History of the Phrase
It’s important to note the ironic origins of this phrase. According to The Word Counter, there is a (somewhat doubtful) universal tradition about the origin of this phrase:
There’s a record of this attribution to Bradford in A Treatise on Prayer written by Edward Bickersteth in 1822:
“The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, ‘there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.’ He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end.”
As universal tradition, or legend, has it, Bradford uttered the expression using his own name when seeing criminals being led to their death, realizing it could be him. Interestingly, he didn’t escape such a fate for long: He was burned at the stake in 1555.
Whether Bradford actually said this or not, the story does a good job at illustrating the hypocrisy of the expression. It suggests the warning, “You’d better be careful about your assumptions regarding God’s grace. You may be closer to the person you pity than you think.”
From the Lips of Passersby
Working as I do with people who use drugs and struggle with addiction, I hear this phrase a lot. Granted, it’s old-fashioned, but people still say it. Usually, you hear it from the lips of passersby, observing someone in a difficult circumstance. I’ve heard it from folks shaking their heads in pity at a person experiencing homelessness curled up on the sidewalk. Ostensibly, they say it to remind themselves not to be judgmental, and that’s a good thing. This phrase sounds like it says, “I could be in the same boat if I didn’t have the grace of God in my life. So, I need to be gracious to them.”
On the Backend…
But, if you listen carefully, this phrase says something entirely different. On the backend, it says, “I’m not like this other person, because I have the grace of God in my life.” It reminds me of the…
Pharisee [who] stood over by himself and prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not greedy, dishonest, and unfaithful in marriage like other people. And I am really glad that I am not like that tax collector over there… The tax collector stood off at a distance and did not think he was good enough even to look up toward heaven. He was so sorry for what he had done that he pounded his chest and prayed, “God, have pity on me! I am such a sinner (Luke 18.11, 13 CEV).”
On the backend, this phrase says that I’m better than the other person. It implies that I’m spiritually superior. And this attitude completely goes against the point of grace.
A Common Misconception
This phrase presumes that the reason I don’t suffer from addiction, poverty, or other calamity is because God has given me special grace not given to this other person. What arrogance! It presumes that believers are blessed, and unbelievers are not blessed. And it presumes that those who struggle must not be believers.
In the book of Job, many of Job’s friends felt this way. “You must have done something wrong,” they told him. “You must deserve the destruction that fell on you and your family.” Job’s friends gave counsel that aligned with the common misconception that good people prosper, while sinners struggle. The presumption is that grace is something we earn by being good. Such a notion forgets the meaning of grace entirely.
God’s Unmerited Favor
The word grace means God’s unmerited favor. There is nothing that anyone can do to earn it, and nothing that anyone can do to deny it. Jesus said God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the righteous as well as the wicked. in other words, God continually gives grace to the world, no matter what. It’s not a matter of deserving it. We don’t get grace because we’re good. We get grace because God is good.
Grace and Grits
When I was young, I heard a sermon that stuck with me. I don’t remember who preached it, but this idea is not mine. The preacher said that grace is like grits. In the American South, when you order off the menu at some diners, grits comes as part of the meal. If they bring you your food and you didn’t order grits, you might tell the server, “I didn’t ask for this, and I’m not paying for it.” Then the server will reply, “Oh, Sugar, you don’t have to ask for grits. Grits just comes.” Grace is like grits. You don’t have to ask for it. It’s not a matter of inviting Jesus into your heart to receive it. Grace just comes.
If we had to believe it in order to receive it, if we had to ask for it, then, that belief and request would be a good work that we did to please God and deserve that blessing. In that case, it wouldn’t be grace. It would no longer be God’s unmerited favor. It would be something that we received because we earned it by believing. But, since by definition, grace cannot be earned, grace is like grits. It just comes.
We Create Injustice
Therefore, we shouldn’t say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Because everyone has God’s grace. Grace is not what keeps one person from addiction, while another person succumbs. The lack of divine grace does not cause poverty or unjust circumstances. Instead, we create injustice in the world when we look down on someone else and presume that we are more special than they are, that we are the recipients of God’s grace, and they are not. At its worst, this phrase promotes the very injustices that caused the trauma which underlies addiction, poverty, and so much human pain.
What Should We Say?
So, if we shouldn’t use this phrase, what should we say? Let’s try this—Let’s abbreviate that phrase. “There, but for the grace of God, go I” becomes, “There go I.” By removing the notion that divine grace qualifies me and disqualifies them, I make myself their equal. I understand that on a mystical level, there is no difference between them and me. Instead of saying, “That could be me,” it’s better to say, “That is me.” Let’s try to understand that we are all linked together in spirit. When our neighbors on the street suffer, we hurt too. And when someone is trapped by addiction, we are caught ourselves.
This mystical union does not simply link one individual to another. Instead, it melts us into one. The apostle Paul communicated this when he said, “In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ (Galatians 3.28 MSG).” I can no longer judge people by the binaries of black and white, gay or straight, addict or sober, rich or poor, Republican or Democrat, citizen or foreigner, sinner or saint. I can no longer say, “I am #Blessed, and you are #Not.” Instead, my blessedness is so related to yours that I cannot truly delight in my blessing until my neighbor is safe and well.
This applies to societies and nations as much as it applies to individuals. For example, when Americans look at neighbors in developing countries and say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” we judge them for their relative poverty and presume a lot about God’s grace. We presume there is something we’ve done to deserve our wealth. We conclude that for some reason, they deserve their humbler situation. Somehow, we think that we are different from them and that there isn’t one universal Spirit linking all humankind. With a little more understanding of mystical union, the world would be a lot better off.
Stop Saying, “There, but for the Grace of God, Go I”
So, the next time you see someone who is down and out, think twice before you use this phrase. Instead of saying, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” try saying, “There go I.” By embracing this attitude, we tear down the dividing wall of hostility and create peace instead of pity.
For Further Reading, Check Out My Other Articles:
- Jesus and Trauma-Informed Care
- Retributive vs. Restorative Justice: Doing Good to Those Who Harm Us
- What’s the Best Way for Churches to Do Benevolence?
- What Jesus Said to the Homeless Man