of getting his work done that lets us feel better our own ability, power, and plans. The following excerpts from his article, “The Propaganda of Willfulness,” by the late Gerald May, shed light on how we skirt the command to trust God completely and, instead, help him out a bit.

May writes, My least favorite saying is “God helps those who help themselves,”…my mother used it on me when she thought I was being lazy. I can’t get away from it; it is likely the best-known adage in the English-speaking world. A poll reports that 82% of Americans believe it comes from the Bible.

But the Bible says nothing of the sort. If anything, the Bible maintains that God especially helps those who cannot help themselves.

The same philosophy has been infecting spiritual communities for at least four centuries. You may have heard it: “Pray as though everything depended on God and act as though everything depended on you.”

This version troubles me even more than the simpler form. It appears to encourage prayer and intimacy with God, but before you know it, it tells you to act as though God weren’t in the picture at all. Yet people continue to quote it without question, as if Jesus himself had said it.

They reject Jesus’s exhortations to trust God completely. They maintain that you can’t expect God to just bless you with gifts; you have to make things happen instead.

They would have you believe that Jesus was just exaggerating when he spoke about the lilies of the field, and that he was simply mistaken when he said Mary, not Martha, had chosen the one thing necessary.

Why are such twisted distortions so uncritically accepted? I think such sayings are popular because they rationalize our mistrust of God and our subsequent desire to master our own destinies.

These sayings justify our desire to have our spiritual cake and eat it, too. We want to consider ourselves faith-filled, but we are terrified of actually letting go and letting God.

We pray about decisions, but we feel we must also have logical justification for everything we do. We seek God’s guidance, but we are also compelled to look like we’re using our heads. We want to give our hearts to God, but never so completely that we might appear foolish.

But the Gospel is foolish. It’s downright ridiculous. The Good News is just too good to be true, and it demands nothing less than everything.

If we are honest, we don’t need fraudulent aphorisms to rationalize that the Gospel is too much for us. Instead, let us just admit that we cannot accomplish our own faith. We cannot help ourselves, not where it counts the most. We need God’s grace even to trust God’s grace.

And much as our willful-ness might want to deny it, God is far too intimate and loving for us to utter a single silly word about how to pray or who God does or doesn’t help. (Thank you, Gerald! Complete article at

Giv’m Heaven!—John

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