Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"There, But For the Grace of God..."

Partial Theological Truth in a Lost Conversation Piece

I don't know the first time I heard the statement, but I heard it a lot in the first third of my life, and a fair amount in the second two thirds thus far. I remember a number of older people in the church of my youth saying it, and hearing various presenters in talks, actors in roles, and people in conversations say it, even though some didn't seem to know what they were talking about.


You don't hear it very often today.


It's the rather dramatic statement: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."


I think it isn't used much anymore because the concept of the grace of God isn't well understood or even contemplated in our contemporary setting. I'm not sure that everyone who used the phrase in earlier years really understood what they were saying all that clearly.


For those of you unfamiliar with the saying and how it was used, it's pretty simple. In conversation, someone would mention a person known to all in the conversation who had just experienced a bad turn of events, or worse, created a bad turn of events that led to all sorts of negative consequences. Usually the speaker would describe the terrible results of the actions or choices of the person under discussion. As the description came to a close, the speaker, to make sure you did not assume that he (or she) was somehow enjoying this story of personal misfortune or gloating over someone else's pain, would say, somberly, "there, but for the grace of God, go I." What they usually meant was, "that could happen to me (or by extension, any of us)!"


Of course, in the realm of human hurts and tragedies, the statement is exactly right. We hear about cancer, and know it could come to us. We learn of someone making a decision that goes horribly wrong, and know that we could make just as bad a decision. And if we are humble enough, when we hear of a great sin committed by someone who knows God and thus knows better, we recognize that, in our own hearts lie the seeds of the very same sin, or sins very much the same in character. 
And the difference for all of us is the grace of God.


God's grace saves me, so that when others remain hardened in sin, die, and face the coming judgment without salvation, the only difference is grace.

God spares me some disease that others contract, or spares me the consequences of a stupid decision that has cost others greatly, or does not cause me to experience all the natural consequences that I could experience due to my sin. It's not because I deserve any of these things, but because of grace.


And so, any time I consider another's difficulties that I am not experiencing, I know that it is God's grace that has spared me.


And yet, this old saying is only partially true. For God's grace is also present and active when I do get the disease, or have to face the consequences of bad choices or sinful rebellion, or any of the negatives that others go through. I don't know if people meant it this way, but there was often a kind of pious sigh of relief in the statement, as if this sufferer wasn't as in touch with God's grace as the speaker. But that isn't necessarily true--perhaps the sufferer was someone with an especially close relationship to the Lord Jesus and his grace--after all, Paul said in Philippians 3 that knowing Christ intimately would be to enter "the fellowship of his sufferings." 


I can be sure that any and every good that I receive is a result of God's grace. But I should never forget that often it is in the sufferings and setbacks of providence, the crises and the consequences created by my own actions, and the heavy and hard times I go through that God's forgiving and enabling grace is most clearly seen: sustaining me, strengthening me, correcting me, and comforting me. 
Perhaps, sometimes I should say, with relief and gratitude, "there, but for the grace of God, go I."
And in the other times, I can say, "there, within the grace of God, go I."