In a setting where there are demons and angels or the equivalent forces of cosmic evil and good, evil will go out into the world and raze villages, kill people and destroy the countryside. God, meanwhile, will be impotent and only exist as a symbolic force to inspire the heroes or they'll be the Powers That Be, incapable or unwilling to stop the rogue God of Evil. Either way, they won't have a hands-on approach.
This is to prevent the feeling of Deus ex Machina, but in-story it doesn't work well. The message seeming to be that good deities are entirely useless but evil deities can do whatever they want. The explanation for this is usually that God solving people's problems would prevent free will... but if you think about it, devils coming from another world to wreak havoc on all mankind sure is screwing around with free will and the least the angels could do is get off their bums and keep a balance.
Another explanation is that good "plays by the rules" and both sides "promised" not to interfere on Earth... but in practice, evil can lie, and figures losing a few demons to humans is a cheap price for the unopposed demons everywhere else. Inevitably, the angels only come help once the mortals have done in the bad guys, or when the bad guys have grown so powerful that only a Deus ex Machina could possibly stop them. Any celestial good-aligned being that's proactive will inevitably be eviler than the basest villain in practice if not intent, intent as well as practice, or simply quickly done away with.
It may also be that, for some reason, it's more acceptable to show the forces of evil than the forces of good. For instance, you have shows like Reaper where The Devil is a main character. Conversely, there was a short-lived show where the main character talked to God. Guess which one the Moral Guardians really brought the hammer down on? This goes hand-in-hand with some religions not wanting to display images of their deities. It might also be more about the fact that if you have good-mortals-plus-angels vs. evil-mortals-plus-demons then the battle is too even, so to have the good mortals fighting against impossible odds the angels have to sit it out because The Underdogs are always who the audience is supposed to root for.
This also may be partly rooted in the different strategies adopted by the East and West during the Cold War. The Soviet backed forces were more apt to take overt actions such as the Berlin Blockade, Invasion of Hungary, Invasion of Czechoslovakia, Invasion of Afghanistan, Invasion of South Korea, Invasion of South Vietnam, etc, while the United States was more inclined to adopt covert actions and the use of "Soft Power" to further its goals of containment. Direct confrontation would have resulted in a global apocalypse and was thus needed to be avoided and even indirect confrontations (such as those in Korea and Vietnam) were seen as highly costly. It was more effective to allow the Big Bad to be seen as the aggressor and counter them with low cost covert actions. This was especially true as the Cold War was a war of ideology where perception and public relations played a significant factor for victory.
Because so many modern writers were exposed to this and the pre-WW 2 paradigm of using covert action to overcome isolationism and apathy in opposing Fascist Evil it would be natural for them to adopt trope of "Good" working through indigenous forces instead of direct intervention.
See Also: God's Hands Are Tied, Good Is Impotent, Powers That Be, Lowest Cosmic Denominator, Have You Seen My God?.
The trope-name comes from the film The Gods Must Be Crazy. If this trope is averted (i.e. the Gods take a very active role in fighting evil), see Heaven and Hell and God Is Good.
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Anime and Manga
Slayers: There's the Shinzoku (the gods) and the Mazoku (the demons); the Mazoku often cause destruction at the most convenient time they can, while the Shinzoku often do absolutely nothing about it unless the balance between good and evil is severely tipped. One manga reveals the Shinzoku's discerning nature; this is never truly addressed in the anime or novels.
In Mind Game, God is a constantly-shapeshifting Magnificent Bastard who would rather spend eternity channel-surfing cable tv and going on dates (presumably with women), rather than bother caring the lives of individuals, especially humans, who God admits were originally created purely for God's own amusement. Apparently, his only concession to the job is to greet the souls of the newly-deceased after death, where he explains that there is really no afterlife — other than God's own personal space, which is all-white-and-bright — except a black void which spirits must endure for the rest of eternity, and your life when you were alive was your one chance to enjoy existence. If you complain about anything, particularly the life you led, God literally beats you up. However, if the will of the individual is firm enough to not only attempt escape back to existence but to be able to outrun God (who will chase you if you do), you'll be allowed to resurrect yourself, but only once.
Invoked in Dragon Ball Z. Guys like Frieza (who had conquered/destroyed hundreds of planets) are apparently beneath their notice, but if there's a threat to multiple galaxies, or the universe (such as Buu), they'll take action. Somewhat subverted in that some of the villains (and protagonists) eventually end up being stronger than the gods.
Subverted in the latest DBZ movie. The antagonist, who is the God of Destruction, mentions (after waking up from a decades-long slumber) that he was thinking about killing Frieza and is surprised to learn that someone else had already done so.
While acting as the Avatar of God's Vengeance, The Spectre can do damn near anything. However, he's been noticeably sparing about using his gifts against people like, say, actual supervillains. Apparently, there are rules. Somewhere.
The trope is lampshaded, and explored, in Final Crisis: Revelations. The Spectre and his fellow avatar, the Radiant, find themselves powerless against the forces of evil who have taken over the Earth - and not even /they/ know why they can't do anything about it.
