It’s an old saying of uncertain origin, but in some ways, it’s a good one. It’s meant to be a recognition of our common humanity: we are all vulnerable to both sin and misfortune.
When we see someone in distress, it can create an echoing distress in us. And at that moment, we have a choice. We can push the distress away, by thinking or saying something that demeans the other or shields ourselves:
- “She deserves it.”
- “He had it coming.”
- “That would never happen to me.”
Or we can recognize that we are fragile too; each of us is broken in his or her own way. Who among us has never sinned (1 John 1:8)? Who hasn’t had to pay the price for our own arrogance or ignorance? Who hasn’t made bad choices we wish we could take back?
“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” The saying sounds pious enough. But sometimes, it presumes to know, at least in broad strokes, why the other person is suffering, and implicitly passes moral judgment.
But no one can really know all the reasons why particular people suffer, the whole truth about their motivations, decisions, and circumstances. Moreover, it’s presumptuous to suggest that if we are not suffering, it’s because we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and the other person is not.
Think, for example, of Jesus’ tale of the Pharisee and the tax collector. The tax collector, knowing his unworthiness, does not even dare to lift his eyes toward heaven. He can only pray for mercy.
And he receives it.
The Pharisee, however, is condemned for his self-serving display. He treats the tax collector as someone of no account (that’s the literal sense of the verb Luke uses), as if the tax collector was nothing more than a spiritual stepladder to raise himself in the eyes of others. In Jesus’ eyes, the man’s words amount to nothing more than pious braggadocio: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people…” (Luke 18:11, NRSV).
A pompous, arrogant braggart? Perhaps. A manipulative, self-important, social-climbing villain? Maybe. It’s easy to imagine the Pharisees that way. That’s yet one more way for us to reassure ourselves that we’re the ones who “get it.” Man alive, those Pharisees sure can be clueless.
But imagine with me that the Pharisee looks down at the tax collector and says, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” What would those words mean?
Perhaps he actually pities the tax collector: Poor, benighted soul. But his pity is contaminated by his smug superiority as he co-opts God’s favor for himself. His use of the word “grace” has little to do with real grace, with the mercy God shows to the humble of heart.
We must never presume to know whether God’s grace is operative even in what we would judge to be the most misdirected or destitute of lives.
And we should never cease to wonder, with gratitude, why we should be its recipients ourselves.