Do you know where the saying “God helps those who help themselves” comes from?

February 7, 2012 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog

Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac quotes it, and an English politician named Algernon Sydney (d. 1683) is said to have also proclaimed it in slightly different wording. But neither man was responsible for originating this idea. Actually, the ancient Greeks appear to have coined the phrase.

Interestingly, most people assume that the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” is from the Bible. It’s not — though there is an early patristic example of its usage. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 349-407), the renowned Archbishop of Constantinople, expresses this idea in his Homily on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. He explains how this principle is true (though not in the sense that men can “earn” their salvation), insofar as God grants all human beings sufficient natural revelation to know He exists and to seek Him diligently. Speaking to the Catholics of his day, he warns:

Let us then watch our own conduct on all sides, and afford to no one ever so little handle. For this life present is a race-course and we ought to have thousands of eyes on every side, and not even to fancy that ignorance will be an adequate excuse.

For there is such a thing, there certainly is, as being punished for ignorance, when the ignorance is inexcusable. Since the Jews too were ignorant, yet not ignorant in an excusable way. And the Gentiles were ignorant, but they are without excuse. (Rom. i. 20.)

For when thou art ignorant of those things which it is not possible to know, thou wilt not be subject to any charge for it: but when of things easy and possible, thou wilt be punished with the utmost rigor.

Else if we be not excessively supine, but contribute our own share to its full amount, God will also reach forth His hand unto us in those things which we are ignorant of. And this is what Paul said to the Philippians likewise. “If in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you” (Phil. 3:15).

But when we are not willing to do even what we are masters of, we shall not have the benefit of His assistance in this either. . . . For this reason then, when [Cornelius the Centurion] was doing the whole of his duty with sincerity, God added unto him that which was lacking also (c.f., Acts 10:1-4).


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14 Responses to “Do you know where the saying “God helps those who help themselves” comes from?”
  1. GK Student says:

    I would smirk and laugh because man cannot help but being himself. The irony of the verbatum statement being read in a one-dimensional setting lacks reality. Of course man cannot help being himself (God made man to be what he is.) God wouldn’t otherwise help man if man could help himself, as well. Christ said he came to cure the sick and not the healthy (because they’re “already saved.” Right? Weren’t the forerunning Pelegian Pharisee’s saved by simply following God’s laws? Didn’t they work their way to paradise and pefection by way of the commandments and lesser laws of customs? Wrong. The context of the statement falls in the very act of God bringing about the birth of his own begotten son through Mary’s willful (catch that. Willful. Meaning, voluntary freewill offering) to the espousal of the Holy Spirit and God’s grace (that Mary didn’t earn nor make salvation but cooperated freely so that it may happen man might be saved – as in Co-MediaAtrix and not The MediaTrix – which is the Church’s duty and obligation as the espoused Bride of Christ. Though I’m terrible in my faith and only have these facts to place since I have a lot of doubts and fears and have fallen into some terrible and deep sins which my faith becomes clouded – please pray for me as I write this – I do know Mary, the Mother who was born in perfect grace unto the law {doesn’t St. Paul say something along the lines of Christ being born unto the law which consequently Mary had to partake in for the revelation of St. Paul to be true?} Mary is the Brides’ Mother-in-law and model and image of the Church to which Christ reigns in hearts of men through the means of Sanctifying Grace as Mary partook in the particular and special encounter with the angel through the Holy Spirit {because Mary is the Immaculate Conception. And our long life and work through Baptism to receiving Christ present by the same person to Whom Christ became present through Mary – the Holy Spirit – gives us the same gift as Mary but through the Church and by the accomodations which our souls need since our very state of life isn’t the exact unique identity and role for which Mary is and was born.}) Thanks be to God for Mary to which Christ was born the eternal thanksgiving to the Father who made for to include our souls through the Church – His Son’s Bride.

  2. Being a typical cradle catholic i appreciate this article. For me I have always like this phrase because in my simplistic thinking is that God gave us the gift of freewill.

    And because of this gift, even He can’t help us if we continue to reject His help.

