A photo captures a weary traveler climbing a steep mountain, with a divine ray of light shining upon him, symbolizing how God empowers those who strive towards their goals.

The Meaning Behind The Saying ‘God Helps Those Who Help Themselves’

The old adage ‘God helps those who help themselves’ is a popular phrase that emphasizes the importance of self-initiative and agency. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer:

This saying suggests that while God or a higher power may guide, bless, or support people, they expect people to put in effort to improve their situation rather than passively waiting for divine intervention.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll explore the origins, meaning, and relevance behind this common quote.

We’ll provide context around how it has been used in religious and secular settings as encouragement toward proactive problem-solving and personal growth.

The Exact Origins and History of the Phrase

Earliest known usages in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy

The saying “God helps those who help themselves” has its roots in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy. Similar sentiments can be found in the writings of famous thinkers like Aesop, Sophocles, and Euripides from over 2,500 years ago.

For example, in one of Aesop’s fables dating back to the 6th century BCE, a farmer’s wagon gets stuck in the mud. Instead of praying to the gods, the farmer puts his shoulder to the wheel and manages to get the wagon out himself.

This illustrates the idea that we must make efforts to solve our problems instead of relying solely on divine or external help.

The playwright Euripides expressed a comparable thought in his famous work Alcestis, saying “Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid. “

This perfectly encapsulates how the gods were thought to assist those actively working to improve their situation.

Adoption into Judeo-Christian religious texts and teachings

In later centuries, this concept became absorbed into Judeo-Christian theology and texts. Around 200 CE, the Rabbi Hillel the Elder from the Jewish Talmud proclaimed: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

” emphasizing self-reliance balanced with concern for others. In the 16th century, the French Protestant reformer John Calvin utilized comparable language, advocating that believers must “give yourselves to the Lord” – i.e.

making earnest personal efforts towards salvation, rather than presuming heavenly assistance.

The English Protestant cleric and scholar Thomas Fuller appears to be one of the first to express the saying in its current form in his theological treatise The Holy State (1642): “God helps them that help themselves“.

From here, it entered mainstream use as a moral and spiritual maxim in the English-speaking Protestant world.

Spread into mainstream English vernacular

By the mid 18th-early 19th century, the saying had been shortened to “help those who help themselves” or “God helps those…” and gained widespread currency outside of strictly religious contexts.

It was deployed to advocate values like self-reliance, diligence, and initiative.

Enlightenment thinkers like Benjamin Franklin later made use of the phrase to promote industriousness and personal determination as civic virtues.

Mark Twain helped further popularize it in America with his 1873 novel The Gilded Age, writing: “Heaven helps those who help themselves“.

It became conventional wisdom offered as practical advice, losing some explicit religious overtones.

A 1912 US government report found it to be one of the most treasured and often-quoted sayings in the entire country at the time.

Interpretations of Meaning and Significance

In religious contexts

The saying “God helps those who help themselves” is often discussed in religious circles. Some interpret it as aligning with biblical principles around personal responsibility, hard work, and trusting in God’s provision.

For example, the Bible verse Philippians 4:13 states “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This is seen as an encouragement to depend on God while also putting in effort ourselves.

However, others debate whether the saying has potential to be misinterpreted as self-reliant instead of God-reliant.

There are concerns it could promote a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that diminishes the importance of God’s grace and role in people’s lives.

In secular personal development teachings

Outside of religious contexts, the saying “God helps those who help themselves” is widely embraced in personal development circles.

It aligns with concepts around the growth mindset, grit, self-efficacy and more – that when we put in proactive effort, we’re more likely to see positive results and opportunities in life.

Famous motivational leaders often reference the phrase or concept.

For example, Tony Robbins has said, “I believe life is constantly testing us for our level of commitment, and life’s greatest rewards are reserved for those who demonstrate a never-ending commitment to act until they achieve.” The saying motivates perseverance.

Debates around implications for social/economic issues

There are also debates around whether “God helps those who help themselves” promotes a problematic worldview that “blames the victim” regarding socioeconomic disadvantages.

Critics argue the saying implies that those struggling with poverty, health issues, disabilities and misfortune are not “helping themselves” enough to improve their circumstances.

That would fail to acknowledge very real systemic barriers many face through no fault of their own.

However, some contend the phrase still allows space for compassion, arguing that self-empowerment is important while also pushing for more community support where greater help is needed.

There are complex perspectives around how personal effort and societal aid interplay.

A solitary figure stands on a desolate cliff, gazing toward the vast ocean below as a storm brews overhead, capturing the existential question of "why is God keeping me alone?"

Examples and Applications Throughout History

Stories of hardship and perseverance

Throughout history, there are countless stories of people overcoming great adversity through perseverance and hard work.

During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many families suffered from poverty and food scarcity. However, some managed to make ends meet through resourcefulness and determination.

For instance, the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath epitomizes the struggles of Oakies who migrated west to California seeking opportunity despite immense challenges.

Helen Keller’s journey from blindness and deafness to becoming an accomplished author and activist demonstrates how someone can achieve great things through diligence and the help of others.

Keller was struck blind and deaf at 19 months old.

Interpreting the Saying for Yourself

Reflecting on your challenges and opportunities

When faced with difficulties, it’s easy to feel helpless and wait for solutions to magically appear. However, the saying “God helps those who help themselves” encourages a more proactive approach. Take time for introspection – what resources do you have available to address the challenges before you?

Making a list can reveal possibilities you hadn’t considered. Brainstorm creative solutions rather than dwelling on limitations. Even small actions move you forwards.

As inventor Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Doing your part, even imperfectly, invites divine support.

Developing a balanced perspective

While self-reliance is important, beware of believing that outcomes depend entirely on your efforts. External factors always play a role. Strive for balance between accepting responsibility and acknowledging that situations often involve complex dynamics beyond your control.

As President Theodore Roosevelt stated, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Avoid both victim mentality and grandiose self-importance.

Appreciate interconnection with others, nature and life’s mysteries. Act thoughtfully rather than impulsively reacting.

As entrepreneur Richard Branson advised, “Listen more than you talk. Nobody learned anything by hearing themselves speak.” Wisdom arises in contemplative inner stillness.


In closing, while the encouragement toward proactivity in ‘God helps those who help themselves’ continues to deeply resonate, its meaning also depends greatly on context.

As you interpret it for your own life, reflect carefully on your unique circumstances, capabilities and responsibilities.

With thoughtful examination, it can motivate perseverance yet also reveal where support or understanding may be needed from others.

Similar Posts