Follow TV Tropes


God's Hands Are Tied

Go To

"Even the gods are bound by laws, Kaelyn."
Kelemvor, Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer

There's a nasty enemy out there; a threat so nasty that even the gods are helpless before it or seemingly powerless to stop it. It turns out that while the gods are vulnerable or ineffectual in dealing with this enemy, a mortal is less so. So it's up to a mortal (i.e. Our Hero) to save the day. When this trope is in effect, there will be no Bolt of Divine Retribution and the most support The Hero can expect to get is a Holy Hand Grenade.

Within fictional works this can go two ways. If treated intelligently a valid reason will be provided as to why there is no Divine Intervention. If handled poorly by the writer, it can come off as a weak apologetic excuse as to why the supposed omnipotent Big Good is standing idly by and not helping, while the mortals risk life and limb. If no satisfactory explanation is offered, then The Gods Must Be Lazy.

From a story perspective, this is a way to create tension and Hand Wave any questions about why an all-powerful being doesn't just save or conquer the world with a wave of their hands. It also ensures that the focus stays on the mortal protagonists, who not only take most of the risks in the story, but also receive most of the glory, treasure and happiness. This trope doesn't necessarily prevent the gods from helping either the heroes or villains indirectly, whether by giving them a Holy Hand Grenade, granting them divine magic or Super-Empowering them with other cool abilities they can use for good or evil purposes.

Examples or variations of this trope include:

  1. The gods are bound by certain rules that an everydude is not (such as a Balance of Good and Evil). If they have business on the mortal plane, gods often skirt the restrictions by choosing to guide and empower certain mortals to act as champions on their behalf.
  2. The deity in question is a benevolent God. It can do anything except interfere with free will; this includes the villain's free will as well. Alternatively, the god can interfere with free will, but it doesn't because that would negate the purpose of free will in the first place. It doesn't want a creation filled with puppets, and thus interfering defeats the objective.
  3. The god is likened to a parent, putting mortals to a cruel test, when in actuality it wants them to grow, understand, and become stronger, so they can be, like it, independent.
  4. The deity is all-loving, i.e. it loves the heroes as much as it loves the villains. Asking it to intervene and destroy the threat is akin to subjecting it to a Friend-or-Idol Decision. Like asking a parent to choose one child over the other, it cannot and will not, thus refuses to participate.
  5. The hero has willingly made a Deal with the Devil. More benevolent deities are now unable or unwilling to work with the hero anymore and their malicious patron only cares to fulfill their end of the bargain (usually a bastardized version of the terms) to get what they need from their new mortal pawn and couldn't care less about the hero's goal or safety otherwise.
  6. The god has a divine plan beyond the comprehension of the heroes, and intervening at the wrong time could ruin everything it's been working so long and hard to achieve. As long as the overarching plan is achieved any comparatively lesser suffering the mortals face is an acceptable loss to the deity.
  7. The deity is so insanely powerful that for them to merely interact with the cosmos to purge the threat could unravel the fabric of reality and destroy everything.
  8. Related to the above; the deity getting directly involved would only encourage their enemies/rivals to do the same, which would likely result in a holy/unholy Lensman Arms Race that could leave the entire world/plane devastated. So the gods tenuously agree to a sort of divine cold war to ensure that none of them risk completely destroying the mortals. At least, not before the appointed time.
  9. God has enemies. Possibly a lot of them, and they managed to get the upper hand, meaning the hero isn't going to get much for help because it's on them to rescue the deity.
  10. The god is split into separate beings and/or objects and cannot access their abilities until they pull themselves together. As reuniting would require the effective death of the beings in question, a benevolent deity or those beings in general are understandably hesitant to do this.
  11. The problem is located somewhere outside the god's area of authority, like a sea god being unable to intervene with a problem in the desert. The god may want to help, but they either lack the power to act in this time or place or they risk angering one of their contemporary/enemy deities by encroaching on their jurisdiction.
  12. The enemy or item is somehow anathema to the god. For one reason or another, it is immune to their attempts to act on it, capable of nullifying their godly power, or, in some cases, one of the very rare things capable of outright killing the god. Conveniently, these properties are almost never overly dangerous to mortals, which means it's up to them to deal with this issue. Possibly even having to protect the god from the threat or wield it against the god's enemies themselves.
  13. The god in question is willing and able to act, but, for one reason or another, simply is not strong enough to fight the problem directly. They may be on the lower end of divine power levels naturally, have lost much of their power for plot reasons, only hold power over a particularly niche portfolio, or possibly even forgotten their divinity altogether. In any case, the god can be an invaluable asset to their mortal allies or even a be an official member of their team, but they will be a far cry from the expected effectiveness of deity.
  14. The god in question is willing to help and equal to the enemy or problem. Exactly equal. Meaning that they can't overcome it completely on their own. The best they can do is force it into a stalemate. One that they may not be able to hold indefinitely and may require the aid of mortal heroes to tip the balance in their favor before their strength gives out and the evil is unleashed. The nature of this divine aid tends to justify a smoothly escalating threat level for the heroes: the longer time goes on in the plot, the more the god weakens, allowing greater evils to escape until the god's strength is fully spent and the main threat appears.

Only in rare circumstances can this apparent 'deadlock' be broken, for example, the devil goes back on his word or the balance of power shifts unexpectedly. Indeed, one key objective for the heroes might be to find a way of untying the god's hands so they can get directly involved without causing The End of the World as We Know It. Alternately, the villains might be trying to untie the hands of a God of Evil and the heroes need to stop them.

Not to be confused with Good Is Impotent. Compare Neglectful Precursors, Omniscient Morality License, and All-Powerful Bystander. Contrast with Bolt of Divine Retribution and Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter. This might be the reason a work falls in Class 3 on the Sliding Scale of Divine Intervention.


