Common Sayings That Aren’t in the Bible

Have you ever heard someone say something somewhat-poetic, but preface it by saying, “You know, the Bible says…”

I have. We hear people say things like that all the time, and we usually just nod and accept it, either because we don’t want to start an argument, or because we actually think it is found in the Bible.

Below are some of the more common ones that I’ve heard, along with some explanations of where they might have come from.

“Cleanliness Is Next to Godliness”

Like most kids, I heard this one usually when I walked back inside after spending an afternoon playing at the park near our house. I might have been covered in mud or I might not, but either way, I was reminded that I needed to wash up if I was to get right with the Lord.

Turns out, this phrase might have been started by John Wesley, 18th-century founder of the Methodist Church. He said that by his time, the proverb was “well-known,” which means the other possible attribution by Thomas Bacon, who lived 200 years before Wesley, may be the right one.

The idea is present in the Bible, but mostly in the Old Testament. Ritual washings were a part of everyday life, and Peter’s refusal to eat unclean meats in Acts 10 is an example of such. Paul does encourage us to have “no part with unbelievers” in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17, but that’s more of a spiritual purity than a physical one. Pretty sure Paul wasn’t thinking of your hygiene when he said that.

“The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways”

He certainly does! Isaiah 55:7-9 says that “His ways are higher than our ways” and Deuteronomy 29:29 says that “the secret things belong to God,” but that’s about as close as our Bibles get to this confused-for-Biblical-but-not-really-Biblical statement. Other possible confusions may come from examples like David, who was famously ignored by everyone to anoint as king (1 Samuel 16), and Mordecai speaking to Esther about God’s providence: “Who knows whether you have attained royalty for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14).

The saying is actually a paraphrase of a 19th century hymn written by William Cowper, which reads: “God moves in a mysterious way/His wonders to perform/He plants His footsteps in the sea/And rides upon the storm.” It’s actually a really beautiful song, so I would encourage you to read it if you get a chance.

“God Helps Those Who Help Themselves”

Everything from Greek mythology to Benjamin Franklin has been pinpointed as the originator of this famous phrase, which appears absolutely zero times in the Bible. When Jay Leno still hosted The Tonight Show, in one sketch, he went out into the street to ask people to name the Ten Commandments. One person said this phrase was one of them. Ironically, a similar phrase is found in the Qu’ran: “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves “ (Qu’ran, 13:11).

The danger in believing this one phrase in particular is that it focuses your efforts on the physical, rather than the spiritual. Indeed, this idea is so imbibed within the American ethos that many believe God is nothing more than a fairy godmother. “If you work hard and believe with all your heart,” they say, “God will make all your dreams come true.”

Nothing could be more unBiblical than that.

“Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner”

I love the idea of this one, but unfortunately it’s not found anywhere in Scripture. Sorry.

Certainly the ideas are present. We should do our best to help others (Jude 20-23) while despising the sin that they’re engaged in (James 1:12-16; 5:19-20). If they’re stubbornly engaged in sin and refuse to repent, at some point we have to dust off our feet and move on, no matter how much we love them.

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