Although it may sound like a quote from the Bible, this popular saying actually doesn’t appear anywhere in Judeo-Christian scripture or text. So, where does it come from? And what does it mean? Keep reading to find out.
What Does God Helps Those Who Help Themselves Mean?
The expression God helps those who help themselves is an ancient proverb. It stresses how important it is to be able to come to your own aid and take initiative in life, and not to just wait for and rely on divine intervention, or on the help of others for that matter. It also conveys that divine intervention is most likely to come to those who take action on their own behalf and not to those who sit back and wait for heavenly help to arrive.
For example, if you want to get out of a bad situation, you need to formulate a plan to get yourself out of that situation and then implement that plan yourself—then it’s possible that a little spiritual assistance or what is perceived as a stroke of good luck may arrive. Or, if you have a goal you want to achieve, you need to work hard to achieve it and not expect God, or really anyone else, to come to your aid or just hand it to you on a silver platter, without you putting in any effort.
In other words, the proverbial phrase gets at the concept of agency: The idea that, as humans, we have the ability to make decisions and to act on those choices. As individuals, we have the power to influence the course of events and our path in this world. This expression is used to motivate and inspire people to take control of a situation and of their lives—to take matters into their own hands.
Here are a few example sentences using the phrase God helps those who help themselves:
- You haven’t been working for six months, Jenny. A good job isn’t just going to land in your lap while you’re at home on the couch watching TV. You’ve got to start applying and sending out your resume. Remember, God helps those who help themselves.
- When I was a kid, one day I thought I could just pray to God about cleaning my room and not have to lift a finger. When my mom walked in and saw me sitting on the bed, she told me that God helps those who help themselves, and that I needed to go ahead and put my toys away. She repeated the phrase lots growing up, and I’m glad she did, as it was a good lesson for me to learn.
- God helps those who help themselves, Sam: I promise if you start putting in even just a little bit of effort to get out of debt and improve your living situation, you’ll see that things will really start to turn around for you!
You may also hear or see the expression as God helps them that help themselves. There’s also the variation heaven helps those that help themselves; it has the same meaning as God helps those that help themselves and can be used in exactly the same way. The proverb is very similar in meaning to another common saying: self-help is the best help.
The Origin of the Expression
The phrase is thought to have originated in ancient Greece, likely as the Gods [plural] help those who help themselves. Indeed, versions of the expression appear in several ancient Greek tragedies. Sophocles wrote, “Heaven ne’er helps the men who will not act,” while Euripides wrote, “Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid.” Yet, the saying is often attributed to Aesop and his Aesop’s Fables, and to the fable Hercules and the Waggoner (which was actually originally recorded in the first century, well before Aesop was even born) in particular. In Aesop’s telling, after carrying a heavy load along a very muddy way, a wagon comes to a part of the road where its wheels sink deeply into the mire and get stuck. The wagon’s driver calls on Hercules for help and hears a voice from heaven advising him to first try to get the cart out of the, ahem, sticky situation himself:
“O Hercules, help me in this my hour of distress,” quoth he.
But Hercules appeared to him, and said:
“Tut, man, don’t sprawl there. Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel.”
The first recording of the phrase exactly as we know and use it today is credited to the English politician Algernon Sidney in his Discourses Concerning Government. It was popularized by Benjamin Franklin, who used it in his Poor Richard’s Almanac (also written as Poor Richard’s Almanack).
Although it does not appear as such in the Bible, there are many scripture passages that convey a similar idea. A similar expression can also be found in the Quran: “Allah will not change the conditions of a population until they change what is in themselves.”
What Is a Proverb?
The expression God helps those who help themselves is a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Discover many more proverbs and other common sayings here.
Although proverbs are thought to express a universal principle, it is important to note here that not everyone believes in the truth of this phrase. In fact, there are those that believe it conflicts with the teachings of grace in Christianity. One such person is George Barna of the Barna Group. This Christian polling firm conducted surveys that show an overwhelming number of respondents believe the Bible includes and teaches this proverb, though it does not.
The proverb God helps those who help themselves is used to motivate and inspire people to take matters into their own hands, to come to their own aid when they need it and not to rely on divine intervention, or on any one else’s help for that matter. In other words, it’s an argument for taking action and initiative and putting in hard work— an argument for self-help and self-reliance. It conveys the idea that a little push from heaven, or extra help in general, comes to those who don’t just sit around and wait for it. Although it sounds like a Bible verse, it actually doesn’t appear as written here anywhere in the Bible.