The Ostrander/Mandrake ongoing Spectre series cleared up many facts about the Spectre-force: while it is the literal embodiment of God's wrath, it is not allowed to roam free, but must be bound to a mortal soul, who in turn decides how to use its power. But most of this seems to have been forgotten in recent years; for example during the Infinite Crisis miniseries the Spectre, now without a host, sought to ironically kill anyone he could find regardless of their crimes severity (i.e a kid stealing $6 from his mother is drowned in change). He then caused mass destruction (being an unwitting pawn of some villains) and God only stopped it after it caused the end of the 9th Age of Magic (by killing off the Lords of Order and Chaos.)
The DC Universe in general suffers badly from this: God (aka as The Presence) is known to exist, but only acts when he feels like it. Meanwhile numerous demon lords come and go from Hell almost freely.
Lucifer left Hell because he felt like it, a far cry from his imprisonment back in Dante Alghieri's day. In The Sandman, all God does about this is damn two more angels to look after the place.
The implication was that Lucifer was imprisoned in Hell, not by the power of God but his own pride that wouldn't allow him to admit that he wasn't there of his own free will. In The Sandman continuity this applies to everyone in Hell; anyone, damned or demon can leave the place at any time if they really want to, but most are too tied up with their guilt or hate to realize this. This also applies to Remiel, one of the two angels sent down in Lucifer's replacement, but not Duma who knows exactly what the deal with Hell is, but stays there anyway.
Just take a look at some Chick Tracts. Satan is all over the place, ready to corrupt the nonbeliever (i.e., anyone who doesn't subscribe to Jack Chick's particular interpretation of Christianity), occasionally in a very thin disguise, while God is basically sitting on his throne waiting for them to say the prayer at the end of the tract. Sure, occasionally he sends some angels around to try to save the hapless heathens, but they're not very good at it. To the extent that the most useful tool in their bag of tricks appears to be tripping old ladies.
Taken literally in Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, after Johnny dies. He ends up in heaven and meets God, depicted as a balding fat apathetic little gnome in a recliner, who explains that he created the universe and now needs some downtime.
This trope motivates the entire plot of Preacher. When Jessie Custer is given the power of The Word, a combined demonic/angelic force, he learns that God has abandoned his post in heaven and left humanity to fend for itself. He's slumming somewhere on Earth, so Jessie rounds up some friends and begins a quest to find the Almighty and tell him to get back to work.
Valhalla: Odin frequently qualifies as this. In "The Golden Apples", Odin and Loki knowingly hang back and let Thor go through the hassle of capturing their meal by himself. When Roskva asks Tjalfe why Odin doesn't help, Tjalfe says that Odin's a king and kings don't have to work. Roskva then asks if Loki is a king, too.
A weird variation in With Strings Attached. Although the Dalns gods will do minor things like look into whether they can send the four home, they repeatedly refuse to restore the skahs paradise by restocking Baravada with monsters—the one thing the skahs really want.
The reason for this is that the Dalns gods have finished running the continent into the ground and are not interested in doing anything big (i.e., costly) any more. In fact, they've been wanting to abandon C'hou but can't because they would then have to pay a big penalty. Luckily for them, restoring the Vasyn means C'hou passes into the hands of the Pyar gods.
In Constantine, God and the Devil have made a bargain to not interfere directly in the mortal world (the "Balance"). Lucifer's half-demons are constantly breaking this rule, but they aren't punished by God, angels or even half-angels — they're deported back to Hell by John Constantine.
Pretty much every film about demon possession or malevolent spirits.
Invoked repeatedly in the Oh, God! movies. Whenever God is asked why He doesn't simply solve the world's problems with his omnipotence, He simply handwaves it as something people must do for themselves.
In Time Bandits the Supreme Being is asked by the only human being around why he allows Evil. He seems confused by the question but finally replies "I think it has something to do with free will."
Apparently there's an old Chinese tale about how the lesser gods demanded some human be punished for an outrageous act of blasphemy. The Boss God points out that if he interferes in this case, he'll be expected to interfere in others or everyone will think he's losing his grip. But when something bad happens to the human (as it does to everyone eventually) people will say "Well the gods might take their time about it, but they always get their revenge!"
The whole point of Deism. Basically, an almighty figure made the universe and all. Then he did nothing afterwards.
Which is sort of the point. In European Enlightenment thinking they wanted a way to acknowledge God and science. This allows the existence of God without interference from demons and such. The point also for those who think mankind should be able to stand on its own without interference from the divine.
Goes as far back as Milton's Paradise Lost: Satan can easily be taken to be the protagonist of the narrative, simply because he actively devotes himself to the goal of corrupting mankind, which involves an arduous journey to Earth, exploring Paradise and the rest of Earth, and looking for ways to tempt Adam and Eve. In contrast, God and the Son are content to sit in Heaven and reassure the audience that Satan will fail in the long run because no one can outwit God. They do send a couple of angels to warn Adam and Eve about Satan and later to show the consequences of their Fall, but one would think that taking decisive action to prevent Satan from entering Paradise or even leaving Hell in the first place would have been far more productive.
