God does “Not” help those who help themselves

I read a blog dated January 2, 2011 called Another Child Dead, Another Christian Parent In Jail by Al Stefanelli about a woman in Florida who refused medical treatment for her 9 year old son and he died. Apparently she belongs to a faith-based healing church and was relying strictly on prayer to cure her son. Mr. Stefanelli, a self-professed atheist, talked about her actions or should I say inactions and how the Journal of Paediatrics examined a group of such incidents and concluded that in 4 out of 5 of the cases, medical intervention would have saved the person in question.
Taking the stance that action is better than inaction and reflecting on the use of prayer in dealing with sickness, I was about to leave the comment to the blog entry, "God helps those who help themselves." For some inexplicable reason, I decided to double check the saying and discovered that it is not from the Bible. What!?! Yep, it’s true: this aphorism retold many a time by many a people is nowhere to be found in the sacred book.

Once upon a time, there was Aesop (620–564 BC), a slave and story-teller in ancient Greece whom we all know today through his fables, Aesop’s Fables. These brief tales of moral education, ofttimes involving personified animals have been translated by numerous people and seem to have been known throughout the ages by many different cultures.

Hercules and the Waggoner (6th century B.C.)
In the fable entitled "Hercules and the Waggoner", we find the following taken from Wikisource. Note that this particular translation was done by one Joseph Jacobs(1854-1916) in apparently 1894:

A Waggoner was once driving a heavy load along a very muddy way. At last he came to a part of the road where the wheels sank half-way into the mire, and the more the horses pulled, the deeper sank the wheels. So the Waggoner threw down his whip, and knelt down and prayed to Hercules the Strong. "O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress," quoth he. But Hercules appeared to him, and said:

"Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel."

"The gods help them that help themselves."

Discourses Concerning Government (1698)
Algernon Sydney (1623-1683) was an English politician, political theorist and opponent of King Charles II of England. He became involved in a plot against the king and was executed for treason.

In this paper about government, Wikiquotes points out the passage "God helps those who help themselves" from chapter 2, section 23 while making the following comparisons:

  • "Help thyself, and God will help thee", George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum
  • "Heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act", Sophocles, Fragment 288 (Plumptre’s Translation)
  • "Help thyself, Heaven will help thee", Jean de La Fontaine, Book vi. fable 18.
The last comparison comes from "The Carter in the Mire", one of the Fables of La Fontaine and is a retelling of the Aesop Fable above. – Don’t forget that La Fontaine originally wrote in French so various translations give different wording in English. – The point is that Sydney, whether he knew the original fable by Aesop or the work of La Fontaine (1621-1695), had said what was a modification of the original from the 6th century B.C. which referred to "the gods" and not God per se.

Poor Richard’s Almanack (1736)
According to Wikipedia:

Poor Richard’s Almanack (sometimes Almanac) was a yearly almanac published by Benjamin Franklin, who adopted the pseudonym of "Poor Richard" or "Richard Saunders" for this purpose. The publication appeared continually from 1732 to 1758. It was a best seller for a pamphlet published in the American colonies; print runs reached 10,000 per year.

It was in the almanac of 1736 that Mr. Franklin wrote

God helps them that help themselves.

Where did Mr. Franklin get this idea? Aesop himself? La Fontaine? Algernon Sydney?

Today’s Saying
From that point onwards, the phrase entered our vernacular with various modifications and rests in its present form of:

God helps those who help themselves.

However, the saying itself does not come from the Bible as many think it does.

What does the Bible say?
The passage which probably closest expresses the idea is Thessalonians 3:10-12 (New International Version)
10 For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”
11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.

Some people quote Proverbs 6:6-7:
“You lazy fool, look at the ant. Let it teach you a thing or two. Nobody has to tell it what to do. All summer it stores up food. So how long are you going to laze around doing nothing? How long before you get out of bed?”

However, curiously enough, various religious critics of the saying point out that it is not through self-help or helping ourselves that we will find salvation but only through our willingness to give ourselves to God. Yes, don’t be lazy; work hard but in the end give yourself to God.

Coming back to Al Stefanelli
A woman refuses medical treatment relying strictly on prayer. In other words, it is completely in the hands of our Lord whether her son lives or dies. Let me discuss this woman’s actions or inactions by presenting a believer’s argument.

God supposedly gave us our intelligence. I would have to assume He meant that we should use it and if in using it, we discover such things as medicine, we should use that too. Medical science, technology, they are all part of the world; they are all part of "God’s plan". To ignore it is to ignore God. To pretend to know what God has in store for us, to pretend to know God’s plan is merely the height of arrogance and conceit. Can any of us puny creatures truly know God? Medical science has been sitting around for millennia which would indicate to me that God put it there. We were just too stupid to discover it.

Final Word
I would say the best way of describing my belief is that I’m agnostic. Ha! I want to have it both ways: not believe in God but if I end up at the Pearly Gates, I hope God’s infinite forgiveness will still gain me entrance!

Does God exist? Does He not exist? Does it matter? I sometimes refer to the Bible as a means of making a point: fight the believers with their own words. I worry that misinterpretation of the sacred texts, whether the Bible or the Koran, lead people to the wrong conclusions. I worry that extremists in the various religious and political camps are hijacking the agenda for their own personal gain and do… well, extreme things that at second glance, do not follow the "proper interpretation" of said texts.

While the following story is amusing, it also illustrates for me the idea that everything could be construed as part of God’s plan and anybody who thinks they know "the truth", is sadly mistaken.

There is a story told about a man who was stranded in his housed during a flood. A boat came to rescued him while he was standing on his doorstep, surrounded by water. But he waived the rescuer off, saying "God will rescue me!” 

The following day the water rose and another boat came to rescue the man now stuck on the upstairs balcony. He again refused help, shouting, "God will rescue me!"

Late the next day, he found himself sitting on the chimney, the waters swirling around him. A helicopter hovered overhead, a man shouting, "Let’s help you!" But the man shouted back, "God will rescue me!"

As fate would have it, the water rose and the man drowned. He arrived in heaven in a not-so-good mood, complaining to Saint Peter, "I expected you to rescue me!"

"Frankly, I am surprised to see you here," Peter replied, "because we sent two boats and a helicopter to pick you up!”

God helps those who help themselves.

Click HERE to read more from William Belle.

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