    So for Him to really help us, we first have to allow Him to.

    So if I needed His help I first have to help myself to allow Him to help me.

    Which is how I’ve been using this phrase in my life….

    G’day Patrick.

  3. Tom Ryan says:

    My third grade teacher Sr. Grace used to say, “God feeds the birds but He doesn’t throw it in the nest”

  4. Richard says:

    “Aide toi et Dieu t’aidera”

    This was a favorite saying of the Maid in heer fight against he English.


  5. Marius says:

    I’ve read somewhere that St. Joan of Arc was fond of this saying which jibes well with her general attitude…

  6. Greg says:

    The much used and often abused saying “God helps those who help themselves” is, in my opinion, one of the most anti-Christian statements one can make. The fact is, we CANNOT help ourselves because of our human beingness and flaws and sinful nature. Did Jesus ever direct such a statement to anybody? What He DID say was to LOVE OTHERS AS I HAVE LOVED YOU. This means that, as Christ’s mystical body on earth, WE are to be the eyes, the hands, the feet, the heart of Christ to each other. God put us in charge to help those who CANNOT help themselves.

    • Well, you may as well have added that it is an “often misunderstood saying.” I say that because your sweeping dismissal suggest that you misunderstood St. John Chrysostom’s intended meaning here. Notice that he situates his remarks within the context of St. Paul’s teaching in Romans 1, showing that there are those who are “without excuse” for their ignorance because they can — but fail to — respond to God’s grace and accept his gift of faith. In other words, they are responsible for not “helping themselves” in the way that God’s gift of grace enables them to (Eph. 2:8-10).

    • Roberto says:

      What about the response of Jesus to the young rich man who wanted to know what he had to do? Jesus did not answer “Do nothing, since the Father will take care of that.” He asked him to do something important and difficult instead.

      Although the saying has probably very practical origins, his theological core is that God expects our cooperation in His work of salvation. As Patrick says above, we cannot go where God wants us to go, if we refuse to move our feet.

    • Maroun says:

      Hi Greg.
      Do you remember these words of our Lord Jesus (Matt.6:26)Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t plant or harvest or gather food into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. You are more valuable than they are, aren’t you?
      Do you think that because our Heavenly Father feeds the birds,does this mean according to you that the birds are just sitting in their nests all day with their mouth open and God feeds them?of course not . So even though it is true that our Heavenly Father is the one which feeds the birds but they still have to look for food , otherwise they will die .
      I will also tell you what saint Augustine said about this subject , when he spoke about the wise men which visited our Lord . God of course led them and they were looking . They were looking for knowledge and wisdom and God led them to Jesus who is the wisdom of God .
      So as you can see , it is very true that Jesus said without me there is nothing we can do , but He did not say that with Me (Jesus) there is nothing we should do .
      This is in my humble opinion the meaning of the words “God helps those who help themselves” .

  7. Edd says:

    Concerning Gay Marriage, I believe that it’s wrong to argue that it is a Civil Rights issue. That argument only “white-washes” the understood meaning of marriage as the spiritual union of two souls as compared to Christ in union with His church. I feel that as the State continues to pursue this minority argument, it will continue to alter the “separation of Church and State” mandate. It is another example of the State continuing to form a Secular Religion by bending to the wishes of all minority arguments.
    Is this an extreme view of this issue?

    • Ted Seeber says:

      When secular heterosexual parents are given the option, after discovery of the gay gene, to detect homosexuality before birth and abort homosexuals, the secular left will implode.

  8. Jen says:

    Yes, this is also an argument for the Pelagian heresy. Augustine claimed all is of God’s grace (which it is… but… God helps those piece) and Pelagian claimed that man’s effort is all that matters (the thus the second half: who help themselves…). Thus the wisdom of Mother Church is to find a balance in our lives- like your phrase above states. However this is a fine line between the two which the Holy Spirit happily guides us along!

  9. Jim says:

    Aesop used it (well, “the gods . . .” rather than “God”) as the moral of one of his fables.


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