A justification is God is respecting human free will. Satan doesn't force the humans to do anything and they were forewarned. Humans have to accept at least a little responsibility for their actions.
Subverted in The Odyssey where Pallas Athena steps in a number of times to help Odysseus.
In The Silmarillion, the Valar pretty much sit out most of the First Age. By the time they finally intervene, Morgoth completely controls Beleriand.
Which definitely qualifies them as Neglectful Precursors. Even Tolkien himself had to admit this, and try to write his way out of that accusation.
This is at least in part punishment for Fëanor in particular and the Noldor elves in general. Had Fëanor let the trees be restored, had the Noldor not taken up arms against the other elves and returned to Middle-Earth to build kingdoms for themselves, everything could have gone so much better.
In the very first version (The Book of Lost Tales) this was intended to be seen as a failing of the Valar. As the Silmarillion evolved and the Valar became less like morally ambiguous Greek gods and more like archangels, this was changed. In the final version, their first wars with Morgoth did so much damage (shattering continents, lifting up mountain ranges) that they could not release their full powers against him without causing an End of the World as We Know It , which would have been rather counterproductive. They had to wait till he squandered his powers sufficiently that he could be defeated with less extreme means. (Even so, that battle - the War of Wrath - * still* sank Beleriand, an enormous area of land larger than all the countries in Lord of the Rings put together.
At one point in the story, Ulmo actually demands to know why they aren't doing anything to directly help Middle-Earth. Mandos then decrees that the Valar may only intervene when emissaries from both Elves and Men request it. (Even more of a Jerk Ass move than it looks, since at this point the Valar have set up a cordon of islands and enchantments that make it all but impossible for any such emissaries to reach Valinor.)
Their being lazy is defied in the story itself, which claims they are active. They did after all create the sun and the moon, after the two trees had been poisoned. Manwë would also send the Great Eagles when he wished to intervene.
Eventually, faced with the corruption of the Númenóreans in Akallabêth by Sauron, they call on their creator to save the world from Sauron and Ar-Pharazôn, as they could not defeat them without destroying the world. Eru intervenes, moving Valinor away from the rest of the world (possibly limiting their influence to a significant degree) and sinking Númenor, a country perhaps as big as France, beneath the waves. It only delays things.
This carries over into The Lord of the Rings; this time around, the Valar pitch in just enough help to bring down Sauron, most notably sending Gandalf to Middle-Earth. note They also sent Saruman, who turned into a major force for evil that almost counterbalanced the help offered by Gandalf, and at least two other wizards who, as far as anyone can tell, disappeared without a trace and didn't do anything at all.
Oromis: Ask yourself this Eragon: If gods exist, have they been good custodians of Alagaesia? Death, sickness, poverty, tyranny and countless other miseries stalk the land. If this is the handiwork of divine beings, then they are to be rebelled against and overthrown, not given obeisance, obedience, and reverence.
Mercedes Lackey's Heralds of Valdemar novels have expanded to the point where the Shin'a'in Goddess and the Karsite God (along with a bajillion other names for them) are the two world deities, who refrain from direct action in the world unless absolutely necessary. The argument is that humans wouldn't have freedom if the gods were too active.
Even animal gods are subject to this one. In Mary Stanton's novel, The Heavenly Horse from the Outermost West, the horse god Equus and his heavenly court must respect a Balance with the Dark Horse and his minions. Neither can interfere in the world unless the other has broken the Balance first.
In The Wheel of Time, The Dark One mostly is a Jerkass who encourages in-fighting between his top followers over who gets to be his right-hand minion. But he does occasionally have their back, such as resurrecting some of his followers from the dead, though when it comes to Balthamel's resurrection, he's still a jerkass. The Creator (a.k.a God), on the other hand, never interacts with any of the characters directly, and while it's possible that he may be responsible for some of the actions of the plot (e.g. resurrecting the Dragon and the Heroes of the Horn), this is never actually proven.
This was a specific agreement-breaker in Eoin Colfer's The Wish List: an angel and devil both promised not to interfere with goings-on on Earth. The angel kept his end of the bargain; Beelzebub not so much.
This is the main theme of many of the Incarnations of Immortality books. The characters assume God isn't acting because he's following the rules, except it turns out that God is not acting because he's busy admiring his own magnificence, and that all of Satan's Evil Plans are part of a Batman Gambit trying to get him to act (hence Satan Is Good). Eventually the mortal governments of the world impeach God and boot Him out of office. No, really.
The two fairly benevolent faiths of A Song of Ice and Fire, even the one with actual power, never seem to do anything for their followers. Meanwhile, the faiths with a high emphasis on human sacrifice, particularly the church of R'hllor, are out destroying wombs, toppling kings, reversing death, and otherwise shoveling extra manure into the Crapsack World that is Westeros.
Although given how most of R'hllor's miracles work, it is possible that a lot of it is blood magic. It's also worth pointing out that the faith of R'hllor claims that it is the only thing standing between humanity and complete annihilation, and given how little most of humanity seems to care about the Eldritch Abominations amassing north of the Wall, they may even be right.
