The phrase “There but for the grace of God go I” is fairly well known, yet its origin and true meaning are often misstated. I’ve typically heard it spoken when someone gets a terrible disease, has an accident, hits a financial downturn, or similar. In fact, here’s an explanation taken from the internet: “A recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, if it weren’t for the blessing of the Divine.”
But wait. There’s something much deeper going on. According to historical accounts, the expression dates back to a Church Of England minister named John Bradford, who saw a group of prisoners being led from the Tower Of London up Tower Hill to the guillotine. “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford,” he declared. Devout believers applied the concept individually, and it became the statement we know today.
The acknowledgement is not at all that I have escaped misfortune. Instead, it is an admission that only by God’s grace I have escaped being a thief, murderer, rapist, or worse. Many people would say, “I could never do those things.” Don’t be so sure. As the apostle Paul wrote, “let him who thinks he stands take heed, lest he fall.”
Personally, I am grateful for the sole reason I sit here in comfort, rather than facing the equivalent of a somber march near the bank of the Thames River. Because there but for the grace of God go I.