    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In Danjon No Maou Wa Saijaku, "God" is powerful enough to grab a preteen human soul, turn him into a demon lord, give him powerful "blessings" and forcefully set his dungeon on a landmass that human or demon armies would have to cross in their mutually genocidal war against each other, but commands said human soul to be the blockade. A scene from the P.O.V. chapter of one of the natives that sees this happen strongly implies that if "god" intervened directly, the collateral damage would kill everyone, and that's the very consequence the supposed deity in question is actively trying to avoid.
  • Gods in The Death Mage Who Doesn't Want a Fourth Time have their plates full for several reasons. The gods of Lambda can't influence the world because they're severely undermanned, having lost several members during the war against the Demon King and a Divine Conflict shortly after thousands of years ago, who sent several gods into slumber or hiding, meaning they can only send messages and offer protection to their believers at best. Luckily our protagonist releases or awakens many lesser and great gods, untying their hands on different degrees.
  • If a Death Note shinigami (god of death) uses his powers to kill a human in order to save another out of love, they will die. They're safe, though, if they don't care about the one they save.
  • While never addressed directly, this is the basic premise behind (the yuri Humongous Mecha plot of) Destiny of the Shrine Maiden and the title itself refers to the month of October, when the Gods were said to be away, hence Orochi was able to come back unopposed except by the two eponymous miko.
  • Digimon Adventure: Homeostasis (the entity who briefly possesses Kari) explains that it had wanted to contact the kids when they first arrived in the Digital World, but since Kari wasn't there, it couldn't.
  • Dragon Ball:
    • The gods seem to be bound quite a bit by this. This trope might explain why, during the Buu saga, when the aforementioned Buu is devouring planets and even deities left and right, the gods don't extend Goku's one day on Earth indefinitely to give him more of a chance to fight. They eventually do bend the rules a bit to allow Vegeta to come back and fuse with Goku.
    • Outright confirmed in Dragon Ball Super. As explained by Gowasu, the Supreme Kai of Universe 10, the Kais are forbidden to directly interfere in the affairs of mortals; to their job is to create life, watch over the mortals, and give them guidance. Unfortunately, his apprentice, Zamasu is firmly convinced that Humans Are Bastards and openly criticizes this non-intervention policy, which he uses as evidence that The Gods Must Be Lazy and as harmful to The Multiverse.
    • Beerus goes to some lengths to stretch the rules when Goku Black shows up from the future, but states he can't outright solve the problem for the Z-Fighters since Gods of Destruction aren't allowed to time travel; he goes so far as to criticize Goku for relying on the gods, which is hypocritical for several reasonsnote .
  • The protagonist of Edens Bowy is a "God Hunter" who has the power to slay the immortals and is highly resistant to their divine magic. Against human opponents, however, this power doesn't do anything.
  • The Hero is Overpowered but Overly Cautious: The gods are supposed to summon people from Earth to save other worlds and are allowed to accompany the summoned heroes, but they're not allowed to use their full powers to interfere in mortal affairs and are essentially nerfed to being as strong as a human. If a god uses their full powers illegally, they'll be stripped of their divinity.
  • In Living In This World With Cut And Paste, Myne learns, from the god of the world itself, that it's a reason #8 scenario. The god ruling Myne's world would very much love to utterly exterminate the Always Chaotic Evil army of monsters, demons, etc. but can only limit its interference to giving humans Skills in the skill-blessing ceremony because its counterpart, the invading God of Evil would retaliate with equal force to whatever the god in charge of Myne's world does, and both gods are too equally matched for one to decisively triumph over the other, at least not without the collateral damage causing so much harm to the world that it would be a Pyrrhic Victory to the ultimate victor.
  • In a manga-only episode of Ushio and Tora, the two guys travelling with Ushio are hired by Sanpitara Kamui, an Ainu God, to become the new guardians of his lake and fight another evil Kamui who's rampaging. He's adamant in the fact that they have to fight him back. After the Kamui is slain by Ushio, Sanpitara reveals that the last time he just kicked a God of Misfortune, not only the opponent was sent flying in the sky, but the released energy caused a volcanic eruption which caused many victims.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • In Break it down, Butterfly, Tikki is aware that Vrai Papillon is not Hawk Moth and that he can be trusted, but she also knows that it would be better for Marinette to figure that out herself, not needing to rely on her wisdom all the time.
  • A Clash Of Neets: The Seven are, by Fantasy Pantheon standards, a remarkably proactive and involved set of godesses; however, compared to other worlds in The Multiverse where they're worshipped, their ability to act on Westeros is limited. This is because the Sealed Evil in a Can where they trapped the Lord Of Light, Kefka, is a Leaking Can of Evil, and every time they directly intervene, the leak gets a little bigger.
  • The Coffin of Roboute and His 20 Sisters: Cegorach saves Roboute's life from dying by Mortarion's hands and sends him back in time to make a better future, but because Time Travel isn't normally part of his divine portfolio and he cannot act outside of it, he has to "tweak" it so that from an observer's perspective it all comes across as a "jest". This results in the big changes — namely Roboute was sent back to a universe where his brothers are now his sisters (including an alternate version of himself) — and smaller things like how he was butt-naked on arriving on an Exodite world of his to-be allies.
  • A Diplomatic Visit: Celestia may be an alicorn and a Power, but when it comes to political matters, even she answers to a pair of councils who interfered when she tried to use her executive powers to overturn an unjustified prison sentence, threatening to have her removed from her position as Equestria's ruler. She also admits that had she attempted to merely remove them, her "fellows" would have claimed she had overstepped her bounds (and since she had a lot of things coming up, like Luna's return, she couldn't risk being removed and leaving Equestria in the hands of the nobles). This left her with no choice but to use the legal system, but it wasn't enough; Gravon died in prison of malnutrition before she could have him freed.
  • Harbinger (Finmonster) (Danny Phantom, ParaNorman): The Reapers and Death are unable to directly stop the upcoming threat, hence the reason for empowering Danny.
  • In Shazam! fanfiction Here There Be Monsters, the gods are bound by certain rules. One of those rules is they cannot intervene until or unless their champions request their aid directly.
    Shazam: The villains draw upon your power, you know.
    Apollo: So they do. But I cannot intervene. Your trio has not asked for my aid directly.
    Shazam: They cannot, imprisoned as they are. And I, in my ghostly state, cannot offer them succor. Is there none upon this entire rock who can save my charges?
    Apollo: (sadly) You know the rules, Old Man. Without their request, we cannot help.
  • Hope for the Heartless: When the Fates unexpectedly resurrect the Horned King and set him for his redemption quest, they're clearly unwilling to grant him such a chance, but state that they're obliged to do it because of unstated circumstances beyond their range of control.
  • Hours 'Verse: Philemon is bound to the rules of his and Nyarlathotep's game, meaning he can't directly interfere with the Wild Cards of This Side lest Nyarlathotep retaliate. This very rule causes all the trouble in As The Bells Toll: Philemon crashing Minato and Ryoji's wedding to lecture the Velvet attendants allows Nyarlathotep to talk to Minato, which he uses to advance a move of his own and take Minato's Shadow.
  • In The Keys Stand Alone: The Soft World, the Pyar gods have been badly damaged by the mysterious inhabitants of the Black Tower and have to import thousands of heroes from many different universes to try to defeat the Black Tower. They are so weakened that except when empowered temporarily by a white key, they can only communicate via notes, graffiti, dreams, and the like.
  • Deconstructed in A Loud Among Demons. Not being helped by Heaven has made Lincoln quite bitter and resentful toward them. And when it becomes clear that C.H.E.R.U.B could've easily helped Lincoln in the past, but instead choose to waste their resources on awful people like Lyle Lipton who had more to bring to the table, Lincoln is so disgusted that he renounces Heaven itself.
  • Rosario Vampire: Brightest Darkness: The angels and the Almighty take this to Lawful Stupid levels. In Act IV, they're unable to intervene against Hokuto's plan to revive Alucard and destroy the world because of their Thou Shalt Not Kill Muggles rule, which still applies to Hokuto because he was born human. Later, at the end of Act VI, they can't do anything to save Complica and bring her soul back through the heavenly barrier because their laws dictate that no deceased soul can pass it, from either side. As Rason and Gabriel's superior explains, the Almighty's laws are absolute; not even the Almighty himself can break them.
  • Scarlet Lady:
    • While Tikki, Nooroo and the other kwamis are technically gods, they are still bound by the rules of the Miraculouses. This means that they're stuck dealing with the whims of their holders, like Chloé and Gabriel.
    • Kwamis also can't use their powers safely without a partner, as Tikki is forced to demonstrate during "Vanisher": using the Miraculous Cure without channeling it through a wielder results in Tikki vomiting up a massive wave of magical ladybugs that don't all immediately dissipate afterwards.
    • Tikki also has a bad case of Honor Before Reason, staunchly insisting on following the rules religiously even as it becomes clearer and clearer just how awful a Nominal Heroine Scarlet Lady is. Though she bluntly reminds Chloé that she is a god during the denouncement of "Sandboy", when Chloé reveals that she doesn't want to track down and stop Hawkmoth.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • In The Adjustment Bureau, it could be said that "the Chairman" limits his own power by deliberately limiting the power of the agents he uses to enforce his Plan—enough so that a human with a particular level of determination can prevail against "the Plan" by his free will, and eventually convince "the Chairman" to change the Plan to accommodate this.
  • Bruce Almighty features God telling Bruce that he can't manipulate free will, even if he has all of the power of God. This is done either because God really can't manipulate free will, or because doing so would invalidate the reason for free will in the first place. Either way, it's one of the ways Bruce learns to appreciate what he has.
  • Dogma: God could stop the threat but is indisposed, having assumed a vulnerable human form only to be ambushed and left in a coma by the Big Bad's minions. The angels are unable to directly do anything on their own, so it falls to the last scion to save the world and rescue God. By euthanizing God's current host which is trapped in a vegetative state.
  • Another one from Disney, and an odd variant of the Trope. In TRON: Legacy, Flynn practically is considered a god on the system he created...but his fallen-from-grace creation managed to out-fox him, making him a prisoner in his own creation. It would also be impossible to kill one without killing the other.

