God helps those who help themselves
The phrase "God helps those who help themselves" is a popular motto that emphasizes the importance of initiative.
The phrase originated in ancient Greece and may originally have been proverbial. It is illustrated by two of Aesop's Fables and a similar sentiment is found in ancient Greek drama. Although it has been commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, the modern English wording appears earlier in Algernon Sidney's work.
The phrase is often mistaken as scriptural, but it appears nowhere in the Bible. Some Christians have criticized the expression as being contrary to the Bible's message of God's grace. A variant of the phrase, however, can be found in the Quran (13:11).
The sentiment appears in ancient Greek tragedies of which only fragments now remain. In his Philoctetes (c.409 BC), Sophocles wrote, "No good e'er comes of leisure purposeless; And heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act." And in the Hippolytus (428BC) of Euripides appears the speech, "Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid."
The same concept is found in the fable of Hercules and the Wagoner, first recorded by Babrius in the 1st century AD. In it, a wagon falls into a ravine, or in later versions becomes mired, but when its driver appeals to Hercules for help, he is told to get to work himself. Aesop is also credited with a similar fable about a man who calls on the goddess Athena for help when his ship is wrecked and is advised to try swimming first. It has been conjectured that both stories were created to illustrate an already existing proverb.
The French author Jean de La Fontaine also adapted the first of these fables as Le chartier embourbé (Fables VI.18) and draws the moral Aide-toi, le ciel t'aidera. (Help yourself and Heaven will help you too). A little earlier, George Herbert had included "Help thyself, and God will help thee" in his proverb collection, Jacula Prudentum (1651). But it was the English political theorist Algernon Sidney who originated the now familiar wording, "God helps those who help themselves", apparently the first exact rendering of the phrase. Benjamin Franklin later used it in his Poor Richard's Almanack (1736) and has been widely quoted.
A passage with similar sentiments can be found in the Quran, Chapter 13:11: "Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves."
Other historic uses
- The Canadian society Aide-toi, le Ciel t’aidera (Help yourself and Heaven will help you too) is credited with introducing the celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day for French Canadians, and was founded by Louis-Victor Sicotte
- Aide-toi et Dieu t'aidera (Help yourself, and God will help you) was the motto on the ship's wheel of the famous UK-built Confederate sea raider CSS Alabama, captained by Raphael Semmes during the American Civil War.
- Trust in God But Tie Your Camel is an Arab proverb with a similar meaning. It is also one of the reported sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. According to Tirmidhi, one day Mohammed noticed a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it. He asked the Bedouin, "Why don't you tie down your camel?" The Bedouin answered, "I placed my trust in Allah." At that, Mohammed said, "Tie your camel and place your trust in Allah."
Prevalence and assessment
The phrase is often quoted to emphasize the importance of taking initiative. There is also a relationship to the Parable of the Faithful Servant, and the Parable of the Ten Virgins, which has a similar eschatological theme: be prepared for the day of reckoning.
The beliefs of Americans regarding this phrase and the Bible has been studied by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna of The Barna Group. To the statement "The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves"; 53% of Americans agree strongly, 22% agree somewhat, 7% disagree somewhat, 14% disagree strongly, and 5% stated they don't know. Of "born-again" Christians 68% agreed, and 81% of non "born-again" Christians agreed with the statement. In a February 2000 poll, 53% strongly agreed and 22% agreed somewhat that the Bible teaches the phrase. Of the 14 questions asked, this was the least biblical response, according to Barna. A poll in the late 1990s showed the majority (81%) believe the concept is taught by the Bible, another stating 82%.
Despite being of non-Biblical origin, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Seventy-five percent of American teenagers said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.
Barna critiques this as evidence of Americans' unfamiliarity with the Bible and believes that the statement actually conflicts with the doctrine of Grace in Christianity. It "suggests a spiritual self-reliance inconsistent with Christianity" according to David Kinnaman, vice president of the Barna Research Group. Christian minister Erwin Lutzer argues there is some support for this saying in the Bible (2 Thessalonians 3:10, James 4:8), however much more often God helps those who cannot help themselves, which is what grace is about (the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, Ephesians 2:4–5, Romans 4:4–5). The statement is often criticised as espousing Semi-Pelagian model of salvation, which most Christians denounce as heresy.
The phrase has featured in United States popular culture. In a "Jaywalking" sketch on The Tonight Show, comedian host Jay Leno asked random people on the street to name one of the Ten Commandments. The most popular response given was "God helps those who help themselves." Political commentator Bill O'Reilly employed the phrase, in responding to Jim McDermott who argued, "This is Christmas time. We talk about Good Samaritans, the poor, the little baby Jesus in the cradle and all this stuff. And then we say to the unemployed we won't give you a check to feed your family. That's simply wrong." O'Reilly argued for a more selective approach to unemployment benefits, and the importance of individual responsibility, concluding "while Jesus promoted charity at the highest level, he was not self-destructive. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Does he not?" Political comedian Stephen Colbert parodied him in response, concluding in character, "if this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we've got to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition; and then admit that we just don't want to do it."
- As translated by E. H. Plumptre in Sophocles: Tragedies and Fragments volume 2, p165, fragment 288. Also fragment 302 states, "Chance never helps the men who do not work."
- Fragment 435, from Bartlett 1955(?)
- For other versions see the Aesopica site
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-latin Fable vol.3, p.43
- See Elizur Wright's translation online
- George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum, 1651, proverb 533
- Algernon Sidney, Discourses Concerning Government, 1698, chapter 2 section 23 (reprint)
- Quran - Surat Ar-Ra`d. Sahih translation
- as recorded at muxlim.com
- George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: How Coming Cultural Shifts will Change Your Life. Regal Books, 2001, p90. From a survey taken somewhere between 1997 and 2000 (see p205, point 2)
- "Americans' Bible Knowledge is in the Ballpark, But Often Off Base", Barna Research Online, 12 July 2000. As cited in Marvin Hunt, "Americans' Bible Knowledge... Off Base"
- Barna poll in 1997 and 1998, as cited on websites. Additionally, "Researcher Predicts Mounting Challenges to Christian Church", Barna Update 16 April 2001, describes it as a majority
- George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church, Nashville: Word, 1998, p21–22; as cited in Michael S. Horton, "Are Churches Secularizing America?"
- George Barna, Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ. The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group, 2001. As cited online
- Barna Research Online, "Discipleship Insights Revealed in New Book by George Barna," 28 November 2000. As cited in Michael J. Vlach, "Crisis in America’s Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low"
- Barna poll in 1997, according to one website; c.2006 according to another; and Barna, "The Bible," 2000, according to another
- Bill Broadway, article in Lexington Herald-Leader, 2 September 2000; as cited in ESC, "Re: "God helps those who help themselves."", "The Phrase Finder" website, 31 October 2002
- Erwin W. Lutzer, Ten Lies About God. Nashville, TN: Word, 2000. Chapter 10, "God Helps Those Who Help Themselves", p173–185
- Christian History Project. Darkness Descends : A.D. 350 to 565, the Fall of the Western Roman Empire.
- Roger Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002, Chap. 12
- Cited in Woodrow M. Kroll, Taking Back the Good Book: How America Forgot the Bible and Why It Matters to You, Crossway Books, 2007. Chapter "Five Decades of Decline", posted on Worldview Weekend
- Bill O'Reilly, "Shouldn't We Keep Christ in Unemployment?". The Washington Examiner, 12 December 2010
- "Jesus is a Liberal Democrat", The Colbert Report, 16 December 2010
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