In the Ea Cycle series, all of the planetfuls of powers of goodness stay out of Ea, even though the fate of the entire universe is at stake.
The Redemption of Althalus inverts this. Althalus' live-in goddess Emmy and lover might not be busting out the orbital smite-rays on his enemies, but she does provide him with immortality, powerful magic, team mates, and resources (such as a house that can open doors to anywhere) to defeat any enemy. Oh, and she even lets him keep armies in the house, marching around so they can be deployed at a moment's notice. Meanwhile, the god supporting the bad guys prefers to just terrify them and be a jerk.
The Belgariad and its sequels and prequels, however, justify playing it dead straight by having the gods actually leave the friggin' planet because The Chosen One will need it to finish The Prophecy, and if they fight Torak they'll go and destroy the world.
In The Elenium, while the less powerful Styric and Trollish gods both actively help out, with many characters being granted magical powers by a Styric goddess, the Elenian god, who is acknowledged as being real and incredibly powerful by the other gods, never does anything at all. To such a degree that some of his worshipers also pray to a Styric goddess for the aforementioned magical abilities.
Lampshaded in the Tamuli, where one of the high-ranking members of the church of the Elenian god muses to himself that they might not have had to go outside their faith to other gods to begin with if they had just thought to ask their own god if he could grant similar powers in the first place.
Dragon Lance. The gods of evil are always up to something, while the gods of good are strangely non-active and non-vigilant. They're apparently not asleep or distracted from the state of the world or anything, but they curiously do absolutely nothing to stop the forces of evil or alert the good races that something's up before The Empire has nearly conquered the world. Heck, they don't even step in to tell the elves to stop being racist pricks — maybe even the godsCan't Argue with Elves.
One particularly painful example of this from the original trilogy: At one point, Paladine, arguably the most prominent god of good in the setting, who has in fact been quietly helping the protagonists along in disguise, shows up to sternly lecture a silver dragon for... well... basically trying to do much the same thing. Never mind that the oath she broke in the process was made by the good dragons a) under duress b) to the forces of evil who c) had just stolen all their eggs to blackmail them into staying out of the fight and d) never actually bothered to return said eggs afterwards. (Which, as we find out not too long after, was because e) they were too busy using those eggs to breed new minion monsters for their own armies...) Thus, this probably also makes a fine example of Lawful Stupid behavior on Paladine's part.
In nearly all of Stephen King's novels that have supernatural elements, "The White"/"Purpose"/God has a strong DIY ethic when it comes to fighting evil. It will assist the human protagonists, occasionally giving them special power in the process, but does not appear to have any equivalents to Randall Flagg, The Crimson King, It, Dandelo, etc who actually do anything to fight evil directly. For example:
IT: the Turtle is implied to be stronger than It, but openly says he'll take no part.
Insomnia: One of the Bald Men actually says that "Purpose" prefers to have people deal with the problems instead of taking care of them itself.
The Stand: This trope comes and goes. There is someone who looks a little like the counterpart to Flagg, but in the end she seems to be condemned for the sin of pride, whilst Flagg is preparing to attack the good guys. Then in a literal Deus ex Machina, the nuke Trashcanman returns to Flagg is detonated by some sort of divine manifestation, when Flagg uses his powers in serious reality violating ways.
The gods of Discworld, with occasional exceptions (like Offler and post-Small Gods Om, who've acquired some wisdom), aren't lazy so much as clueless. Gods don't need to think, they have worshippers to do that stuff for them. Playing dice with the universe — or the life of some poor sap they picked at random from their set of game pieces — is loads more entertaining than answering prayers and so on.
"But if you've been down here as a tortoise, who's been answering the prayers? Who has been accepting the sacrifices? Who has been judging the dead?''
"I don't know. Who did it before?"
In Between the Rivers by Harry Turtledove, every city is ruled by its own god, and the city of Gibil is ruled by a god whose main characteristic is his laziness. This means that the men of Gibil have much more freedom, and have to do much more thinking and working for themselves, than all the surrounding cities, which are ruled by gods who are more interventionist.
In Everworld, the Egyptian gods no longer do anything, because they are so obsessed with ritual that they literally just stand around like statues as their priests pray to them. Because of this and the Pharaoh's mental retardation, the country has become so weak that it's easily blockaded by the dwarves and conquered by the Amazons, until Sobek, the one god unaffected, comes out of exile.
The other gods tend to be pretty lazy too, though to varying degrees. The Greek gods, for example, are one of the most powerful pantheons, but most of them just lounge around or bicker like house cats, even when Ka Anor's army is at the foot of Mt. Olympus. It takes Athena and the protagonists quite a while to convince them that they need to do something other than just "show favor" to mortal heroes.
Merlin notes that while Huitzilpoctli is terrifyingly powerful when he's hungry for human hearts, once he's full all he can pretty much do is sit there and wait until he's hungry again. War gods tend to be pretty dull, apparently.
In Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories, Conan knows perfectly well not to expect anything from Crom, even though he regularly swears by him. Crom isn't precisely lazy, per se — he "breathes the power to strive and slay into a man's soul" at birth according to Cimmerian myth (as related by Conan in "Queen of the Black Coast") —, but he hates to be bothered by mortals asking for even more than what he's already given them and so generally leaves them alone to succeed or fail on their own merits.
Zeus/Jupiter of Percy Jackson and the Olympians is like this mainly due to pride. He prefers to sit on his throne and ignore a problem until left with no choice but to act. The others are more mixed. Some have the sense to fully act at least when their own interests are on the line by aiding heroes and others like Hades have full time jobs. Its been stated that the Fates and various rules prevent the gods from necessarily intervening more.
In the Star Trek: Millennium trilogy, the pah-wraiths are far more proactive than the Prophets. This is actually justified - the Prophets' best bet for protecting the universe is to keep their distance and remain apart from the mortal/temporal realm, while the pah-wraiths want to bridge the distance and reunite the two celestial temples, even though it means destroying creation.
According to the Great Book in Who Fears Death, the goddess Ani is this, having half-created the world (but not the sun), and then gone to sleep for centuries before finishing the job.
Live Action TV
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are notorious examples. The planet is filled with multitudes of incredibly dangerous demons (to the point where a superpowered demonic virus in human form is considered mundane), rampant evil deeds and potential apocalypses are common, hell dimensions have frequent recruiting and even their deities are known to take a stroll on Earth with impunity, yet representatives of The Side Of Good are almost nowhere to be seen. The best the Powers That Be do is send infrequent, frustratingly vague visions to a single person and even The Slayer was eventually revealed as an entirely human invention that used demonic powers. A Crapsack World of the highest order because those in power either use humans as toothpicks or don't care about them at all.
And as noted in the trope description, the one divine being who decided to come and try to fix the world for humanity (Jasmine) did so by very... questionable means. She's not really one of the Powers That Be, claiming to pre-date them. She's a being of Order that could have brought unity and peace to the world, at the expense of free-will and individuality.
This seems to be the case as of Season 4 of Supernatural, according to Castiel, the resident angel.
As it turns out God was there the whole time in the form of Chuck. The reason he didn't directly interfere more than once was because he wanted the "story" to be interesting, and a Deus ex Machina is not the greatest storytelling technique out there.
This also appears to be the role of the Time Lords on Doctor Who. They see the Doctor as something of a rebel because he interferes in history to save people. (It's eventually explained that they've learned the hard way that they're not perfect and that trying to help out can make things much worse: an excuse that's not available to God.)
While not gods exactly, the Ancients of Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis are a good example, as they have Ascended to a Higher Plane of Existence. Their belief in free will, coupled with their higher understanding of the universe making earth's troubles seem insignificant results in them enforcing a law of non interference, even if the fate of an entire galaxy is at stake. Notably, not all Ancients feel this way, such as Oma Desala, Merlin and Morgan Le Fay, but most of those who want to help are kept in check by the rest.
They do earn credit for (passively) holding the Ori note another group of super-powered ascended beings with the exact opposite opinion, i.e. "We are powerful, worship us or die!" in check, having kept them from finding out about the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. We just never actually see that.
On Babylon 5, while the Shadows are quite active the Vorlons seem more interested in being mysterious. Then again in the end the Vorlons turn out to not exactly be good.
And then there was Lorien, who basically sat for a million odd years at the bottom of a pit, twiddling his non-corporeal thumbs....
In Bibleman they show the villains doing things like actually having a cell phone conversation with "The Master" and repeatedly coming back from the dead, but there appears to be only one time God steps in to help his champion (the Rage movie).
In the original Battlestar Galactica, the "angels" on the Ship of Light explain why they don't stop Count Iblis, a renegade member of their order. "Because we cannot interfere with freedom of choice. Yours, his, anybody's." However, they did tend to abduct several Galactica viper pilots for whatever reason. They also later recruited Apollo to save an Earthlike world from destroying itself. So, obviously, they're not above using agents to interfere since the agents would have to be acting out of their own choice. And with Ibis, they prevent him from using his powers on anyone who rejects him. He can only use his powers for people who freely accept him. If they refuse he is not allowed to kill them or anything else.
Knights of Cydonia by Muse: "I'll show you a god who falls asleep on the job."
God Was Never On Your Side by Motörhead: "If God is wise, why is he still, When these false prophets, call him friend, Why is he silent, is he blind!? Are we abandoned in the end?"
Exalted averts, subverts and plays this trope straight. Creation and Heaven are populated by numerous, constantly busy deities of varied levels of power, all of which are interested in both protecting their portfolio and defending their worshipers, which is part of their jobs. However, they are constrained by the rules of the Heavenly Bureaucracy as well as the agendas and actions of other deities. And then you have the Incarnae, the Lords of Heaven and the Mightiest of Deities, who are so engrossed with the Games of Divinity they can no longer be bothered to do anything else, leaving their most basic tasks to their own avatars.
Of course, among the multitudes of gods (both Celestial and Terrestrial), there are quite a few who really are just lazy (or terribly corrupt). Quite a few gods are more active in messing around with Creation than the actual demons are.