  • Not so much gods as Sufficiently Advanced Aliens, the Ellimist and Crayak in Animorphs can not directly (or at least, overtly) interfere with other species under normal circumstances, generally guiding their allies or followers instead. The reason is that these two beings are basically locked in a galaxy-wide Cold War: the Ellimist is good and wants to help everyone, Crayak is evil and wants to destroy everyone, and any open conflict between them would probably be very, very bad for everyone involved. The Ellimist Chronicles shows what happens when their hands are not tied. At least 10% of the galaxy was destroyed before they became Sufficiently Advanced, and they are many orders of magnitude more powerful now than they were then. The Cosmic Chess Game is required to keep the fabric of reality from falling apart. Both the Ellimist and Crayak are, however, willing to put aside their usual rules and work together if something particularly disastrous happens. This is the case in Megamorphs #3; antagonist Visser Four finds the Time Matrix and uses it to completely rewrite the history of the Western world (including altering the Battle of Agincourt, the American Revolution, and World War II). The Ellimist and Crayak are the only living things able to realize that this is wrong, and combine their powers to both restore the Animorphs' memories of the lost reality and send them through time to stop Visser Four.
  • The Arcia Chronicles are set in Tarra, a world created by the so-called Old Gods. Said Old Gods were then rendered Deader than Dead by the invading "Lightbringers", seven extradimensional gods serving an overdeity they call "the Light". Seven thousand years later, though, the Light calls all of them back to Its throne, because new dangers to It arise. So, Tarra is left unprotected against lurking monsters and it's up to the local mages to fend them off like no tomorrow.
  • In The Balanced Sword, the demon Kerlamion has taken steps to prevent the gods actively interfering in his scheming, so it's up to the mortals to figure out what's going on and put a stop to it. Most of the gods, anyway; he didn't bother with some of the smaller gods, considering them no threat — including Poplock's patron god Blackwart, which subsequent events suggest may have been a mistake. After Kyri's Rage Against the Heavens moment, her patron god Myrionar starts actively assisting her as much as It is able to.
  • In The Beginning After the End, the Asuras are officially barred from direct interference as the collateral damage from a full-scale war between them would level the world. This is due to a treaty formed between Epheotus and the Vritra that was made after the latter were able to foil an assassination attempt from the former after they were exiled from Epheotus. As such, the Divine Conflict that drives the plot is moreso a Enforced Cold War, with Epheotus backing Dicathen against the Vritra-ruled continent of Alacrya in a form of Proxy War as the Vritra wish to conquer the former continent to conscript its inhabitants for when they inevitably go to war against Epheotus. The Vritra have spent generations interbreeding with and experimenting upon the inhabitants of Alacrya to create empowered Super-Soldiers and monsters that are just not Semi-Divine enough to be allowed to directly participate in the conflict. On the other side, the Asuras of Epheotus gave the Dicathians the six artifacts that were used to empower the Lances as a means to even the odds. Both sides are also allowed to act in advising roles towards the lessers. Later on, the Asuras attempt to avert this trope by once again launching another Decapitation Strike onto Alacrya. This attempt fails like the last one, and the Vritra use this violation as a means to revoke all involvement from Epheotus from the war in Dicathen. In turn, with the abandonment of the Asuras, Dicathen falls to the Alacryans. However, there is one major instance of direct involvement from the Asuras, which is when Elenoir gets destroyed by the World Eater technique in a failed attempt to prevent the Vritra from summoning the Legacy. This serves to illustrate just what would happen if the conflict was allowed to escalate and why neither side wants it to, as it would result in Mutually Assured Destruction. Bear in mind, neither side has any regard for the lessers they use as proxies.
  • In The Belgariad by David Eddings the gods have absented themselves from the world because if they get to fighting with their evil brother Torak again, they would likely destroy the world. Also, everything—even the gods—is being controlled by two "Prophecies"—which are self-aware and more like super-gods than the conventional meaning of the term—but the two competing Dark and Light Prophecies fight for control of the Universe according to certain agreed upon rules, including acting through the agencies of a "Child of Light" and a "Child of Dark" (persons or even gods who exist in the world and can take action in it).
  • Bridge of Birds is a case where the gods are restrained by rules—if they abuse their power, they can be deposed and replaced. However, they can help indirectly (leading to more than one half-literal Deus ex Machina.)
  • This is a basic premise of Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion novels. The gods cannot act in the world without a mortal willing to act as a conduit, and very few people are willing because being the tool of a god tends to be inconvenient to say the least.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Creator is of equal (possibly greater) power to the Big Bad, Lord Foul. But he exists outside of this creation, The Land. If he tried to enter The Land to deal with Foul directly, he would end up breaking the Arc of Time, destroying The Land. Which is exactly what Foul wants. So The Creator is forced to use proxies like Covenant.
  • In The Dinosaur Lords, the Genius Loci of Paradise tells Karyl that the Creators have taken measures to make it impossible for it to interfere into human affairs, and it can only circumvent this in very minor ways, such as giving him some very non-specific information.
  • In the Discworld:
    • Hogfather:
      • Death cannot enter the realm of the Tooth Fairy, as children have no concept of death. His granddaughter, Susan, on the other hand...
      • Similarly, Death is forbidden from giving people more time. As the Hogfather, while he wears the robes and pretends to be him to help save the real Hogfather, he can, and when he finds the Little Match Girl-expy destined to die that night, he gives her time and puts her in the care of two guards.
    • Although Death can remember the future, he's constrained not to take action based solely upon these memories. In Soul Music, he has to be told what Susan is up to by Albert before he can go to assist her, rather than simply pre-remembering where she's going to be.
    • In general, however, Death will take any excuse to bend the rules in favor of helping humanity. Most memorably and spectacularly so in Thief of Time: The Horsemen of the Apocalypse might be prophesized to ride out when The End of the World as We Know It is imminent, but the prophecy doesn't specify which side they have to be on.
    • The Auditors are also limited in their actions, being compelled to obey instructions, and being constrained from taking direct action in the world (unless they're sneaky about it).
    • The actual gods of Discworld are somewhat constrained by the rules of the dice-games they play, using mortals as playing pieces. Unless they're cheating, of course. Or misremember the rules. Or they mislaid some of the pieces. Or they're too busy laying bets on what's going to happen without their help. Mostly, they're constrained because they're just not all that bright.
    • The Great God Om deserves a special mention: Following the events of Small Gods, he's become one of the more sensible gods, and doesn't play their games. Following his agreement with Brutha, it also takes something very remarkable for him to act at all. This has made Omnianism one of the more popular religions, because it's a lot easier to put your faith in a god who is maybe manifesting in a vague sense of wellbeing and determination than it is to put it in a god who is definitely manifesting as a pompous lech in a toga.
  • In Dragonlance, whenever the evil goddess Takhisis comes to Krynn, she always has a mighty army at her disposal, including evil dragons and flying fortresses. All her good counterpart Paladine does to stave of total destruction is to come to Krynn as a bumbling old wizard who pulls a few strings here and there, which for some reason is always enough for the heroes to defeat the Queen of Darkness in the end. This could be seen as Cherry Tapping, if you assume that Paladine follows the notion that Good Is Not Nice...
  • The Dresden Files: There are several beings of incredible power, from Fairy Queens of the Summer and Winter courts, to God and His Angels.
    • In the realm of the Fairy Queens:
      • They can only harm a mortal who has some debt or existing contract with them. Even if they are being attacked by a mortal who has no contract with them, their attacks are severely weakened. That said, nothing stops an angered Queen from taking the person and leaving the person like at the bottom of the ocean, the jungle, or other inhospitable place to be killed. The Queen doesn't kill them, at least not directly.
      • The Queens are also limited by the fact they cannot interfere in the machinations of other Queens of their court. This rule prevents the Queen Mothers, the oldest and strongest of the Queens, from stopping a war between the courts when they know the Summer Lady, youngest of the Summer Court, started the war. That said, there is nothing about not using a mortal, like the hero Harry Dresden, from helping stop the war.
      • The Queens are also bound to the promises they make, oaths they swear, and laws they agree to adhere to. When Winter Queen Mab wrote the Winter Law, including the handling and treatment of prisoners who have surrendered to one of her agents or herself, then she must treat the prisoner well as a servant if no debt payment is made on behalf of the prisoner.
    • Under the purview of God:
      • The angels are also bound by numerous laws that restrain their actions, usually aimed at stopping the Fallen angels. Most of their actions center around aiding their mortal allies, the Knights of the Cross.
      • For example, the Archangel Uriel's job is to preserve mortal free will, not tell humans how they are to use their free will. An example of this is that in Skin Game. Uriel appears before one Knight before he is about to make a Heroic Sacrifice, telling him he left the job and didn't have to do this. The Big Bad, who is salivating at the idea of killing his nemesis, looks at Uriel's human form, ignoring the guilt-inducing light of Uriel's halo with a laugh, tells him to get out of the way, and flicks his nose. Uriel can only glare at the bad guy, who as a mortal, can do that without Uriel smiting him. Uriel's only choice in the matter is to help the Knight with a choice he already made, and does just that.note 
      • In Ghost Story Harry encounters an Angel of Death standing over a friend's body. This Angel dressed in all black is not there to snuff out the man's mortal flame, as Harry first guesses. She is present because this man is a good man and his soul would be a fine capture for spirits of less noble nature and it is her duty to guard the soul from attackers until it reaches its Next Location. While it is within her powers to mend the good man, she cannot because she too must respect Free Will. To her, it isn't just the man's choice to confront the cult leader that has left him injured and suffering, but the cult leader's choice to get violent, and hundreds of other human choices that lead to this moment. If she undid this potential consequence of all those choices, it would be wrong. For that matter, as she coolly threatens Harry by reciting his full Name indicating she can stop any magical attack he tries against her cold, Harry knows if he tries to interfere with her duties, her hands won't be tied against him.
      • Knights of the Cross have limits too. When they face the powers of darkness, Contrived Coincidences tend to fall into their laps, like Michael not willing to leave his children alone after learning a demon is going after his wife while she is out of the house, and his priest just happened to be driving by on the street over and now has car trouble. He just happened to come when Michael needs help ("You need a babysitter again, don't you?"). That said, if a mortal chooses a fate, like making a deal with a demon or fae and the "evil" side has honored it or the person is walking into danger without being cautious, the Knight is less likely to gain any sort of boosts or protections if they try to help that person.
    • While not a god in a typical fashion, the Archive has her hands tied. The Archive is the repository of all human knowledge since at a minimum ancient Greece. Everything written, printed, and now typed is within her. She has perfect recall to all this data and the memories of the previous hosts. The Archive is practically immortal but its host is not. The Archive is passed down from mother-to-daughter along a single line. She cannot use her magic or knowledge to help another person, no matter how noble a quest, no matter how close a friend she is. She can defend herself if attacked and can protect a person who is being attacked with her or because of her. The current Archive, Ivy, is pained and strained when Harry, desperate for information, asked for help as she wanted to, knowing what is in the one book he said he would have used and got out that he should try another book instead, despite the pain. She is meant to be neutral and there should all human knowledge be lost.
