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

Patrick's Blog — By on February 8, 2012 7:16 am

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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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