Continuing my thoughts on the topic of grace, particularly the idea that God’s grace provides strength and power, not just favored status, I’d like to look at the common phrase, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
Several websites confirm an understanding of this phrase that is more-or-less the way I have normally understood it.
For example, The Phrase Finder defines the meaning as “I too, like someone seen to have suffered misfortune, might have suffered a similar fate, but for God’s mercy.”
Adrian Room, writing in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, says that the phrase (normally uttered upon observing the disaster or disgrace that has befallen someone as a result of their actions or misdoings) “implies that most of us have committed the same follies, sins etc., but have been fortunate enough to escape the consequences.”
The Free Dictionary has an entry explaining the phrase to mean that, “I would likely have experienced or done the same bad thing if God had not been watching over me.”
Finally, here are the definitions provided by Wiktionary:
- A recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, if it weren’t for the blessing/kindness/luck bestowed by fate or the Divine.
- Man’s fate is in God’s hands.
- More generally, our fate is not entirely in our own hands.
Each of these definitions is true. It’s not my intention to dispute these definitions, but to provide an alternative mindset for thinking about this phrase. The standard thought behind this phrase is that we are passive. I am attempting to change my thinking about the grace of God to include an active element.
“There but for the grace of God, go I,” not because I passively managed to avoid (by luck or by providence) what befell someone else, but because God granted me grace to live a different life.
I still recognize that, in my own power, I could not keep myself from the same behavior and the same results, no matter how hard I try or how much I want to. However, through God’s grace, I don’t just experience different circumstances. My life is actually different. I am a different person. “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift,” his exceeding grace, which is in us (2 Cor. 9:14-15, ASV). Quoting Matthew Henry again, this grace “enables and inclines” our hearts to do what we could not (if we wanted) and would not (if we were able) do on our own.