God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.
Father Sebastian McDonald, C.P.

Does God only help those who help themselves? Or does God help only those who can’t help themselves? Does God favor those who show some initiative, some “get-up and go”? Or are His favorites the lowly and the poor, the incompetent, those without initiative?

He certainly seems to favor the “go-getters”.   Jesus’ story of God’s reward system in which the king rewards those who have invested His gift of money and, in the process, doubled its amount, contrasts strongly with his response to the one who timidly protected what he/she had received, and, at the final reckoning, hesitantly returned the same amount received initially (Mt 25.14-3). For this person ended up losing what little he or she had, and falls out of favor with the king.

Or what about the final contrast at the Last Judgment when the king rewards those who went out of their way to help the indigent and needy, while those failing to act on behalf of such folk hurt their standing with the king? (Mt 25.31, ff.) But on the other hand, the Lord belittles any attempts at self-improvement we make in our regard, like adding an extra moment to our life span (Mt 6.27). And He reminds us of the futility of our efforts at gaining His attention by adding to our prayers (Mt 6.7). In these cases our attempts to help ourselves seem without much effect, and appear even futile. The bottom line seems to be that our efforts are futile. The message seems to be that what God does on our behalf counts more than our own efforts at improving our standing.

Is there a conundrum here: damned if we do, damned if we don’t? Is the message here that, if we try our very best, our efforts go for naught unless supplemented by what God does for us. But, on the other hand, if we don’t try at all, aren’t we vulnerable to God’s reproach that we will gain His forgiveness only if we forgive one another, as we pray in the Our Father? That is, His response on our behalf depends on our own action to do something, so that, if we don’t help ourselves in this matter, He will offer us no helping hand.

This may seem like we’re caught in a “gotcha” moment, whereby we lose, whatever we do or don’t do. Jesus , however, experienced comparable criticisms against Himself, on one occasion, when His healing acts were criticized because attributed not to His power but to that of the devil (Mt 12.24), and, on a later occasion (on the cross) when He was being savaged because seeming unable to come down from the cross and save Himself, i.e., as if failure to act condemned Him to a miserable condition (Mt 27.42).

But perhaps it’s not a matter of either/or action or inaction on our part but of both/and. That is, there’s time to try our hand at something , and there’s a time to gain His help by stepping aside and letting God take action.   We recall the criticism leveled against John Baptist for neither eating or drinking, and then against Jesus for doing these very things (Mt 11.17). So often condemnation for whatever we do or fail to do implies that there is always something to be improved upon.

So it seems God is flexible in this matter. He acts on behalf of those who work diligently to improve things, and He is at hand when we fail to act. Sometimes what we do is important; at other times, what we fail to do is equally significant for gaining God’s favor. God seems equal to both situations.

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