The SourcebookGlories of the Most High goes into detail on the character and motives of the Incarnae, including sections detailing how they continue to deal with their duties and their responses to prayer.
The Chaos Gods of Warhammer versus any other possible deity in the setting.
It seems like the 'good' gods are just more subtle; even characters in the setting have noted that ridiculously powerful heroes are always born at exactly the right time to be around to barely beat Chaos again. The Chaos Gods are supposedly at the brink of winning, but they have been for THOUSANDS of years. They aren't exactly shirking, either.
The black library book Liber Chaotica gives a fairly reasonable explanation for why the regular Gods and Goddeses are so less apparent than those of Chaos; unlike the Chaos gods who tend to favour individuals and have the obvious advantage of control of the chaos gates at the poles, the other Gods have countered this by dispensing their favour upon their followers as a gestalt whole. Therefore while Chaos has singular champions who can slaughter hundreds, the forces of Sigmar, Ulric the Lady etc give out favour in smaller amounts to all those who fight for them, thus giving the armies of the Old World the courage and strength to hold back the hordes of the North. Singular champions appear vary rarely, i.e. Valten, but when they do they're damn powerful.
In Werewolf: The Apocalypse, the Wyld has done little or nothing to counter the destructive actions of the Weaver and the Wyrm. The narrator of the Corax tribebook snarks that the Wyld was off "picking his toes" when the Weaver imprisoned the Wyrm in her web. However, some source material suggests that the Wyld has insufficient sentience to act, unlike the Weaver and the Wyrm.
A non-divine parallel is found in Wraith: The Oblivion: after death, the negative and self-destructive parts of the wraith's psyche is separated (though this does not affect the rest of the wraith's personality in any appreciable way) and becomes the Shadow, an Enemy Within trying to push the character into oblivion. The counterpart to the Shadow is the Eidolon, representing a higher ideal... except it never does anything active beyond providing bonus dice to survive Harrowings, and isn't even available unless you spend background points to buy one in the first place.
Dungeons & Dragons plays with this depending on setting. In the original Greyhawk setting, the gods were bound by a mutual non-aggression pact, as the last time they got active in the world and fought among themselves, nearly everything was destroyed. As a result, any time a god takes direct action in the world, they're granting a major enemy permission to do exactly the same - and most often what happens is a more powerful god on the other side intervenes to put a stop to the first god. Other settings have since assumed similar justifications or made up their own:
The Forgotten Realms has an overgod who forces the other gods to stay hands-off on the world, preventing mass destruction from constant divine meddling.
In Planescape, gods on the Outer Planes are masters of reality in their home realms, but lose a lot of power outside of their realms or planes and even more when they step into another god's realm. Even for gods, going where you're not wanted is almost asking to get slapped around. Instead, gods employ proxies, previously-mortal servants imbued with a spark of divine power who act as their representatives. As well, the city of Sigil is barred to all gods by the mysterious Lady of Pain. This once was not the case, but then she killed the only god permitted in the city after one of her servants began to worship him.
In Eberron, the gods of the Sovereign Host and the Dark Six may not even exist. Clerics gain spells from devotion to the gods, but then again clerics can gain spells from devotion to an impersonal principle such as Justice. The other faiths aren't really focused around gods, but are cults to impersonal forces and powerful non-divine beings, such as dragons or undead ancestors; or are more philosophies about bringing change to the world. Not even angels nor fiends can honestly claim to have met the gods.
Philemon, from Persona series, is the ultimate mass of all positive and benevolent emotions and acts in humanity. He's locked in an eternal war with Nyarlathotep, his Evil Counterpart, who's born of all evil acts and thoughts of humanity. Likes to empower kids and send them to do the job.
The latter case was used in Diablo II, where Archangel Tyrael is considered somewhat of a rogue by the rest of the Council of Angels for meddling in mortal matters an unseemly amount of the time, including once engaging both Diablo and Baal by himself.
However, given how the whole long history of the soulstones tends towards Nice Job Breaking It, Hero, the other angels may have a point.
We also have Trag'oul, the closest thing to a god that's been introduced in the franchise. In the Sin War trilogy, a series of prequel novels, Trag'oul limits his involvement because he doesn't want the angels and demons to learn of his existence. By the time he decides that the situation has deteriorated enough for him to step in, he's forbidden from doing so by other entities apparently similar to him.
The tendency continued in Diablo III - the divine Angiris Council refuse to get involved in the war between human and demons at all until the heavens themselves are invaded by Diablo. Once again, only Tyrael, the Archangel of Justice, is interested in lending a hand - and he is put on trial for 'breaking the rules' and chooses to discard his immortality and become human rather than be forced to sit on his hands like the rest of the angels. And while there's quite a bit of Nice Job Breaking It, Hero involved in the ending, one cannot help but imagine that things would've never gone that far if the angels had been willing to lend a hand instead of forcing the humans to adopt untested and risky methods of demon-slaying in a desperate bid for survival...
