Super Helpful American God

November 7, 2011

Last week, White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney made kind of a gutsy move from the podium.  He quoted a verse from the Bible.

“God helps those who help themselves.”

That’s one of the most often quoted, most popular Bible verses.

Except it’s not in the Bible at all.  It didn’t take long for people to point out Carney’s mistake.  But most people would’ve made it.  And in a culture that still considers itself “Christian,” it says a lot about what we think of God.

American Idol

The questionable verse supposedly came from Ben Franklin (and from ancient Greece before him).  You have to admit, the man had a way with words, second only perhaps to divinely inspired scripture…

…Because the phrase embedded itself in American minds and it’s been with Americans ever since they began to believe they had a divine destiny.

It goes right along with the American pioneering spirit.  We are a nation of trailblazers.  We forge our own destinies with raw grit and determination.  We bend the wild frontier to our will.   We have a slightly unhealthy obsession with our Protestant work ethic.

And we worship individualism.  Americans rank number one in the world when it comes to regard for the individual.  We don’t believe in collective unity (unless there’s a common enemy whose ass needs kicking.)  When Hillary Clinton said that it takes a village to raise a child, the resulting uproar would’ve never made sense in any other culture.  But many Americans assumed she meant citizens should turn over their children to the federal government for re-education.

We believe in rags to riches stories, and if we’re willing to help ourselves, God will chip in too.

Of course, if Christians really thought about that phrase (and how much it means to us as Americans,) they’d realize how it should make no sense to them as Christians.

If God helps those who help themselves…

…Then God doesn’t really have a plan.  But He’s willing to tag along with whatever you’re up to.

…Then God is pretty much a useless accessory…like an appendix.  It doesn’t hurt to carry Him along, but it probably won’t hurt much if you get rid of Him.

…Then Jesus is pretty pointless.  Because life is still about doing it myself.  The whole death on a cross thing was a nice gesture, but probably a tad over-dramatic.

…Then you are better off trusting yourself.  You’re going to be doing most of the grunt work in life.  God will help out, but only if you make it easy on Him.

American god

Of course, if you’re really in the mood to think, you’d realize that the phrase can’t possibly be true because people have all kinds of competing motivations, so how can God help everyone simply because they are “helping themselves.”  I guess you have to assume that peoples’ intentions are generally good, which of course, we do.  We love to think that we are generally good-natured, well-intentioned creatures.  God seems to disagree.

If Ben Franklin really borrowed the phrase and helped make it an American motto, then we have to consider what kind of a man he was.  He wasn’t a Christian.  He admitted that.  At best, he thought that God might exist, but He keeps his hands out of our business.  He believed that people are better off relying on themselves because God won’t help them.

And that’s basically our American god.  A deity who is like a helpful but generally lazy friend who will probably stay on the couch until we have a plan and we ask him nicely to help out, preferably bribing Him with pizza and beer.

And if that’s the kind of God Americans worship, it makes you wonder just how “Christian” we’ve been all along.

What do you think?  Is it a harmless phrase?  Is it probably true?  Or is it a sinister lie?  Is the world today a result of people “helping themselves,” or a result of God helping people?

32 responses to Super Helpful American God

  1. Pizza and beer?

    Well, I generally go with what works. Most of us do. Therein lies the problem.

    If I help myself, then I see visible, tangible results. When I wait for God to help me… I end up waiting. And waiting. And I stand here on the platform wondering when God’s train will pull in the station.

    Then, there’s the matter of blame. When I help myself and my project fails, my fellow Christians blame me for failing. If I wait for God to help me and fail, my fellow Christians blame me even more saying what a sorry, no account, lazy bastard looser I am… And don’t think that doesn’t happen.

    So, I move Heaven and Earth to help myself–in public. While at the same time in my heart, I look to God for help, because, after all, if I succeed, He will get all the credit anyhow.

    No easy answers to this one, Matt.

    Win or lose, I lose.

    I think this is where faith comes in.


  2. My mum used this saying a lot. Along with the classic “All good things must come to an end”. It amazes me for how long I gave these two no thought whatsoever until a few years ago when I used this last one when talking to a new christian. When I said it, she looked at me in a bizarre way, and I realised just how inane a saying it really is, especially as christians. I then proceeded to retract said cliche and we had quite a good discussion about it. That led me on to rethink all the other cliches my mum used to roll out that I had swallowed for so many years, including Jay Carney’s so called bible verse…

    But for me, the question of how, where, when and why God helps his children remains unanswered. Why do some prayers go on God’s no list, whilst others are directed straight to the yes pile? Is this view of prayer selfish and one dimensional? Is prayer not a request list, but more a catch up with a trusted friend? Does God interact in a direct way with his people these days?

