But For the Grace of God Go I

Is this saying another way to blame God? One day I was reading the newspaper about a tragic accident that happened on I-95 where a six-year-old child was killed. The driver was the father who had a car load of children on their way to a church function. All came out fine except for the death of the father’s child. One of the children said to another, “God was with us,” which those around were in agreement and with much thankfulness. But I can’t help but think, was God not there for the six-year-old who was killed? And what about the grieving family?

Grace go IHow many times have we heard, “There but for the grace of God go I?” Often we hear that phrase when it has to do with escaping some horrible accident, escaping death, various addictions, or some type of disaster. We may hear something similar, “By God’s grace” He helped me find a job, find a spouse, pay my bills, that my house didn’t get flooded during the storm, etc., etc..

I used to have a co-worker who used that phrase quite often. I couldn’t help but cringe every time she said it. Finally one day I asked her, “What about those who were not as fortunate to experience all of this supposed grace? What about those who end up with flooded homes, no job, or loss of a child in some horrible accident, etc. etc.? ” I could see I caught her off guard and she stumbled for an answer.

I have never noticed anyone using the phrase directly at the person experiencing the horrible tragedies in their life.  Could using the phrase be an unintentional smug remark when others are faced with disaster, disgrace, or other misfortunes, as a result of their choices or no fault of their own? Does it not imply that the person making the remark could have been in the same position but was fortunate enough to escape such disasters because God favored them more than the other? Is such an expression Biblical or implied? I have yet to find it.

I have a friend from Germany who needed help with the grammar of this expression. He could guess from the context but didn’t get the exact meaning. He said the sentence would not work in his native tongue.  My reply to him is that one could explain it as a person who experiences bad things in life, but to the other person, it could have happened to them, but it didn’t because God was watching over the “favored one.” For example, one year my neighbors around the corner from us were flooded out of their homes from a week long rainfall. I could easily have said, “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s another way of saying, “Too bad God wasn’t watching over and protecting you, but God protected me instead from such disaster.”

I think it is such a terrible saying for those who face a string of personal catastrophes and to think we come out unscathed because God favored us over them. It is one of the dangers of attributing an event to God’s direct involvement when it could have been natural causes.

Another danger of this kind of thinking is concluding that disastrous events did not happen to you because of your good relationship with God, or by those who think they have a relationship with God. There is one thing I do know. Jesus said,

“That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” Matthew 5:45.

It is not a matter of who is getting blessed and who isn’t. Or who is enjoying life and who is not. As someone has aptly said,

“God is not rewarding the unjust with his rain, nor is he trying to frustrate the just by raining on the unjust. It is simply a testimony to God’s impartiality.”


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1 Response to But For the Grace of God Go I

  1. Rich Kelley says:

    Thank you for the article. I’m not sure who came up with the phrase however I know that it is used by all walks of life. I know that the self help program of AA uses the phrase constantly. The many self help 12 step programs that copy AA also use the phrase. My problem is that the God of AA and the 12 step programs is always a god of their understanding and not the God of the scriptures. This might explain why to a person that seeks their knowledge and wisdom from the scriptures the phrase is out of place and uncalled for. If I have to be self righteous to explain something I rather not use the quote.

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