In The Elder Scrolls, the influence of the Daedra is usually much more apparent than that of the nine gods. However, not all Daedric Princes are evil, some are good or neutral (Azura and Sheogorath respectively, just to name 2). Similarly, the Daedric Princes are limited in their ability to intervene directly, usually requiring mortal help or agents. Just like the divines.
This is similarly acted on in Morrowind. The walking gods of the Tribunal are weakening, and the 'devil' Dagoth Ur is getting stronger. Two of the three in the Tribunal have seemingly gone insane, and the third, Vivec, has dedicated his remaining divine power to maintaining the Ghostfence, a barrier against Dagoth Ur's army, and ensuring the floating moon over his city doesn't complete its fall.
To give an idea how much their power had waned: Originally the Ghostfence was a complete dome over the Red Mountain. By the time of Morrowind it's a twenty-foot fence.
This is lampshaded in Oblivion with two god-hating NPCs: Else God-Hater, a Nord in Skingrad who declares that 'The gods don't do a damn thing. Do they even exist? How could anyone tell? Daedra Lords, sure. They exist. They do things. Bad things, mostly, but things you can see.', and Ulene Hlervu, a Dunmer in Cheydinhal who asks you 'You worship the Nine Divines, perhaps? Have they ever helped or harmed you? Of course not. Now, worship a Daedra Lord, and you get effects... bad ones, of course, but clear and measurable effects.' The Nine Divines get their own back in the Knights of the Nine expansion, though. In the end quest, you die fighting the Big Bad and the gods are good enough to resurrect you. A friendly NPC declares this 'undeniable proof of the strength and the might of the gods we serve!'
A very, very important point in the metaphysics of the Elder Scrolls world... Daedra are functionally immortal. They will exist for the whole of time, and things like having their physical manifestation slain or bound into a weapon are only temporary setbacks. The Aedra are mortal, and can die. So for all their power, they have so much more to lose than the Daedra, and (quite sensibly) would have a far greater aversion to directly acting against their enemies.
In Skyrim, Akatosh (and possibly Talos) do take steps to protect Nirn, by arranging for the Dragonborn to arrive in Skyrim at the same time as Alduin returns to the world.
In Mortal Kombat, while the Elder Gods give each realm a "protector god" to watch over their charges and defend them against supernatural threats, in reality they're powerless to do their job; most of the threats that the protector gods are supposed to help defend against are from out of realm eager to conquer the little piece of reality they're supposed to be watching over, and they have no jurisdiction - or powers - once that happens. Plus, the Elder Gods are more likely to yank the gods from the front lines than to, y'know, let them do their jobs, thanks to their overdeveloped Obstructive Code of Conduct of non-interference. The most any god can do, without outright rebelling, is to train mortal warriors to deal with the oncoming threats, themselves.
Taken to ridiculous extremes in Mortal Kombat 9. When Raiden and Liu Kang ask them to stop Shao Kahn's blatant rule breaking and Earthrealm invasion, the Elder Gods refuse to act, since he hasn't technically broken the rules. The only way to get them to act is for Raiden to surrender to Shao Kahn; when Kahn nearly kills Raiden anyway, the Elder Gods FINALLY step in, superpowering the thunder god so he can finish Kahn once and for all.
Inverted in Bayonetta. The forces of Paradisio (Heaven) are actually more active than the forces of Inferno, to the point where the only demon-characters we see have to be painstakingly summoned by our heroine.
In Grim Grimoire, the Legions of Hell have a unofficial representative in the school's Sorcery teacher, the devil Advocat. The school is also threatened by the return of the mighty devil Grimlet, who intends to conquer the whole kingdom and has the power to do it. The only Heavenly presence in the story is a homunculus created with an angel serving as her core (ie: soul), and she doesn't even remember being an angel in the first place; she even doubted whether or not she really was an angel. This disparity gets even worse if one considers the possibility that the angel didn't willingly consent to become the homunculus in the first place — and there's been been no apparent response or reprisal from Heaven, one way or the other. Last but not least: Should this homunculus commit Heroic Sacrifice to defeat Grimlet with the angel within, the angel is never actually seen or heard from — there's just an impressive devil-roasting lightshow. All traces of the homunculus or angel vanish immediately after the job is done, without so much as a "See ya, later." By contrast, both devils get multiple appearances and speaking parts.
Taken to its slightly illogical conclusion in Black & White; good-aligned Gods can't launch apocalyptic fireballs or armies without becoming evil. Even zapping an enemy creature while he's trying to eat your citizens, a clear case of self-defense, is evil, never mind something as aggressive as stopping an evil army preemptively. While evil-aligned Gods can just kill the populace and take over enemy cities, Good ones are supposed to simply make converts and keep the populace of his or her cities in good shape. Good apparently stays home and minds the kitchen.
Good civilizations can become a paradise of eternal summer, which does make everything and everyone super productive. This is amazingly useful, but so mindbogglingly difficult to achieve it's enough to make anyone drop white-hot boulders onto the villages of the unbelievers in near-terminal impatience.
