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Does God Help Those Who Help Themselves?

We Say, “We Won’t,” but God Says, “I Will”

by Jen Oshman

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. — Ezekiel 36:26

“God helps those who help themselves.” This phrase is as American as apple pie. We are nothing if not a pioneering people, determined to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We consciously and subconsciously believe God blesses grit, self-determination, and hard work.

But is the old adage true? Is it biblical? In a survey of over 1,000 Americans, 75% of respondents agreed with the statement, “The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.” Of the respondents, surveyors say 40% were characterized as born-again Christians. 

While it’s proverbially true that things tend to go better for those who work hard, our memory verse this month points to an opposing truth. Throughout all of Scripture, as in this month’s verse, it’s God who takes the initiative. He pursues us.

God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). Thankfully, it has always been true that God helps those who cannot help themselves.

Ezekiel originally wrote this verse for the Israelites who were exiled in Babylon, but his good news is for us too. The promise of a new heart and a new spirit, and the replacement of our hearts of stone with a heart of flesh, is not only for exiled Israel, but for all who belong to God.

We Say, “We Won’t,” but God Says, “I Will”

The paragraph surrounding our memory verse is packed full of “I will” statements by God himself. When it came to Israel in exile, God said, “I will…gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land…I will cleanse you from all your impurities…I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh…I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees…I will be your God…I will call for the grain and make it plentiful… I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field” (Ezekiel 36:24–30). 

Over and over, God decrees, “I will. I will. I will.” 

Israel, meanwhile, had done nothing to deserve God’s kindness and everything to deserve his wrath. They had defiled the land God had given them (Ezekiel 36:17), shed blood and bowed down to idols (Ezekiel 36:18), and profaned God’s name among all the nations where they had gone (Ezekiel 36:20–21). God’s people rebelled against God’s kindness, law, and design for them. In spite of Israel’s disobedience, though, God sought their rescue, their well-being, and their eternal good. 

Even as Israel defiantly proclaimed, “We won’t,” God mercifully repeated, “I will.”

For the Sake of His Holy Name

But why? Why would our holy and perfect God bother to give us new hearts? Because God is concerned for his holy name (Ezekiel 36:21). “It is not for your sake, people of Israel, that I am going to do these things,” God says, “but for the sake of my holy name” (Ezekiel 36:22). 

Like we do today, Israel had profaned God’s name among the nations. Like our own lives, the Israelites’ lives did not reflect their holy God. Since the fall of Adam and Eve, all humans have been “dead in your transgressions and sins…by nature deserving of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1, 3). 

Outside of God’s rescue and redemption, we stand condemned, and always have. And so it is for the sake of his own name—to show the watching world what he’s like, not because of anything pleasing that we have done—that God rescues us, makes us his own, and gives us new hearts. 

We Christians are like ancient Israel. As they were, so are we. God’s generous and unmerited goodness toward his people has always been from the overflow of his good nature, not a reward for our good behavior. Time and again, God helps those who cannot help themselves.

New Heart, New Spirit

God’s promise to Israel of a new heart also came with the promise of a new spirit. Hundreds of years after Ezekiel, Jesus also pointed to this promise. After his resurrection and right before his ascension to heaven, he instructed his disciples to stay in Jerusalem. He said, “...wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:4–5). 

When the disciples pressed him for more information, Jesus further explained, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 

Do you hear the echo of Ezekiel’s words? When you and I are born again in Jesus (John 3:5–7), the Holy Spirit himself comes to live inside us and he empowers us. He leads us, comforts us, counsels us, and helps us (John 14:15–17, 26; Romans 8:26; Acts 2:1–4; Galatians 5:22–23). 

Truly, there is no better gift than to have a new heart, to be indwelled by the Holy Spirit, to have “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). But this immeasurably good gift is not for us to hoard or to keep private. It is for God’s sake. 

Jesus says we are to put his Spirit on display in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all nations to the ends of the earth. As in the days of Ezekiel, the Lord still reveals his holiness and goodness to all nations, by his Spirit, who lives in you and me.  

A Huge Relief

Our flesh and our culture constantly try to convince us, “God helps those who help themselves.” Self-determination is our reflex, self-help our very intuition. But there is simply no way to spiritually help ourselves. We all fall short and our sins earn us death (Romans 3:23; 6:23). 

When it comes to our souls, God alone helps the helpless. And this is a huge relief. 

May the promises of God to us through Ezekiel be a tremendous comfort to you and me. We deserve death, yet Christ gives us life. Our stony hearts stand condemned, yet Jesus makes them new. The Holy Spirit himself lives in our new hearts of flesh. Try as we might, we cannot help ourselves. But thank God he says again and again, “I will. I will. I will.”

Jen Oshman

Jen Oshman has been in women’s ministry for over two decades on three continents. She’s the author of Enough about Me, Cultural Counterfeits, and Welcome. Jen hosts a weekly podcast about cultural events and trends called All Things, and is the mother of four daughters. Jen's family currently resides in Colorado, where they planted Redemption Parker.

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