  • Everworld: Ka Anor can eat gods, but is dependent on his Hetwan hordes to handle their mortal supporters. The Queen of the Fairies even mocks the Hetwans for bringing up Ka Anor as a threat, which seems kind of badass when we see super-powered deities wring their hands over him.
    • Likewise, the Greek gods have a habit of giving mortal heroes their divine favors but not actually doing much fighting themselves—Ares and Heracles seem to be the main exceptions, but even they're prone to refuse for childish reasons. Athena tries to convince them to get out and actually fight the god-killing abomination out to destroy them.
  • Early in the Incarnations of Immortality series, the Incarnations believe God is honoring a Covenant to avoid intervening in mortal affairs, since He is good. However, Satan, being Evil, cheats and intervenes constantly. Starting in For Love of Evil, we find the trope Have You Seen My God? applies instead and find out why God has not been intervening in mortal affairs.
  • It's an early plot point in Isekai Monster Breeder that the Gods of Olympus, like Aphrodite, the goddess bringing summoned Heroes to her world, can not actively meddle in the affairs of the worlds they manage, and are actively bound by a curse that strips them of power if they try. Souta, the protagonist, captures Aphrodite, after she dares him to try, and drags her to the world's surface. Smug Super that she is, she attacks a goblin they encounter and gets beat to the ground, having to be rescued. It's not until the finale, where Souta lures the demon king into Aphrodite's jurisdiction, that Aphrodite can demonstrate her true power, and she goes on to demonstrate that she is, indeed, a god, with overwhelming might.
  • In King Rat, neither King Rat nor his fellow animal-kings can fight the Pied Piper, because they're too scared they'll be the one he'll use his music to control. Only Saul, who is half human and half rat-spirit, can oppose the Piper, as his hybrid makeup can resist both rat-control tunes and human-control tunes, and the Piper can only play one at a time.
  • In A Land Fit for Heroes, the gods of the Dark Court are bound by certain rules laid down by the Book-Keepers, most notably that they can only interfere in the world if asked to by a worshipper. This severely limits the actions they are capable of taking.
    Takavach: By the codes used to repair the world aeons ago, we are forbidden direct intervention without supplicant request. And the major pieces, the ones best suited to the game we've chosen, do not fucking pray. Perhaps they never did, perhaps it was never in them. Or perhaps they've just seen too much random horror to believe any longer in the power of the gods. Whichever the case, the gods must make do, must find what fragments of leverage they can.
  • In the Noob novels, the physical gods from the Fictional Video Game were worn out by multiple events from the backstory and are still recovering several millennia later. They have servants taking care of their business instead, but their power is limited compared to what their masters used to be capable of.
  • Happens regularly in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, where gods have ancient binding contracts restraining their behavior, but a hero can "go anywhere and challenge anyone" as long as he had the balls.
  • The Reflections of Eterna cycle, by the same author as Arcia Chronicles, features a similar setup: Kertiana was created by four Physical Gods ("Abvenians", which means "the ones who left"), basically as a holiday resort for them and their compatriots—a cadre of godlike Guardians of Sunset who defended The Multiverse against a destructive outside force trying to engulf it. However, after the Guardians' main citadel, the eponymous Eterna, fell, the Abvenians never returned to Kertiana and it's strongly implied that they perished. Other Guardians of Sunset still occasionally visit Kertiana but they are too busy protecting all the worlds from outside threats to deal with internal troubles.
  • The Gods rarely intervene directly in The Riftwar Cycle. This is explained partially by the Gods being bound by rules. As a result of this, the God that most frequently interacts directly with the world is Banath, God of Thieves, who is able to do so because breaking the rules is a key part of his nature.
  • In The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis, Screwtape explains that neither Heaven nor Hell works at all openly, at least nowadays, because Heaven wants people to pursue goodness without coercion or bribery, and Hell doesn't want people to realize there IS a Hell, because then the vast majority of them will realize there's a Heaven too and that will just encourage religious belief.
  • And in That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, the angels and demons stay under cover partly to avoid escalating their conflict into a premature Armageddon, but also because of the Seventh Law: God won't send down extraterrestrial eldila to the inside of the moon's orbit until Armageddon... though there are loopholes in this law. Yet another reason why the planetary powers don't intervene directly is because they're so powerful, their untempered power would destroy Earth outright.
  • In the Tolkien's Legendarium, the Valar had come to help Middle-Earth a few times in person, or at least with massive armies, and every time the world went into the brink of destruction as a result. Logically they feared that another armed intervention could cause more harm than good or even destroy the world.
    • The Silmarillion:
      • When the Valar tried to help directly Elves and Men, the consequences were... bad (the sundering of the elves, the rebellion of Numenor...). So eventually they restricted themselves to help and influence events in subtler ways like Eru does.
      • Just the army of Maiar blew up the sub-continent Beleriand, and if it hadn't already been depopulated by Morgoth's armies, all the Elves, Humans, and Dwarves there would have died. If the Valar themselves joined a fight, more than just a continent would be destroyed.
      • At one point, Tolkien described Ilúvatar (God) chiding the chief Vala for founding Valinor instead of staying in Middle-Earth to help directly.
      • Manwë, the leader of the Valar, would help out. The great Eagles were his emissaries, and it's implied whenever they appeared to help he either allowed it or outright ordered it. Ulmo also helps, trying to protect and warn as so much as he is capable to without intervening directly.
    • The Lord of the Rings:
      • In the Third Age, the Valar sent five Maiar (Gandalf, Saruman, Radagast and the blue wizards) disguised like old men in robes to help the Free Peoples by inspiring them and encouraging them to join and fight Sauron. They were instructed, though, to avoid a direct confrontation with Sauron.
      • Two of the five (Alatar and Pallando) went far into the East where the main characters of Tolkien's Legendarium never go as "missionaries into occupied lands." Tolkien at first wrote that they indeed fell into evil, but later on he decided that they may have been just as successful as Gandalf, weakening Sauron's support in those lands and delaying military forces from helping him (that was a very late change in the story, though).
  • Happens quite a bit in the Tortall Universe. Gods are bound in various ways.
    • In Song of the Lioness, the Great Mother Goddess tells Alanna that there are times when the gods can't intervene and it's up to human actions to decide what happens.
    • In The Immortals we find that the gods have a hierarchy, depending on how many worshippers they have. Mithros is a Great God because he's the god of war and justice. The Graveyard Hag, meanwhile, is a minor goddess everywhere but Carthak, where everyone but the Black Godnote  must bow to her. (Guess who Daine gets in hot water with.)
    • Happens again in the Trickster's Duet: the god in question used to be a major power (and still is — in his home country) but then his people got conquered, which changed the power dynamics. He's not happy about this and has been plotting ever since it happened (two or three centuries ago) to fix it.
    • And in the third Beka Cooper book, Pounce flatly tells Beka that the gods are watching their Hunt and that they have reached the point where only the actions of humans can decide the outcome.
  • In The Traitor Son Cycle, the Wyrm of Erch is pretty much a god within his Circle - but the thing is, he's very underpowered when he's beyond it, and the more he interferes in the matters, the weaker his precognitive abilities are. This being said, he's still powerful, and his inhibitions go out of the window once the Big Bad reveals himself to be his match.
  • David Weber's The War Gods: In Oath of Swords, Bahzell takes the War God to task for his failure to prevent the disaster that shook up the world and decimated Bahzell's people. Tomanāk goes on for pages outlining a scenario where the Light and Dark gods are at constant war all over the universe, and cannot meet directly in any given encounter for fear that the overflow of power would grind the world to dust.
    • He also notes that the good gods spend a lot of their effort stopping the really powerful demons from entering into the world. Considering that the weaker demons that can get in are a pretty serious threat even to a champion, this is probably a very good thing.
  • Wax and Wayne almost uses this phrase verbatim; God (aka Harmony) contains the diametrically opposed powers of Preservation and Ruin, and thus finds it very difficult to take direct action, even if he wants to — he’s worried that intervening too frequently would make people dependent on him and stagnate. (He's also not fully omnipotent or omniscient.)
    Harmony: My hands are tied, and I am bounded.
    Wax: Who ties God's hands?
    Harmony: I tied them myself.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In Babylon 5, the Vorlons and Shadows (actually Sufficiently Advanced Aliens) seem to have a pact to manipulate the younger races without going directly to war against one another (though killing members of younger races seems to be fair game). When Kosh violates this by arranging for some Vorlon ships to shoot down some Shadows, he winds up assassinated.
  • Doctor Who:
    • The Black Guardian, an Anthropomorphic Personification of Chaos, recruits Turlough to kill the Doctor as he can't be seen to act directly.
    • In the non-canon web animation "Death Comes to Time", this is a major plot point, the Time Lords can't use their Reality Warper powers without damaging the Universe.
    • As Time Lords are often considered gods, this could be seen to apply to them due to their strict policy of non-interference, which the Doctor strongly objects to. Though considering how powerful they are and the trouble that evil members of their race like The Master have done, there does seem some Strawman Has a Point. And they do intervene sometimes, notably in "Genesis of the Daleks", they sent the Doctor to avert the creation of the Daleks.
    • Their hypocrisy is emphasised in the Doctor Who Expanded Universe, where their founder Rassilon is shown to have destroyed races to prevent them ever challenging the Time Lords.
  • Kingdom Adventure: Zordock believed that stealing the Princess's ring would prevent the Emperor or the Prince from directly intervening. It's implied that he might've been incorrect about this; while the Prince sent some of his followers to rescue the Princess and recover the ring instead of going himself, the Emperor's Book and holy weapons still affected Zordock, even while he was wearing the ring. Plus, working through his followers tended to be the Prince's modus operandi, even before Zordock stole the ring.
  • Lost: The Island's resident god, Jacob, has strict rules set on his interference with the survivors of Oceanic 815. Due to the vague and archetypal nature of the show, it's not made very clear what they are. Sometimes, he seems like he's bound by cosmic rules, other times he seems like he's abiding by the rules of a game he himself created, and at still other times he acts like a scientist who's set an experiment in motion and refuses to corrupt it through intervention.
  • Stargate SG-1 is a prime example of this trope, both during the battles against Anubis and the conflict with the Ori, because the ascended Ancient precursors will not get involved. The Ori are an evil counterpart of their race that is just as strong as they are, making them the Evil Goatee-wearing twins of the Ancients. They not only interfere in the affairs of mortals, they direct them to worship the Ori and kill or convert unbelievers, have no problems with throwing their power around, and will grant their preachers some measure of their power. When they come after our galaxy, which had, until now, been shielded by the Ancients, the Ancients still refuse to do anything about the Ori (on the rather flimsy pretext that it's only the Ori's human followers and not the Ori themselves who have come to the Milky Way), even when they try to destroy the Ancients. It's up to the simple humans to defeat an army of godlike-powerful beings. Though a handful of the Ancients realize this is stupid and find ways to help the heroes, they have to find ways to cheat without their Lawful Stupid fellow Ancients stopping them. Orlin and Merlin both de-ascended back into human form while retaining as much of their advanced knowledge as possible, and Morgan Le Fay sneaks around behind the others' backs trying to be subtle about giving information to the humans, before finally trapping the last of the Ori via Sealed Evil in a Duel.