    Too many questions, not enough answers. Will these questions even matter one day when I stand before God, or will it be enough just to be in his presence?

    What I long for here and now is simply that: just to feel his presence. Not too fussed whether he helps me or I help myself.

    Enjoyed this post Matt. Must have. This is the first time I have ever commented :-)

    • Mike, glad you decided to chime in today. I haven’t really thought about “all good things must end” but I suppose you’re right. We just say things without thinking about whether or not they are true. If something gets repeated enough, it must be true!

  3. You really put your finger on the pulse. The proud, individualistic, American spirit vs. the Christian goal of following Jesus. Ben’s phrase is close to another, “God more easily steers a moving ship.” Both assume moving out on one’s own, hoping God “tags along” to help. Keeping one’s head in prayer helps balance the tension here. Borrowing from the Anglican Prayer Book: “I will, with God’s help”.

  4. It’s funny how people use phrases like that to inspire or comfort. Like telling someone that “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” That’s not quite what the Bible says, however it’s become a popular “verse” to quote.

    It is a little frightening of how many people today think they can go it alone. We find jobs by our own hard work. We get married, have children, change jobs all on our own. But as soon as something goes wrong – a job is lost, a marriage hits rocky times, a family member becomes ill – we are so quick to wonder where God was when our lives were becoming more than “we” could handle.

    I think we have to be careful throwing phrases like this around putting words and jobs on God’s shoulders that were never promised to us.

  5. I think we confuse the self-centered idea that God will help us reach OUR goals, with the Biblical idea that God is already at work, and He graciously allows us to help Him reach HIS goals.

    It looks the same from the outside. We are working together with God. But there is a world of difference in our focus.

    While I sometimes go to God with a list of requests, it seems the prayers that get answered the most are the ones I feel prompted by the Holy Spirit to pray in the first place. For me, prayer is often the way in which I learn to see a situation from God’s point of view.

  6. Only quotes from TCoNP are next to Scripture. all the others are imposters.

    Is it a harmless phrase? Is it probably true? Or is it a sinister lie?
    There are some things God asks us to do, and He will partner with us to get it done. There are things that we ask Him to do, and He is glad to do it.

    Knowing when to do something, and when to let Him do it requires hearing God’s voice.

    This is my experience, God can and will do things that I can’t, and if I let him, he will do stuff that I can do with an amazing touch. The rest I have to do myself as if it is worship to Him.

    Is the world today a result of people “helping themselves,” or a result of God helping people?
    Good ol’ Ben would have made a great Pharisee if he had become a Christian.

    Jesus said that he did what he saw that Father doing. That is our only job: to do what the Father is doing. But we get all hung up in the Old Covenant, and forget that Jesus himself lived under it as well. It was only after the resurrection that we can see what Jesus truly would have done – and that was speak to his people, and empower them to hear his voice. And it’s better to look at the life of Paul, because that is New Covenant living.

    Because hearing God is cultivated through relationship and not religion, some folks really miss it.

    Oh, and you can add “blessed are the poor” to things Christians like to quote that are not in the Bible. It is not blessed to be poor, it is a curse. Look it up.

    Good job, Matt.

  7. Whenever I hear that phrase, I always seem to picture a robber helping himself to someone else’s stuff or an obese person helping themselves to yet another portion of food. I think a similar often quoted phrase is “God is my co-pilot”. He is there for emergencies or to take over when I need to take a break. In reality though, I don’t know how to read instruments or fly a plane. I am just doing what I have seen Robert Hays do in “Airplane”, hoping it will be sufficient. Or maybe I am really in the co-pilot’s seat and God is just humoring me by telling me I am the pilot, until I try to wrench control out of his hands and almost crash the plane. This is a good reminder, John, to get back in my co-pilot’s seat.

  8. Just last night, my husband and I, along with a couple friends, discussed the futility of self-sufficiency. As Christians, the worst thing we can say is, “I’ve got this under control. I can handle this on my own.” That is pride pure and simple! Until we realize that without God, we can do nothing! Until we give God full control of our desires, plans, dreams, problems, fears, we’re going to continue to make selfish, sinful choices.

    And not only that, the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” goes against the calling of Christians to help those in need. While I’m not a supporter of most government sanctioned entitlements, I do believe that the Church is expected to meet those needs, not only by praying, but also tangibly.

  9. I really like the way you phrased this:

    “If God helps those who help themselves…

    …Then God doesn’t really have a plan. But He’s willing to tag along with whatever you’re up to.”

    We have all approached God this way. Instead of thinking we are leading God, we should be following Him. Which is so counter to American culture.

    Some view the following as a weakness, I believe it is wise. Yes, I may be a great mountaineer, but I still follow the Sherpa. Why? Because he knows the trail ahead better than I. When will we figure it out that God knows our future better than we do.

