God helps those who help themselves
The phrase "God helps those who help themselves" is a motto that emphasizes the importance of self-initiative and agency. The expression is known around the world and is used to inspire people for self-help. The phrase originated in ancient Greece as "the gods help those who help themselves" 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 a scriptural quote, though it is not stated verbatim in the Bible. Some Christians consider the expression contrary to the biblical message of God's grace and help for the helpless, though in harmony with biblical calls for individual effort. A variant of the phrase can also be found in the Quran (13:11).
The sentiment appears in several ancient Greek tragedies. Sophocles, in his Philoctetes (c. 409 BC), wrote, "No good e'er comes of leisure purposeless; And heaven ne'er helps the men who will not act."
Euripides, in the fragmentary Hippolytus Veiled (before 428 BC), mentions that, "Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid." In his Iphigeneia in Tauris, Orestes says, "I think that Fortune watcheth o'er our lives, surer than we. But well said: he who strives will find his gods strive for him equally."
A similar version of this saying "God himself helps those who dare," better translated as "divinity helps those who dare" (audentes deus ipse iuvat), comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, 10.586. The phrase is spoken by Hippomenes when contemplating whether to enter a foot race against Atalanta for her hand in marriage. If Hippomenes were to lose, however, he would be killed. Hippomenes decides to challenge Atalanta to a race and, with the aid of Venus, Hippomenes was able to win the race.
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.
Several passages within the Tanakh imply a predispondence for blessing amongst those who work for themselves, including:
- Deuteronomy 28:8 - The Lord will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to.
- Proverbs 6:10–12 - A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
- Proverbs 12:11 - He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.
- Proverbs 12:24 - Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor.
- Proverbs 13:4 - The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.
- Proverbs 21:31 - The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory rests with the Lord.
While the term does not appear verbatim in Christian scriptures, these passages are used to suggest an ethic of personal agency, and taking initiative:
- Colossians 3:23 - Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.
- Matthew 5:3–4 - God blesses those who realize their need for him; and who mourn will be comforted.
- 1 Timothy 5:8 - If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
- James 2:26 - For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.
Reliance upon God is not mentioned, but is strongly implied in addition to helping one's self.
Conversely with agency, in other instances the Bible emphasises reliance on God and examples of Jesus serving or healing those who lacked the ability to help themselves, implying that self-reliance and reliance on God are complementary (See Mark 6:34; Mark 1:30-31; and Mark 10:46-52.)
A passage with similar sentiments can be found in the Quran:
Indeed Allah will not change the conditions of a population until they change what is in themselves.
Surely Allah is with those who shun evil and who do good deeds
Is there any reward for goodness except goodness?
It has a different meaning in that it implies that help in oneself is a prerequisite for expecting the help of God. An Arab proverb and reported saying of the Islamic prophet Muhammad with a similar meaning is "Trust in God But Tie Your Camel". According to Tirmidhi, one day Muhammad 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, Muhammad said, "Tie your camel and place your trust in Allah."
Other historical uses
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.
Contemporary views and controversy
The belief that this is a phrase that occurs in the Bible, or is even one of the Ten Commandments, is common in the United States. The beliefs of Americans regarding this phrase and the Bible have been studied by Christian demographer and pollster George Barna. To the statement "The Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves", across a series of polls, 53% of Americans agree strongly, 22% agree somewhat, 7% disagree somewhat, 14% disagree strongly, and 5% stated they don't know. A poll in the late 1990s showed the majority (81%) believe the concept is taught by the Bible, another stating 82%. with "born-again" Christians less (68%) likely to agree than non "born-again" Christians (81%). Despite not appearing in the Bible, the phrase topped a poll of the most widely known Bible verses. Five percent of American teenagers said they believed that it was the central message of the Bible.
Barna see this as evidence of Americans' growing unfamiliarity with the Bible and believes that it reflects a shift to values conflicting with the doctrine of Grace in Christianity and "suggests a spiritual self-reliance inconsistent with Christianity". 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 a Semi-Pelagian model of salvation, which most Christians denounce as heresy.
- Trust in God and keep your powder dry, a similar exhortation from Oliver Cromwell to his troops.
- Parable of the drowning man, modern story often told with this as its moral
- Haynes Jr., Clarence L. (7 July 2020). "Why 'God Helps Those Who Help Themselves' Is Presumed to Be Biblical". Christianity.com. Archived from the original on 30 December 2020.