    Myths & Religion 
  • One possible answer to the ancient question why God allows evil to exist, even though he would have the power to stop it. Even if he wanted to, it could interfere with a greater plan beyond the scope of a human life time. Another is that, as above, it would violate free will. Of course, there are also many other explanations (and counterarguments to them). For more info see The Other Wiki on Theodicy.
  • In the Hindu epic Ramayana, the demon king Ravana was blessed by Brahma to not be killed by any god, spirit, or other supernatural being. Vishnu exploited Ravana's only weakness - he became human, exempt from Brahma's ban. This makes this trope Older Than Feudalism.
    • In the mythos, Brahma is actually the source of a lot of the screwups that Vishnu (or, occasionally, Shiva) have to go in and fix. There is even a separate myth dedicated to explaining why he's The Scrappy of the religion.
  • Greek Mythology:
    • Occurs when the Giants attack Mount Olympus. Most of the Giants have immortality clauses which state that no god can kill them, so the Olympian gods rely on Heracles to fight the Giants (or at least finish them off after the gods have beaten them up). In one instance, one of the Giants is immortal as long as he's in a particular country. Heracles' key job was to drag that unconscious giant to the next country, where they were mortal and could be killed.
    • In The Achilleid, the sea-goddess Thetis acknowledges that she's already failed to prevent her son's death as soon as Paris kidnapped Helen. She still tries to do her best to save him, but even the great god Neptune tells her that since the Fates have announced Achilles death, no god can save him.
  • The Qur'an accuses the contemporary Jews of the area of using this trope, and it even uses the expression word for word.
  • In the theological model of Pandeism, 'God' (or the closest thing to it) has actually wholly become our Universe, and so has given up the ability to actually intervene in it in order to experience what existence as a Universe unfolding of its own accord is like.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The gods in certain Dungeons & Dragons settings, most notably the World of Greyhawk, must abide by specific limits, such as not being able to manifest avatars or otherwise interfere directly in mortal affairs. Mostly, this is a way to Hand Wave the question as to why the gods don't simply manifest and solve certain problems themselves, forcing mortals (such as the Player Characters) to do the dirty work. That said, in some cases the gods can act directly if their human agents fulfill certain quests-in Greyhawk's case, the goodly god Rao was able to actively banish all the demons still loose in the world once a brave party of adventurers undertook a perilous quest to retrieve one of his holy artifacts.
    • This is mostly notable in that, in Greyhawk at least, the rules come from mutual agreement made by the gods of that world, and not by the physical or magical laws of reality that bind them. The gods can choose to interfere in the world at any time if they so desire... but that's counted as explicit permission for one of their opposites to come in and do the same thing without penalty. And usually the interference of the second god involves undoing as much of the work of the first god as possible.
    • An example from Temple of Elemental Evil: Hedrack, the high priest of Iuz, will summon his deity if the fight with the players starts to go badly. St. Cuthbert will then teleport in and take Iuz away so they can fight somewhere private.
    • Of course, none of this prevents the gods from freely providing indirect help to their mortal servants. While the granting of divine magic is the most common way this is done, one of the original justifications for Hit Points in the early editions of D&D was that at least some of the increase in character hit points and saving throws came from the increased divine favor and help they received as they gained levels.
    • Some beings that are considered gods can manifest fairly freely, such as Lolth, as she's also formally a demon and is allowed to manifest that way.
    • Fridge Logic suggests that this "hands off" approach should be problematic for deities whose divine portfolios are essentially defined in terms of phenomena of the mortal world (as opposed to more abstract concepts like "goodness" or "evil"). Hence, the non-intervention rules are about keeping the gods from showing up in person to interfere - the goddess of love can still promote love and lust and reproduction, but the god of death ends lives later as part of the natural course of things, as agreed upon by the gods. It's when the love goddess wants to make two lovers immortal, or when the death god wants everyone now, that it's a problem.
    • In the Planescape setting, gods are supreme in their realms (and technically are their realms) on the Outer Planes, such that even other gods are putting themselves at risk to invade someone's realm. And most places in the Outer Planes are someone's realm. Those that aren't are places where the gods are weakened by the nature of the plane (such as the inner layers of the Outlands) or where the gods are completely barred from entering (such as Sigil). As such, most gods consider their hands tied outside their own realms or worlds where they have followers, and leave things elsewhere to planewalking mortal champions. And while gods can still kill each other if they really want (and are stronger than their target), it requires expending so much power that the murderer is severely weakened and becomes easy prey for any vengeance-minded god for a long time after.
  • Exalted:
    • When the Primordials created the world, they created the Gods to maintain it, so that the creators could enjoy playing Games of Divinity. The Gods resented their position as slaves, but were created so that they could not strike at their creators. So they gave powers to humanity and raised a number of Exalted to do the dirty work for them. The Primordials didn't see that coming...
    • On a sillier note, the major gods in Exalted (the equivalent of the Olympians) don't interfere in Creation much anymore because they're all distracted by the Games of Divinity. These games are so addicting that not even gods can keep their attention away from them. Fanon consensus settled on calling them Everquest.
    • It gets worse. In the present day, Creation is being gangbanged from all directions by the Deathlords, the Yozis, the Raksha, and assorted fantasy monsters. Meanwhile in Yu-Shan, the gods are too busy politicking and divine-blackmailing each others, neglecting their duty. The Sidereals can't do much about them, in fact they are often dragged into divine-realpolitik.
  • In Legend of the Five Rings, it is not the incarnate kami that must accompany Shinsei to defeat the Dark God Fu Leng but rather seven mortal heroes. Shinsei's stated reason is that "fortune favors the mortal man". The unstated reason is that if Jigoku (the Realm of Evil) managed to corrupt the kami Fu Leng into their greatest champion, then what could stop them if all the other kami are Tainted as well?
  • One (unproven) theory for why clerics in the Ravenloft setting don't experience as close a connection to their patron deities as those in other D&D settings is that an "Unspoken Pact" exists between the gods and the Dark Powers, by which they've agreed to keep their respective mitts off each others' territories.
  • In Rifts there is an abundance of evil gods, demons and Eldritch Abominations around to make it a Crapsack World. While there are also many benevolent gods, they don't act much on Earth. Before the Minion War, the Earth is seen as a Truce Zone and, while various evil Eldritch Abominations have set up small fiefdoms, a campaign of conquest by either good or evil powers would break the status quo. During the Minion War, this rule is broken - but the gods still aren't helping out. Also, if Death reawakens, one book mentions that there's a divine rule that Armageddon has to be fought by mortals.
  • In Scion, the gods have their hands tied on two levels. The first is that the Titans have broken free and are currently storming the Overworld, so the gods have to spend their time fighting them off up there. The second is that if they did manifest on the World, Fate would snap on them like handcuffs. In fact, that's why the gods no longer seek human worship - Fate is a bastard in Scion. This is why the gods have spent so long having children with mortals - Scions are not subjected to the whims of Fate as they are, making them the perfect weapon against earthly Titan plots.
  • The Chaos Gods in Warhammer 40,000 seem unwilling or unable to directly enter or affect the Materium (unless, possibly, there is a severe instability of the Warp, or a large concentration of Chaos worshipers). They are said to have directly infused Horus with their power, and when he was destroyed by the Emperor, they fled in fear of being harmed. The Emperor himself is worshiped enough to likely be a god within the Warhammer cosmology, but he is limited by the fact that his body is still (barely) alive and confined to an incredibly complex and immobile life support machine, though it's implied he is occasionally able to directly help his followers. The Eldar gods were an aversion, as they apparently took part in the war against the Necrons and C'tan. However, after most of them were eaten by Slannesh, of the three who survived, one spends most of his time in an impenetrable Warp matrix, where he advises one of the most enigmatic Eldar factions, the second was broken into pieces (though those pieces are still able to occasionally manifest to provide military aid to the Eldar) and the third is held prisoner by one of the other Chaos Gods as a testing ground for his newest diseases.
    • This also applies to Warhammer Fantasy, where all gods seem pretty much like the Chaos Gods in that they can influence the mortal world, but can't directly enter it.
    • However, the Chaos gods are much more proactive in giving their followers weapons, mutations and other rewards that cause mortals to pledge themselves to them.
    • Archaon the Everchosen was once a devout Sigmarite who learned he was fated to destroy the world. He begged Sigmar for some help, which didn't come, and resigned himself to his destiny.