    9 We can make our plans,
    but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 (NLT)

    Sadly, we start so young. As kids, if we make an ‘A’ we say “Look what I did!” However, if we make a ‘D’ or an ‘F’, we immediately tell our parents “Look what the teacher gave me!!”

    We then apply this same approach to our relationship with God.

  10. I like the saying “We make plans, God laughs.” I don’t know if it is in the Bible, but it must be in the Torah, because my girlfriend’s Jewish grandmother said it to us all the time. LOVE this post. It’s bookmarked for future use. Thanks Matt :)

  11. While I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying here, I’ve seen many Christians err on the other side of things–“I’m just going to sit here on the couch (or drift aimlessly through life) until God tells me what His plan is for my life”. I don’t think that’s a healthy approach either. Like so much of scripture, it seems like the right path is a very narrow balance between two seeming paradoxes–faith vs works, justice vs grace, etc.

  12. I don’t think it is a harmless phrase. That phrase was used to keep me from getting help from God and others for the longest time. I doubt that was done maliciously. I was being taught what those who came before me were taught by those who came before them… but it is a harmful phrase. And wrong.

  13. I prefer the time-tested cliche, “We can’t do it with out God and He won’t do it without us.”

  14. Wow, Matt. I don’t see anywhere I don’t agree with you on this matter.

  15. Great post, for a couple of reasons. First, the main point you raise about who’s driving the bus? We need to keep in mind the relationship we have with God and understand that the really worthwhile things that are accomplished in life are done by seeking His leading and moving forward – a little like the Israelites watching the pillar in the desert. Classic example: the skid row church where I pastor was led by the Lord to set up a facility to provide showers for people in the area. He made it happen, but it required us to push to get the job done. But as we’ve taken a step forward, He’s pushed us further ahead.
    The other point is the need for people to know the Word of God so that they’re not sucked in by statements that sound Biblical but really aren’t. I don’t know how many times, during the building of the showers, I’ve heard a reporter say, “cleanliness is next to godliness”. But that’s not in the Bible: in fact, Proverbs 14:4 suggests one should cut some slack to the messy but productive among us (ahem). Those may seem innocuous, but if someone brings a faulty interpretation and you don’t recognize it, next thing you know, you’re drinking Kool-Aid in Guyana.

  16. Umm, American Church, we should read our Bible.

    The best answer that I’ve worked out between me and God (with the help of some excellent brothers and sisters in Christ) is that we ask, “God, what do you want done?” then go do that. And if we don’t like what God says…well…we take up our cross and do it anyway. Jesus already showed us how that’s done.

  17. I’m glad you pointed this out that “God helps those who help themselves” is not a verse. I hear this phrase so often. God is our helper, whether we help ourselves or not. Apart from him, we can do nothing.

  18. Well, “God helps those who help themselves”…goes right along with those other phrases I have heard before, that aren’t even in the bible:

    “Come as you are”.

    “Cleanliness is next to godliness”.

    “Money is the root of all evil”.

    I’m sure there are others out there, that I just haven’t heard about. From what you wrote in your post, it seems like people prosted what he said, which is good.

    At least it’s good to know there are some people out there who are reading their bible.

  19. “Prosted”..sorry I meant to say “protested”.

  20. So right Matt. I wrote a blog a while back satirizing the “that makes sense” mentality in Christianity. It touches on some of these same sentiments. We tend to look at a situation and determine our course of action based on the thing that makes the most logical sense then call that “Gods’s will.”

    If we are helping ourselves so much we don’t need God.

  21. “I guess you have to assume that peoples’ intentions are generally good, which of course, we do.”

    I kind of think that assuming is what gets us into so much trouble. I think I have 2 problems with all of this. First, if something is untrue, then I believe it is harmful. It doesn’t really make a difference if something is blatantly false or a sneaky half-truth.

    Second, I’m not sure we should be assuming that people’s intentions are always good. I don’t even assume my intentions are good. The fact is that if I think what I’m doing ok, then I won’t push myself. I just won’t.

  22. I really dislike that phrase. It is saying to billions of poor people who live on a dollar a day: Do more and God will get you out of this! Total crap and it gives people an excuse to not be charitable.

  23. I know I am a few months late chiming in on this, but wow this was so well said and I 100% agree. I know this for a fact because I found out the hard way that this phrase along with all the other “Americanized formulas” for the good life are full of errors. This phrase represents pride, good ole “American pride” and what does the Bible say about pride? I fear that this way of thinking will be our end. Unfortunately, I also fear that many of the modern churches of today either purposefully or inadvertently are also promoting this thought process through the message of “we can fix it ourselves” and God will help us because “God helps those who help themselves” (although I’m fairly certain no educated pastor is quoting that “wannabe verse” in the church, but actions do speak louder than words).

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