- "Quran - Surat Ar-Ra'd. Sahih translation". Archived from the original on 17 April 2015. Retrieved 9 April 2015.
- "Quran Surah Ar-Ra'd (Verse 11)". Archived from the original on 26 January 2018. Retrieved 26 January 2018.
- Sophocles: Tragedies and Fragments. Vol. 2. Translated by E. H. Plumptre. p. 165.
fragment 288. Also fragment 302 states, "Chance never helps the men who do not work."
- Fragment 432: αὐτός τι νῦν δρῶν εἶτα δαίμονας κάλει· | τῷ γὰρ πονοῦντι καὶ θεὸς συλλαμβάνει. Euripides. Fragments: Aegeus-Meleager. Edited and translated by Christopher Collard, Martin Cropp. Loeb Classical Library 504. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
- IPHIGENIA IN TAURIS OF EURIPIDES. Translated by Theodore Alois. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
- "ATALANTA". Perseus Digital Library. Archived from the original on 7 May 2016. Retrieved 22 September 2015.
- For other versions see: "Perry's Index to the Aesopica". Aesopica. Archived from the original on 29 December 2010. Retrieved 29 December 2010.
- "'The Shipwrecked Man and Athena', Gibbs translation". MythFolklore.net. Archived from the original on 8 October 2015. Retrieved 9 May 2015.
- Francisco Rodríguez Adrados (1999). History of the Graeco-latin Fable. Vol. 3. p. 43. ISBN 9004118918. Archived from the original on 13 June 2022. Retrieved 27 November 2020.
- "The Carter In The Mire". Jean de La Fontaine Fables. 27 July 2011. Archived from the original on 27 July 2011.
- George Herbert (1651). Jacula Prudentum.
- Sidney, Algernon (1698). "chapter 2". Discourses Concerning Government. Archived from the original on 16 December 2010. Retrieved 16 December 2010.
- "Tie your Camel (Hadith)". Mohamed 2.0: Disruption Manifesto. Archived from the original on 8 October 2011. Retrieved 4 October 2014 – via muxlim.com.
- Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). . New International Encyclopedia. Vol. 1 (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
- Woodrow M. Kroll (2007). Taking Back the Good Book: How America Forgot the Bible and Why It Matters to You. Crossway Books. Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 19 July 2011.
Five Decades of Decline, posted on Worldview Weekend
- 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". Archived from the original on 7 July 2011.
- Barna poll in 1997 and 1998, as cited on websites. Additionally, "Researcher Predicts Mounting Challenges to Christian Church". Barna Update. 16 April 2001. Archived from the original on 22 December 2010. Retrieved 22 December 2010.
describes it as a majority
- Barna, George (1998). The Second Coming of the Church. Nashville: Word. pp. 21–22. as cited in Michael S. Horton. "Are Churches Secularizing America?". Archived from the original on 1 September 2010. Retrieved 1 September 2010.
- George Barna; Mark Hatch (2001). Boiling Point: How Coming Cultural Shifts will Change Your Life. Regal Books. p. 90.
From a survey taken somewhere between 1997 and 2000 (see p205, point 2)
- George Barna (2001). Growing True Disciples: New Strategies for Producing Genuine Followers of Christ. The Doubleday Religious Publishing Group.
- "Discipleship Insights Revealed in New Book by George Barna". Barna Research Online., As cited in Michael J. Vlach. "Crisis in America's Churches: Bible Knowledge at All-Time Low". Archived from the original on 11 May 2011. Retrieved 11 May 2011.
- Barna poll in 1997, according to one website; c.2006 according to another; and Barna, "The Bible," 2000, according to another
- Bill Broadway (2 September 2000). "article". Lexington Herald-Leader. as cited in , "Re: "God helps those who help themselves". The Phrase Finder. 31 October 2002. Archived from the original on 8 December 2010. Retrieved 8 December 2010.
- Erwin W. Lutzer (2000). "10". Ten Lies About God. God Helps Those Who Help Themselves. Nashville, TN: Word. pp. 173–185.
- Christian History Project. Darkness Descends : A.D. 350 to 565, the Fall of the Western Roman Empire. Archived from the original on 20 December 2012. Retrieved 26 November 2012.
- Roger Olson (2002). "12". The Mosaic of Christian Belief. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press.