    Video Games 

By Studio:

  • Blizzard Entertainment's games do this surprisingly often.
    • Diablo series:
      • In Act IV of Diablo II, the player must journey through Hell and face down the titular Prime Evil, Diablo. The player is instructed in what to do and how to proceed by the Archangel Tyrael, who is forbidden to aid the player directly. Of course, given Tyrael's pitiful performance fighting Diablo and Baal two acts ago, the player is probably more powerful than him anyway. Which is a very worrying notion, if you think about it. Mere mortals are not supposed to be able to kick vastly more ass than a damn archangel. Tyrael is still a huge improvement compared to the other archangels that have no interest in saving humanity from the Prime Evils, especially the leader of the archangels Imperius who also thinks humanity needs to die.
      • Finally revealed in III: the same thing that was preventing the forces of Hell from mounting a full-scale invasion of the mortal world was preventing the Angels from fighting back. Diablo and crew were just more ready, willing and able to find loopholes in the rules and niches in the armor. This turns out to have been good for humans, as direct confrontation between angels and demons typically results in situations like The End of the World as We Know It. Unfortunately, the angels still don't help once this pact is blown to hell.
    • Warcraft: The Titans imprisoned the Old Gods on Azeroth and then left. Considering the recent events, they did a pretty poor job at it. They did show some foresight and left the dragons as guardians, but even those weren't immune to the influence of said Old Gods. And of course the Burning Legion is led by one of them who turned evil, and they do not appear to be trying to anything about him.
    • A recent event in World of Warcraft shows that they are becoming aware of how much Azeroth has been corrupted. The proposed solution: "re-originate the planet".
    • Mists of Pandaria reveals the Titans actually did just straight up kill Y'Shaarj, the most powerful of the Old Gods who had infested Azeroth. However, even this was not enough to completely get rid of him, and Y'Shaarj's influence stuck around in the forms of the Sha and the Black Heart of Y'Shaarj (the latter of which is implied to contain Y'Shaarj's actual consciousness). Permanently killing the Old Gods is simply not possible, at least not without obliterating Azeroth along with them. This is why the Titans decided to imprison the other Old Gods instead (with certain safeguards set in place should the Old Gods ever manage to corrupt Azeroth anyway).
    • The expansion Legion revealed that the Titans did try to stop the Burning Legion, but after a brutal battle in space the Titans failed and all died. The Burning Legion managed to find and capture what was left of the Pantheon's diminished souls, imprisoning them to be tortured and brainwashed. Eventually, the players do manage to free them.
    • On the other hand, there are other gods than the Titans. Elune, some of the less evil trollish loas, the Earthmother, and others are all fairly active in granting their followers powers and in some cases intervening directly. And while it's debatable whether the Holy Light counts as a "god" it's certainly very helpful.
      • Exactly how much some of the above can do is unclear however. Elune's exact nature isn't stated, and exactly what the Earthmother and Holy Light are is also sketchy.

By Series:

  • The ClueFinders 4th Grade Adventures: The Puzzle of the Pyramid introduces Egyptian gods towards the end, who provide the main characters with magical boons to help them beat up an evil god. Said gods would fight him themselves, but the passage leading to him is marked with a sign: "You must be under this height to defeat the forces of Chaos." (And the height is forty feet, no less!)
  • Corruption of Laetitia: Arch-Angels are not allowed to directly interfere with human affairs and those who do so are punished with either chains or being exiled to the Abyss.
  • In Everquest II: Sentinals Fate, the gods cannot face Roheen Theer, the big boss of the expansion because he is the Avatar of the Nameless and can easily destroy gods. It is up to the mortals to kick him back to the void.
  • In Fall from Heaven, the gods agreed to the Compact at the end of the Age of Dragons, which forbade gods and angels from intervening in Creation because their wars were tearing Erebus apart; the sword Godslayer was formed from their oaths and is capable of trivially slaying any god who breaks the Compact. However, the Compact is a bit of a mess to enforce: humans can and have summoned gods, angels and demons into the world, and while Godslayer can destroy any of the gods who swore to the Compact, angels and demons are not so oathbound...
  • In Final Fantasy XIII, the Fal'Cie are each "bound to a single Focus and granted finite power to that end". They are not happy about this.
  • In Final Fantasy XIV, it's revealed in the "Myths of the Realm" Alliance Raid that the Twelve, the gods and goddesses watching over the world, can't interfere with mortal affairs. It's even stated that, the ability that allowed Louisoux to defeat Bahamut during the Seventh Umbral Calamity wasn't them, but something more akin to the usual Primal summoning. Seeing as Hydaelyn's big plan was to prepare everyone for either escaping the star or hunting down and defeating the Endsinger, it kinda makes sense.
  • The backstory of Gladiator: Sword of Vengeance, where the Gods of Terror and Fear, Phobos and Deimos, had grown in power and the other Gods of the Roman pantheon being unable to stop them because of mortals giving up their beliefs. The human protagonist, a deceased Gladiator named Invictus Thrax, must find a way to defeat Phobos and Deimos in order to earn his way back to the world of living.
  • The first God of War has the Greek pantheon sending Kratos off to kill Ares for them, simply because Gods cannot fight or kill one another. So a mortal directly trained by a God seemed to be their best option. Somewhat off-put, however, by the fact that Kratos himself is Zeus' own demigod son.
  • Grandia II, although that's a bit of a spoiler. He's not lazy, he's dead, slain protecting the world from the same great evil that's returning now. Ironically, that evil was resurrected by the former God's High Priest who learned the truth and couldn't handle a world without a God, even if the best one he could find was half dead and evil.
  • Much of Jade Empire dealt with the difficulties of gods when it comes to controlling events that lie outside their prescribed domain. The most notable is the Water Dragon, who was unable to protect her physical form or resume her post due to her powers being limited to the production of water and guiding of the dead.
    • Also Forest Shadow, who, despite being a powerful demon, lacked the necessary strength to destroy Mother.
    • The nameless evil feeding on the psychic anguish of those who fell at Dirge could not be banished by any god for a simple reason: As it originated from outside of the world, it had no place in the cosmic order and so no god had the ability to banish it.
  • In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, the prologue describes the goddess Hylia fighting and sealing away the Demon King Demise, but while Hylia leaves messages and gifts for her chosen hero, she herself is nowhere to be seen. About half-way through the game it's revealed Hylia was left crippled by her fight with Demise and reincarnated as a human so she could maintain the seal until her chosen hero grew strong enough to destroy him.
    • Near the end of the game, it's revealed that the gods of the setting cannot directly defeat Demise or his earlier revealed, but chronologically later shown reincarnation Ganondorf. Demise was at least as powerful as Hylia herself, so she was simply not strong enough to destroy him. The only source of magic in the mortal world powerful enough to do so is the Triforce, a relic holding a fragment of the power of the creator goddessess of the pantheon that was specifically designed to be only usable by mortals who best embody its three values. Ganondorf eventually managed to bond with a fragment of the Triforce, meaning his magic was bolstered to the point that he can overwhelm any of the remaining lesser deities in Hyrule. He can only be beaten with the aid of the remaining two fragments, which can only be held by incarnations the goddess' chosen hero and the princess descended from Hylia's mortal bloodline. The best that any of Hyrule's remaining deities can do to the demon kings is seal them after the two defeat them. The pantheon spend most of their efforts preparing tools to help each incarnation of the hero and princess to defeat the demon king when he inevitably escapes or revives.
  • Manafinder: Although Illia wants to prevent the Settlement from using manastones, she cannot directly fight mortals, since doing so would revoke her godhood. As such, she has to empower and guide her followers so that they can destroy manastones for her. When Lambda gains the favor of her siblings and clears a path to Tuonela's manastone, Illia decides that losing her divinity is worth it in order to stop Lambda, since Lambda is about to create another manastone-based civilization.
  • This is explicitly spelled out as the plot for Mortal Kombat 4; Shinnok, a rogue Elder God who took the Thunder God Raiden a near-apocalyptic attack to take him down before, and who successfully killed off most of the pantheon upon his return, is apparently not powerful enough to fend off a bunch of mortal martial artists.
    • The gods that defend realms suffer from this in that they're supposed to protect their realms from outside threats, but are ill-suited to it. Shown with Raiden and Earthrealm, if an outside realm makes a challenge in Mortal Kombat, the realm challenged can't refuse, and its defender gods can't take part in Mortal Kombat unless directly challenged. If an opposing realm wins 10 Mortal Kombats and invades the defending realm, the defending realm's gods still can't do anything since the invading realm will likely merge the realms, making its gods dominate and the defeated realm's powerless. This is the reason given as to why Raiden initially isn't in Mortal Kombat 3, with Earthrealm merged with Outworld, Outworld's gods rule and Raiden is out of job and can't do anything. His last official act, as explained in MK3's intro crawl, is to protect Earthrealm's chosen warriors' souls against Shao Kahn's invasion, sparing them from the mass soul-capturing. Though as Raiden himself explains, "Although your souls are protected against Shao Kahn's evil; your lives are not," and he is powerless to protect them from Kahn's Extermination Squads which are actively hunting them.
  • The page quote is provided by Kelemvor, god of the dead in the Forgotten Realms setting, in Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. Because he's pretty nice as gods of the dead go, he initially refused to put the souls of the Faithless into the Wall of the Faithless to be slowly consumed. However the rest of the pantheon forced him to do it because despite its evil, the Wall provides an incentive for worship: Gods Need Prayer Badly, and they're also the only source of magic in the realms.
  • The same tendency in the Forgotten Realms shows up in a big way in Baldur's Gate III. Despite the rise of the Cult of the Absolute, the Dead Three being the forces pulling the strings of said cult, and Shar being a massive interventionist bitch at times, it is strongly implied that the good gods who could intervene are being held back by Ao, the god above all who has thoughts on deities beneath him meddling too much in mortal affairs. Even then, the gods find ways to sneak in, as it's heavily implied that Withers, the mysterious undead figure who accompanies you and facilitates the resurrection of your allies, is actually the former death god Jergal, who once gave up his portfolios to the Dead Three so that they'd stop pestering him and wants to rub their failures in their faces once you actually manage to disrupt their plans.
  • Deciding the outcome of the eponymous war in Nexus War games is up to player characters because the Powers That Be can't intervene directly without provoking a proportionate response from their rivals. Some of them figured out a way around this using avatars, but the benefits of this became slim once they all had one.
  • In Persona 2, the conflict between the heroes and the forces of evil is revealed to be a cosmic contest between Nyarlatothep and Philemon, the embodiments of humanity's negative and positive aspects, respectively. The two are the most powerful beings in the setting, more than capable of rewriting reality on a whim. As they are inherently opposed, but effectively equal and incapable of destroying each other, they have agreed to restrict their conflict to observing humanity in a sort of bet on which of them humanity more defers to. The main rule of this bet is that they are not allowed to directly act in the mortal world. However, Nyarly happily ignores the terms of their agreement by possessing people, manipulating them, and taking personal action. Philemon, meanwhile, will only assist the heroes via the power of Persona and his subordinates in the Velvet Room and hopes for the best. Technically, this is to maintain the position that Humanity can overcome whatever Nyarlathotep throws at them without further intervention, but Philemon's noninterference policy is very, very flawed.
    • Though at the end of the first game of the duology when Nyarlatohtep blatantly cheats by warping someone in to win the contest for him at the last possible second after the heroes had all but won, Philemon DOES in fact appear to intervene because of the blatant unfairness of it.
  • Interesting variant from Rayman 2: The Great Escape: Rayman must summon a god who can wipe out the pirates invading the planet. The god, Polokus, is seemingly omnipotent whilst he's on the planet, but it turns out he only has power whilst he's on the planet. In the skies, he would be more helpless than a baby, so it's up to Rayman to stop the pirates on their flying ship.
  • Rune Factory 5: Lucas is a god and has amazing powers that allow them to perform all sorts of things, but they flat-out tell the protagonist that they aren't allowed to help them directly, like defeating the Big Bad or undoing a magical shroud that keeps the location of The Very Definitely Final Dungeon safe. The protagonist does get them to help though by requesting they create merely an available teleport to said dungeon's location, and the protagonist will do the rest. Lucas has no problem with doing that.
  • Tales Series:
    • Tales of the Abyss reveals there's a case of this halfway through Lorelei wants to end the Score but since he's bound up in a pact by Yulia to sustain it he can't do it himself. It also technically subverts this as Luke is the Other Lorelei and thus fully capable of doing what he wants in that regard. That said, he's hampered by a mortal form and not knowing he's Lorelei.
    • Exactly how much is going on isn't clear but in Tales of Xillia Maxwell creates a Great Spirit to guard the schism and a human who thinks she's Maxwell to deal with Exodus and the Spirix instead of, say, raining divine judgement from above. The spoilers suggest there is some limitations involved.
  • The First Born of The Trader of Stories series are bound by the Red Codex by choice - they decided this would be for the best after their Divine Conflict nearly destroyed the world. But some Jerkass Gods still find ways to dodge the law.
  • Valkyrie Profile is a particular offender. The entire point of the game is gathering up human souls to do the fighting for the gods.
  • World of Final Fantasy: Enna Kros explains to Lann and Reynn early on that every world has rules, and she herself personally designs her rules to be so absolute that even she can't break them.

    Visual Novels 
  • Hanyuu Furude of Higurashi: When They Cry says this frequently to Rika.
  • Claude Trilleo of Sunrider is practically omnipotent and could end the central conflict with a snap of her fingers, but doesn't because using too much of her power will create reality-destroying paradoxes. She thus has to carefully plan out how and when to use her powers, and will only do so in subtle ways.

    Web Animation 
  • DarkMatter2525: God cites free will (among other things) as a reason why he can't stop evil to Jeffrey, who points out the inconsistency regarding this.
  • RWBY: The Gods of Light and Dark do have the power to reverse death, however, they do not because there is a balance between life and death that must be maintained. When a young woman petitions the God of Light to bring back her lover, a great hero who died from sickness, Light refuses. When she petitions Dark, he instantly restores the dead lover because he's so happy a mortal would seek his help rather than his more popular brother. Light intervenes and reveals she tricked Dark, who returns the lover to the afterlife and helps his brother punish the woman. That punishment leads to her becoming the Big Bad. Light eventually reincarnates her lover with Resurrective Immortality to try and save the world as the Big Good, locking them into a Forever War.