In Prince of Persia (2008), evil god Ahriman is able to corrupt an entire kingdom despite being imprisoned for most of the game. The good god Ormazd on the other hand is never explicitly shown to do anything, although Elika does believe that Ormazd was responsible for the Prince showing up.
This trope motivates a Necessarily Evil villain in Planescape: Torment, and he is taking steps to rectify it. Trias the Betrayer believes that the forces of Good allowing the Blood War to continue without getting involved is slowly tainting the universe and making it more and more evil (and he may very well be right). It inspired him to attempt to assault Mount Celestia with an army of devils in the hope that the forces of Good would counter-attack and start involving themselves in the war.
Dragon Quest VII: God decided that after sealing the Demon Lord that humanity and the elemental spirits could fix the sealed world while he just sat backed and watched, even as the Demon Lord came back and pretended to be him. Made even worse by him showing you just how much stronger then the Demon Lord he actually is.
Touhou has Yukari Yakumo, who's not actually a god (she's a youkai instead), but stronger thanmost actual gods and is the creator of Gensokyo (the pocket dimension that the games take place in), who takes this trope to an artform. Not only does she tend to sleep for twelve hours a day, only awakening at night, but she's also known to sleep through the entirety of winter (her subordinates even say she's "hibernating"). And when she is awake she much prefers to use the local miko to do things for her while annoying/flirting with her.
To explain: as of 2013, there's been seven main-series games since her debut and a large number of spinoffs. She's been actively involved in events twice, acted as support as many times, and made a small handful of appearances to provide advice.
Jak and Daxter has the Precursors, a godlike race purported to be "the most powerful beings in the universe," relying on poor Jak to do everything, including saving their entire race from destruction though this is revealed to be a Red Herring by the Precursors to protect themselves, so.... And it's very likely, though not outright confirmed, that Jak somehow got his powers from the Precursors, either through being The Chosen One or having his ancestor given powers.
Beyond Zork featured the Implementors, obvious Author Avatars for the game's creators, who created the world but now spend all their time having lunch on the Ethereal Plane of Atrii.
Unwritten Legends: So many times everybody's lost count. The gods won't usually help you unless the bad guys destroy their temple, no matter what's plaguing you, their loyal followers. Don't want to distract from their cosmic game of boggle, I suppose.
At the start of Hyperdimension Neptunia V, the four CPU goddesses (Neptune, Blanc, Noire, and Vert) have slacked off from their work because there is no more threat from any piracy group. Histoire kicks them out to do some work in which, Neptune finds herself going from level 99back to level one. Oh and thanks to them slacking off, someone started a group to actually kick the gods out and become independent from their rule (which is one of the main plots of the game).
Inverted in Final Fantasy XIII-2 where Etro causes problems by being too active. Saving the heroes from their crystalized fate and reuniting them with their loved ones at the end of the last game distorts the 'true' timeline which directly leads to the death of Yeul. She is a seeress whose visions shorten her life span and the distortions in time increase the frequency of her visioons which leads to a premature death. This motivates Cauis to become the game's Big Bad. The power to see visions was given to her by Etro to better govern her city. The only thing she did that did NOT backfire was choose Lightning to be her champion.
Ethan Nicolle drew a webcomic featuring Jesus and Ernest Hemingway fighting Those Wacky Nazis, using this trope as a jumping-off point. God is ultimately benevolent, but he only swings by this particular universe every once in a while, and only watches what's going on like a big cosmic game of The Sims while he's here. Jesus, on the other hand, is here watching all the time, and thinks something oughta be done; so, choosing World War II as the highest concentration of evil, he incarnates in time to blow shit up.
This is evidently the case with the Dream Oracle of Cucumber Quest. That and incompetence.
Near the end of the third season of Press Start Adventures, Count Vile, who had defeated Satan in combat and taken the reigns of Hell, is told by God to pick up his slack with punishing the eternally damned or else the Balance Between Good and Evil will be off and reality will fall apart. Vile fails to do so, but before everything is wiped out, Vile realizes through God's actions that God is just as lazy and irritable as he is. He then convinces God that he can be lazier and restore the balance by not rewarding the people in Heaven, pointing out that it evens out if there are no punishments or rewards. God agrees and reality is restored.
In the Whateley Universe, one of the main characters has been to what seemed like Hell, and was confronted by a being who claimed to be Satan. He tells the character while he's torturing her that God does exist, and that he and God play by these rules to keep things worse than Satan from invading our reality. He could have been lying about being Satan, or about the arrangement, or about pretty much anything... except that he does give her information that stops something horrific.
South Park: In The Movie, Satan and Saddam Hussein rise up from hell and take over earth. Only the fact that Saddam is such a Jerkass and Satan is a Jerk with a Heart of Gold saved Earth from being plunged into a 1000 years of darkness, and yet God does not seem to be doing anything to stop him. It's especially jarring considering that Jesus and God are both recurring characters, and you can actually briefly see Jesus in the background of one of the shots in the movie (when the soldiers are marching in front of Kyle's house). Also, in the newest episode, "Mysterion Rises", God and Jesus don't seem to care that Cartman and the evil god Cthulhu are taking over the world.