Who Said That?

By Rusty Wright

“Who said, ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’?” asked Chris Matthews on his MSNBC-TV program Hardball.

Matthews had been discussing evangelical Christians’ economic views with CBN News correspondent David Brody.  In response, Brody did not name the quote’s source, but playfully protested being asked a “church history” question.

Shakespeare may or may not have been flattered.  In Hamlet, Polonius offers the famous advice to his son Laertes.

Given Hardball’s rapid-fire nature, Brody’s misattribution of the quote to church history is understandable.  Matthews, with his heartfelt and penetrating style, speaks 200 words per minute – with gusts up to 400 – and interrupts often.  The crossfire could momentarily confuse anyone.

Misattributed Sayings

But famous sayings often get misattributed. Materials at an annual national student leadership conference in Washington, DC, regularly attributed to Thomas Jefferson the aphorism, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Now, Jefferson may have agreed; he mistrusted strong centralized government and advocated states’ rights.  But Lord Acton, the 19th Century British statesman, scholar and aristocrat – born eight years after Jefferson died – is the actual source.

When I noted the problem, the conference moderator readily agreed to edit their materials.  But I had erred, too.  Acton’s actual wording: “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” [Emphasis mine.]

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” 

Even experts goof.  In Dallas’ Cotton Bowl in 1972, I remember Billy Graham passionately telling assembled thousands that the Bible says “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”  Yet, Graham’s website (correctly) attributes the statement to 18th Century minister John Wesley.

In fact, many popular sayings get misattributed to the Bible.  How about, “This above all – to thine own self be true”?  The Bard again, Polonius to Laertes, a few lines after “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

What about “No man is an island”?  English poet John Donne.

“Money is the root of all evil.”  That must be biblical, right?  Close, but the actual biblical text contains significant qualifications: “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil….” [Emphasis mine, again.]

“God helps those…?”

Here’s a common one.  A university administrator once told me his life philosophy was summed up “by that famous statement, found so many times in the Bible:  ‘God helps those who help themselves.’”  White House press secretary Jay Carney also once attributed this statement to the Bible.  Forms of it exist among Aesop’s Fables and in Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, but it’s not in the Bible.  I was surprised to learn it actually contradicts a core biblical teaching.

Certainly biblical authors advocate acting responsibly.  But on the crucial issue of how humans can connect with God and gain strength for responsible living, it’s not human effort that counts, I discovered to my chagrin.  It’s a free “gift.”

Now, this violated my sense of justice.  It seemed only fair that my good deeds should earn me a place in heaven.  Then I learned that trying to earn eternal life was something like trying to swim from California to Hawaii.  Some people will get farther than others, but no one would make it on their own.  No matter how good I tried to be, the moral/spiritual gap between my behavior/character and God’s remained infinite.

Apt Words

That’s why, the biblical documents indicate, “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us,” bridging the infinite chasm that we humans never could.

I guess the common saying might better read, “God offers to help those who recognize their need…and ask.”

What a difference.  I realized that it’s important to learn not only “who said that,” but also what the speaker/writer actually said and meant.

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.  www.RustyWright.com

Copyright © 2012 Rusty Wright

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Editors: Note artwork below.  Click on image to access image file.