    Web Comics 
  • In El Goonish Shive, Immortals have near god-like power on the spiritual plane but on the physical plane they are weaker than many magic users. Due to this and the rules of their Obstructive Code of Conduct, they empower and guide humans who have magic potential when they need something done on the physical plane.
  • This is somewhat of a reoccurring issue in Lessa, which covers numerous reasons why the gods don't often interfere, and why when they do, it's because things have reached the Godzilla Threshold.
    • Weary of watching humans hurt one another, Lessa decided to subvert this trope by descending into the human realm (against Ra's will, as Ra knew that the world would balance itself out)... and in doing so, despite his good intentions, he caused virtually the entire conflict of the present by introducing a godly power to humanity.
    • The original reason Lessa and Ares had a falling out in the past was because Ares wanted Lessa to use his divine power to bring about world peace. Lessa, who wished for humans to grow through compassion and empathy, refused on the basis that using might to oppress people would make him little more than a tyrant.
    • Even the gods have rules they're bound by—seen best when Lessa resurrected a human and in turn fell from grace. In the Season 2 finale, he breaks yet another taboo in his attempt to defeat Ares by bringing his true, godly form into the human realm, after his previous form was killed. Ra's Apostles are appalled, as they realize the price for this will be severe.
    • Ra himself isn't above defying the laws of the world either, though he prefers a more subtle, longterm approach, such as pulling enough strings so that he could manifest through Rano's body to kill Ares, with him even remarking that he, Lessa, and Rano would share the weight of karma for this act.
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • The Gods are all bound by rules that govern what they can or cannot do and how they interact with each other. This has gotten into Obstructive Code of Conduct territory at times, but there's a good reason why the rules exist. At the beginning of creation, before they were made, the Gods got into a lot of petty squabbles and accidentally created a God-killing abomination known as The Snarl that wiped out an entire pantheon. This is why even Chaotic Gods and Evil Gods stand by the rules. For their personal goals or on behalf of their followers, they're willing to bend the rules, exploit loopholes, but never outright break the rules. No matter how inconvenient they are, the risk of accidentally creating another Snarl is so terrifying that no one wants to take that chance.
    • The main plotline continues this theme in both major and subtle ways. The world is an entire Tailor-Made Prison used to contain The Snarl, but there are rifts in the world that The Snarl can use to escape. The Gods could fix it, but they'd need to unmake the world and create a new one to do it. This is why the group of mortals called the Order of the Scribble built Cosmic Keystones over the rifts to prevent things from deteriorating so much that The Gods would have to step in. Additionally, due to their Obstructive Code of Conduct, the gods cannot act to affect events in the mortal realm and thus must use their agents (clerics, paladins) to get things done. Failure to uphold this pact would cause the "freeware spells" pact between good and evil gods to unravel, thereby preventing clerics of any god from sharing vital spells from other gods' portfolios — like healing. And the gods themselves are vulnerable to the Snarl due to its composition of various divine elements, while mortals are also made from multiple divine elements and have a chance of resisting the Snarl, explaining why they don't have a special clause to directly help the mortals during Snarl events.
    • This ultimately works in both the heroes' favor and against them. On the one hand, when dealing with the evil goddess Hel, she can't directly harm them or send her army of Death Giants, forcing her to use proxies instead, but on the other hand, the gods on the protagonists side can't directly aid them either. One side breaking the pact will give the other side free rein to retaliate, so they rely on loopholes and Rules Lawyering to either aid or obstruct the Order of the Stick. The one time Hel does try to directly intervene, it's when she's sure that the other gods aren't watching because they're too busy paying attention to somewhere else, thus giving her a chance to do something subtle that will make anyone who does notice hesitate to act. Luckily, Thor and Loki anticipated this and invoke their right to dispute custody of souls so that someone is watching her.
    • Gods are also bound on a far deeper level by how their followers view them. They are incapable of acting contrary to their followers' belief. With the rules, they can bend them, exploit loopholes, and even cheat if they think they can get away with it, but it is literally impossible for them to act in a way that is contrary to mortal belief. No matter how much it would be more beneficial for themselves if they could, they simply cannot defy their fundamental nature.
    • Thor needs to open communications with the Dark One, but doing so is tricky since the latter has no place in any of the existing covenants, or even a framework for safe communication. Attempting to do so anyway risks creating another Snarl from even the slightest disagreement. His solution is to turn to a mortal, specifically, Durkon, to open talks with the Dark One's high priest, Redcloak.
    • Durkon eventually manages to directly talk with Thor while he's in the afterlife awaiting resurrection. He takes the chance to try to ask if there's any direct divine intervention that Thor can provide, but Thor says there's "a bunch of dumb god laws tying [his] hands". Thor does give Durkon information that could help him once he gets resurrected. Odin puts it best:
      Odin: We wrote them that way on purpose. There are fewer Good gods than Not-Good gods, you know. If everyone could play in the sandbox all the time, there wouldn't be a lot of castles left unkicked!
  • Our Little Adventure: The pantheon has a collective agreement only to operate on the world of Manjulias through the rules of the Dungeons & Dragons-based RPG Mechanics 'Verse. When one Lawful Good Celestial Paragon breaks the rules to send some direct insight, a Chaotic Evil succubus immediately gets released to Manjulias to restore the balance.
  • In Sluggy Freelance the Goddess of Goodness runs away from the Demon King in terror; she'd already lost to him once before, and that was before she spent a thousand years trapped inside a refrigerator. It falls to Torg, a quasi-ordinary human with a Cool Sword, to fight off the Demon King so they can escape the Dimension of Pain.

    Web Original 
  • Critical Role: The gods of Exandria, by the time of the main campaigns, have been trapped behind the Divine Gate since the end of the Calamity, which prevents both the benevolent Prime Deities and the Betrayer Gods from physically entering the Prime Material Plane. While they act through the will of heroes, they are not always able to interfere.
    • This became a particular big problem at the end of Campaign 1 since the evil Vecna figures out how to arise to godhood on the wrong side of the Divine Gate, forcing Vox Machina to face an unchecked god alone.
    • Discussed between Jester and her patron the Traveler in Campaign 2. Since the Traveler is later revealed to be an Archfey rather than a traditional god (though he gains more godlike abilities through the faith of his followers), he can't do as much for Jester as proper gods can, and has trouble splitting his attention among the influx of followers he's gained. He even tells Jester at one point I Have No Idea What I'm Doing, and asks for her help so he can stop being a god. However, he does show up in subtle ways, once through a barkeep who points Jester's friends in the right direction when they need to save her, and through Jester's pet weasel Sprinkle.
  • In Moonflowers, the Irish gods are trying to help Alima Song break the curse that The Wild Hunt put on her and her family. As much as they detest how a family is marked for slaughter, they're at their wits' end trying to stop their leader the Hunter, because too much interference would anger him into killing more people, and trying to make him stop hunting the Song family only means replacing them with OTHER victims, so Alima's father Ned Song has to make a Blood Oath to kill him. It's eventually revealed that his full title is "the Horned Hunter," and that he's a force of nature.
  • Tales From My D&D Campaign: This works to the party's advantage during the Albtraum arc. If the party had entered the Albtraum's domain of their own free will, the Albtraum could have wiped them out of existence with a thought. But since the Albtraum instead extended its realm beyond its usual borders to trap them, it is required by divine law to at least give the party a chance to survive and escape.

    Western Animation 
  • Class of the Titans: The explanation for why the gods don't just take down Cronus themselves is that a prophecy states the seven heroes will defeat him. It makes sense why they play a supportive role - they are Greek gods, they know personally that You Can't Fight Fate.
  • In Gargoyles, the Third Race have vast godlike power, but their ruler Oberon has magically forbidden them from interfering with mortal life, unless they get permission (or find a loophole that resembles permission). One simple way around this law is to temporarily turn into a mortal human. Normal people can get dragged into things if they're in the area two of the third Race are having a fight in (Raven vs. Grandmother, the Banshee vs. the knight). Oberon himself feels no obligation to follow his own rule.
  • It's played for laughs in God, the Devil and Bob. God explains that he can't directly intervene without violating free will, and a world without free will would just be him playing with puppets. He then casually mentions that he already tried a world like that and rapidly got bored with it.
  • Invoked in The Legend of Korra in season 2, where Unalaq tells Korra that as the Avatar she should try to remain neutral despite the tensions between the Southern and Northern Water Tribes that resulted when the North landed their troops in the South to "guard the spirit portal" and help the South re-embrace spirituality. This results in most of the Southern Tribe seeing her as a traitor for not supporting them and trying to go after Unalaq themselves, as Korra is usually just telling people to calm down instead of acting as an intermediary.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Considering there are a few godlike alicorns (and eventually one godlike draconequis) in the supporting cast, this occurs quite a few times in order to put the Mane 6 at the center of the action:
    • In the Season 1 and Season 2 openers, Princess Celestia is unable to help because the problem requires the Elements of Harmony, possessed by the Mane 6.
    • In "Canterlot Wedding Part 2", once Queen Chrysalis is revealed, Celestia attempts to stop her. However, Shining Armor's love for Princess Cadance, which Chrysalis has been absorbing, makes Chrysalis so powerful even Celestia can't stop her, to everyone's horror. Princess Luna, meanwhile, slept through the whole thing (since she is the God of the Moon and is only awake at night). Downplayed because Cadance herself, also an alicorn, ends up being the one to stop her, since she is the Princess of Love.
    • In "To Where And Back Again Part 2", Discord's attempt to teleport into the Changeling hive to save everyone who has been kidnapped (but mainly Fluttershy) fails because the queen's throne absorbs all magic within a certain radius. This forces Discord to walk for the first time in millennia, which he is none too pleased about.
  • It's hinted over the course of The Owl House and eventually confimed in the Grand Finale that the Titan has actually been doing his best to thwart Belos' evil plans, but being a barely living spirit trapped in the In-Between Realm severely limits what influence he can have in the world of the living. It's only after Luz is killed by Belos and ends up in the In-Between Realm with him that he has a chance to interfere directly, giving her all his remaining lifeforce to bring her back to life and stop Belos once and for all.
  • In the Transformers metaseries, Unicron is generally a lot more active and impactful that his brother Primus despite the two being supposedly equal in power. This is because while they're both planets, Primus is much more limited in what he is willing to do. Primarily because he split his consciousness into innumerable fragments to give life to his offspring, the Transformers while his physical body acts as their home planet, Cybertron. He can't transform out of planet mode without causing mass destruction to his inhabitants and can't regain his full power without forcibly consuming all of them; two acts that are anathema to a creator and protector deity. Instead, he remains splintered and slumbering as part of an elaborate plan to use his innumerable "children" to defeat his evil brother without risking the harm to the fabric of reality that all their previous fights have caused. Primus himself only directly acts in the very rare situations where the potential danger to reality presented outweighs whatever damage his intervention could cause. Unicron, being a destroyer deity and all, doesn't share these restrictions and freely throws his divine weight around on his eternal quest to devour all of creation.
  • VeggieTales: "A Snoodle's Tale" is about Snoodle-Doo, a young Snoodle who's belittled by the other Snoodles. A kindly stranger invites Snoodle-Doo into his cave, then reveals that he made Snoodle-Doo, the other Snoodles, and the world. Snoodle-Doo asks him why, if he can do all that, he doesn't make the Snoodles obey his commands. The stranger replies that a gift that's demanded is no gift at all.


Video Example(s):


Height Problem

The Egyptian gods have their reasons why they can't fight the forces of Chaos themselves.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (10 votes)

Example of:

Main / GodsHandsAreTied

Media sources: