Isn’t there at least a sense in which “God helps those who help themselves”?

April 14, 2015

It seems like a list such as this one, “7 Unbiblical Statements Christians Believe,” makes the rounds every few months. I can affirm a couple of these with only a little qualification. Even number one, Ben Franklin’s aphorism, “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t terrible, as anyone who commits to the daily practice of prayer and Bible study can attest: sleeping late certainly doesn’t help you grow closer to God! Nevertheless, it is only by God’s grace that we are able to grow closer to him—or accomplish anything good.

My point is, it’s not either/or, it’s both/and. But to reject personal responsibility would put us at odds with much of scripture, including many Proverbs, not to mention many words of Jesus, including the Parable of the Talents, for instance.

Regarding number two, “God wants me to be happy,” I would say the following: God does want us to be happy—so long as we understand that biblical “happiness” or blessedness comes only through our relationship with God. After all, Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount with the words “Happy are those who…” Paul tells us to rejoice always. Whatever else “rejoice” means, it implies a kind of deep happiness.

The Book of Acts has Peter and John feeling happy and grateful that they were considered worthy of suffering for the Lord.

Regarding number five, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” it’s hard for me to see how this isn’t true, at least for those of us who trust in the Lord: God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, in the sense that through faith his grace is sufficient for whatever we’re facing (2 Corinthians 12:9). Even if we face the worst case scenario—martyrdom, say—won’t God give us the strength and courage to handle it? Obviously, “handling” it doesn’t always (or usually?) mean coming out of a crisis unscathed, though we can trust, as Paul says in Romans 8:28, that God is using the crisis for our good.

Speaking of providence, let me put a plug for an often-scorned aphorism that isn’t on the list—probably only because the author forgot about it. (It’s been on other, similar lists.): “Everything happens for a reason.”

By all means, terrible, evil things happen, which God certainly doesn’t cause, but which he has the power to prevent if he wants. If we believe God answers prayer, what’s the alternative? If God chooses not to grant our petition for someone’s physical healing, for example, does he have a good reason or is it arbitrary? If God allows something to happen, we can only assume that he does so for a reason—even if only to prevent something worse from happening later on.

As I’ve said before, we Wesleyan Christians, in general, are so afraid of being “Calvinist” that we miss out on having a robust belief in God’s sovereignty. I find it immensely comforting, for example, to know that whatever I’m facing in life, God is using it for his purposes: it’s happening for a reason, whether we see it or not, and God is bringing good from it.

Sometimes, when it comes to my more progressive colleagues in ministry, I want to ask, “Do you think God does anything in the world, or does he just sit around feeling awful that we have to go through all this bad stuff?” How many times have I heard or read a Methodist minister, not to mention many progressive Christian bloggers, say that we can only count on God “being present” in the midst of suffering. Well, yes, God is present in our suffering, but he’s also working through it to accomplish good! We’re going through whatever we’re going through because he wants us to. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t.

Granted, in a world without the Fall, without sin, he may not want us to suffer, but given that we live in this world, he’d rather us experience suffering than some alternative in which we’re protected from it.

This blog post gives me a sermon series idea: examine each of these popular sayings from a biblical point of view and consider what we can affirm about them and what we can reject.

3 Responses to “Isn’t there at least a sense in which “God helps those who help themselves”?”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    “”Wesleyan Christians, in general, are so afraid of being “Calvinist” that we miss out on having a robust belief in God’s sovereignty.””

    Wow, That nails it!

    Fifteen years ago, when I started “going deeper” into the examination of my faith and the “source of my belief”, I ran slap dab into the non-negotiable sovereignty of God. I couldn’t work around, under or over it. Nor, could I really comprehend how it meshed with my “free will”. But, it is certain that my free will is subject to God’s sovereign will. The more I contemplate that, the more at peace I am in “making decisions” about my life. I pray faithfully, seek God’s wisdom in my choices, and trust that God will be with me through it all.

    • brentwhite Says:

      In some circles in which I run, God’s sovereignty is almost a bad word, which blows my mind because Wesley himself certainly had a high view of it.

      What turned me around on the subject more than anything was reading C.S. Lewis and, oddly enough, a Jewish Holocaust survivor named Viktor Frankl.

      But honestly, if we believe that God actually has the power and will intervene to in our lives to grant our prayer petitions or not (and even most Methodist ministers still believe that!), then it follows, logically, that, indeed, everything happens or doesn’t happen for a reason—unless we believe that God will answer prayer only arbitrarily.

      If we pray for something, for example, and we don’t get it, then we can only assume that God has a good reason for not giving it to us. It’s easy enough to imagine that he does have a good reason, given that only God can foresee all the possible outcomes and effects throughout all of history of granting or not granting our petitions.

      Do you see what I mean?

      I had an argument once with a Methodist minister who said that while he believes that God has the power to intervene, and sometimes he does, often God just lets things run according to the laws of physics. So, for example, if a boulder rolls down a mountain and happens to flatten a man in its path down below, God merely “lets physics run its course” and kill this person. God has nothing to do with it. And I said, “Yes, but what if that man’s mother was praying that very morning for his safe travel to his destination. God didn’t grant her petition. Did he not hear it? Did he not care? Did he not have the power to stop the man from being in its path at that exact moment? Could God not have redirected the boulder—not even miraculously, but by arranging before the creation of the world to have a small twig fall in the boulder’s path to steer it off its course? God could have done that and it wouldn’t involve a “miracle.” Or did God hear the mother’s prayer, consider it alongside every other circumstance happening at that moment and all future moments, every other person living at that moment and all future moments, and foresee that intervening in that case (to prevent nature from running its course) would cause some greater catastrophe later on? And if God considered all that, then there’s no way around it: even the boulder flattening the man happened for a reason.

      Moreover, any loving God in his providence can’t merely “let physics run its course” because the death of that one man sends ripple effects across all of history. His death affects so many other people’s lives—people living and not living. Future generations. At what point would my friend start believing that God’s providential care “kicks in” and God starts “intervening”?

      I hate to even use the word “intervene” because it makes it sound like there are moments in our lives when God isn’t intervening and of course that’s not true. Every breath we take and heartbeat we enjoy is a completely gratuitous gift of God. Every moment of life is given to us directly by God. He sustains us at every moment. So he’s continually intervening.

      The only theological question at stake for us Wesleyans is that God enables through this Holy Spirit one’s free acceptance of rejection of his saving grace. That’s it! When planning the future, God can foresee that one free choice and arrange history accordingly—without abridging the freedom we need to love God and others.

      This doesn’t seem so difficult to me. What am I missing? Where am I wrong?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I think I’ll pull my reply to you out and make it a blog entry. I kind of liked it. 😉

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