There, but for the grace of God …

There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford.                    ~ John Bradford

The exact origin of the saying: There, but for the grace of God, go I is unclear. Most attribute it to a derivation of something John Bradford said during his imprisonment in the Tower of London. Bradford is thought to have said There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford as he witnessed a group of prisoners being led to their execution. Bradford, who was later martyred himself, was known as a kind and gentle man.

There, but for the grace of God, go I is something I’ve heard a lot. It sounds good on the surface, but it’s always bothered me.

On the one hand, I do think there are a few, like John Bradford, who are truly compassionate. They step down from the judgement seat and say Given the right combination of events, that could be me.

But more often there seems to be an underlying tone… Thank God, at least I didn’t do that. At least I didn’t go there!

Jesus told a story about it in Luke 18:

 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So the question is where is my there? Where but for the grace of God haven’t I been? And what about those who are there? When I can identify that place I need to tread very carefully in my heart, lest I, like the Pharisee, become a stone collector.

Author: Debbie

A former counselor and public speaker, I'm grateful for many, many things - God's grace most of all!

42 thoughts on “There, but for the grace of God …”

    1. Beautiful Ann!
      Thank you! 😀
      “If not for your goodness
      if not for your grace
      I don’t know where I would be today
      if not for your kindness I never could say
      I’m still standing
      if not for your mercy
      if not for your love
      I most likely would have given up
      if not for your favor I never could say
      I’m still standing
      but by the grace of God.”

    1. Wendy –
      Thank you so much. How very kind.
      I’m experiencing very little internet connectivity, but I hope to visit you soon!
      ~ Debbie

  1. At a Quaker weekend I met a lovely man who alluded to his violent past. He said “I lived in the plague zone, so I caught the plague”. All human beings do the best we can, under difficult circumstances. I begged a teenager not to prostitute herself: but she had had to run away from her family, and she needed money.

    1. Hello Clare –
      Great illustrations of the need to travel and tread lightly with empty pockets and open hands and open hearts.
      Thank you for spending a few moments here and for telling me to “retrieve” you. WP usually gets it right but recently I’ve found several folks I buried by the filter.
      Grace and joy to you, Clare,
      ~ Debbie

  2. I’d never thought of this as a comparison verse. For me it’s always meant, I can take no credit for any benefits I have over another. It’s all a gift. And it’s not that the other person hasn’t merited the gift. I’m not better. They’re not worse. I’ve simply been blessed this time. Interesting how something speaks differently to each person, isn’t it? Great thought provoking piece. Thanks.

    1. Hello lutheranladies and welcome to TMG!
      I certainly don’t think the expression is inherently bad – and in your case and the case of John Bradford, clearly it’s an expression of humble gratitude.
      From time to time, I talk about about some of the Christian vernacular we use,mostly to remind myself to be thoughtful about the words I use.
      This has caused me to talk significantly less than I used to! 😉
      Once again, thank you for stopping by and thank you so much for adding your thoughts!
      ~ Debbie

    1. Hello Marney –
      I doubt that we could possibly overestimate the damage that comparison causes. You’re so right, it’s a treacherous road and one we can keep reminding each other to avoid. 😀
      ~ Debbie

    1. Dear Ann –
      It’s quite a thoughtful bunch that share here.
      I’m always so taken by the grace and thoughtfulness with which people express very different points of view.
      Doesn’t it just show how very differently our words are weighed?
      I’m with you, my friend, thank God for grace!
      ~ Debbie

    1. Thank you, kind friend.
      I’ve been having a great deal of internet non-connectivity so I haven’t been able to thank you sooner. I’ll drop by tomorrow and visit! 😉 (if the clouds allow)
      ~ Debbie

    1. Oh Linda, my friend, I’ll be as honest with you as I can.
      I’ve been to my “there” so often that I don’t think I have one left.
      I hope I’m not surprised to learn I’m wrong about that.
      That is, most of all, why I write about grace.
      ~ Debbie

  3. Great post Debbie. I like Heidi’s comment a lot.
    At the same time, I have a different take on this, sort of.

    I have said “There, but for the grace of God, go I”, but I am not comparing me to anyone else, nor am I thinking that I am better then “they” are. Instead, I’m thinking that if it was not for God’s grace to me, I may very well be doing “that” whatever “that” is at the time. I came up from a not so good life as have many of us, my only point being that if God had not extended grace, I would still be doing many a bad thing!

    Grace is freely available to us all, but not if we choose not to accept it, or not to accept Christ to begin with.

    I just see what goes on around me and thank God for His grace to me, otherwise I would still be living a life outside of Him. After all, God was and is under no obligation to save me, yet He did. This is such a complex subject! It seems that way anyway. 🙂

    I agree we should not be comparing ourselves to others and thinking that, “at least I did not do that”. If one thinks that way, one has a very limited understanding of grace.

    I hope I made sense here…If not, well say so! just my thoughts!

    1. Greg –
      Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response.
      I think (just my opinion) 😉 that we have several different threads weaving in and out of the discussion here.

      First there is the intent of the statement.
      This of course, is a matter of the heart. That, I believe to be at the core. We barely/rarely fully know our own hearts. Grace leaves no room for assessing anyone else’s.

      Your comment speaks frankly and openly to your heart – a heart that’s filled with gratitude to God for saving you, not just eternally, but from yourself, as well. I pray that is also the heart that I express.
      The Pharisee in the story Jesus told had a heart that was transparently different. He measured sin and metered out judgement on both himself and others.

      Then there is the hearing – as Deb and Heidi laid out.
      What might be said with good intent can certainly be heard as condemnation.
      Now this area is always complex because it goes back to the first – our inability to know another’s heart.

      Part of living a life of grace for me (again, my opinion) means that I’m never free from the weight of my words.
      We all carry around words that we wear as a burden on our backs, whether or not the speaker intended it so,

      I recognize this as a sticky-wicket because certainly there are time when weighty things need saying.

      I’m not a fan of clichés, particularly “Christian” ones (as I wrote about in Forgive and Forget)..I think that they are often a bit of truth that has veered off course. But more than that, they are frequently said without thought and that’s where the trouble begins.

      I believe my comment is likely now longer that my original post so I’ll wind it up. 😉
      Your comment made perfect sense and I thank you very much for sharing it!
      ~ Debbie

  4. OK, this is almost too wise. Dang girlfriend. Funny thing, tax collectors have a job to do … if that’s a sin, well hmmm. I’m taking things a little too literally, and i’m trying to be funny.

    But seriously, i suppose i’ve compared my “sin level” to others’ sin levels (when, as Heidi said: NO SUCH THING) … a sin’s a sin. I have confessed it over and over again that i am unclean. I know we are all worthy of grace because God is giving … the question is receiving. I feel it at times, because i’ve been shown grace and goodness. Or, perhaps i’ve accepted it.

    The one thing that bothers me is that if i walk by a street person and think, “thre, but for the grace of God …” am i saying, “oh, that person is not accepting grace, and that is bad?” or am i supposed to preach to him/her?

    Couldn’t that have been me if i didn’t open my heart to God’s Grace (my HP)?

    It doesn’t make me better, and i also CANNOT judge another who doesn’t accept or FIND grace.

    All of this is about judgment (by humans) … and it comes down to something that we can’t explain, but that we feel.

    What if we never felt it?

    And, most of us probably don’t know the meaning of GRACE like you do, my wise friend!!! Earth Angel, Debbie. xo mel

    1. dear mel –
      Oh friend, believe me when I say that what I know about grace wouldn’t fill a thimble. But at least I’ve finally found a thimble! 😉
      I think your example, like Debby’s and the men at ARC, embodies the good intent of this saying.
      I agree, the question isn’t whether or not there is sufficient grace, but whether or not we are willing to receive it.
      love and abundant grace to you,
      ~ Debbie

  5. Beautifully written, Debbie. I’m writing my first fiction novel right now, and it has a similar theme as to what you’re speaking of here. It’s not a Christian novel, but it has an underlying theme about morality, and about examining oneself instead of judging others.

  6. I’m with Debbie. It sounds like God is favoring some of us and letting others fall through the cracks when we say ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. I can’t think of one time when this is appropriate for me to think, let alone say. It sounds so Biblical and all, but I think as soon as it crosses my mind, I should say, ‘Satan get behind me.’ instead.

    Once I start thinking that He is giving me grace and not giving it equally to others, I’m in deep trouble. Others may choose not to access that grace, but I believe it’s there for the taking when we can meet it with a modicum of willingness.

    Bringing it home: grace is there for me. It’s there so I can stop the comparison game. When I feel like Debby says that it’s us versus them, then I’m refusing his grace to see it’s all us all the time.

    There are only two classes here: sinners and savior. Period. No matter what I think is ‘worse’ than my own sin, it’s not. Sin is sin. I am never better or more graced. We’re in trouble if we’ve never been to the point of figuratively beating our breast in awareness of our sinful condition. If I drop the attitude, I drop the rocks.

    1. Heidi – Once again, your comment is better than my post.
      Yes! Sin is sin – period.
      I’m thinking that I if I truly grasped that, I’d be much more horrified by my own and much less focused on the behavior of others.
      Thank you so much for sharing your passion and your wisdom.
      I count on it!
      ~ Debbie

  7. Oh, you make me think with my heart, gracious FF. You know what it makes me think of . . I’m afraid it says to the ones in those hard places that they don’t get to have grace. God bless you and thank you for helping us look at grace from every angle. love and prayers!

    1. Dearest Deb –
      There’s much to be said for learning to hear how others hear what is said.
      You make an excellent point. Might it seem to some that implicit in this statement is the nuance that grace is sufficient for a select few?
      Thank you for adding your tender perspective, my friend,
      love and Thursday prayers for you and Aub,
      ~ Debbie

  8. I believe, that truly realizing how easily any sin can ensnare us will make us cautious of any lions seeking to devour us. It helps me to put up a hedge when needed. An acquaintance of mine fell because she said she’d never do such and such and thought ill of those that did. She later said that it was thinking she was immune that made her vulnerable and she was caught off guard. It shocked me to death, but I learned from it. Walk soberly!

    I am enjoying the inspiration of your posts. Sign me, sinner saved by grace-Wendy

    1. Dear Wendy,
      I was in a women’s study group at my church where the woman leading the group singled out one particular sin and boldly said:
      “Of course, no one here would do that!”
      And of course she was quite wrong.
      Some had, some would and no one there would ever have shared their struggle there.
      I think that’s representative of your well expressed point.
      Only arrogance leads us to believe we are “immune” to any particular sin and that same arrogance moves our hope from grace to our own feeble fumblings.
      From one sinner saved by grace to another, thank you for adding this perspective,
      ~ Debbie

  9. I readily, though not proudly, confess I have said: “at least I didn’t do THAT, go there”. And I’d bet money that I still say it, now and again–though I’m wiser and should know better–though I’m educated to believe there is no hierarchy of “THATS”. Grace is like any other faith muscle–we just have to keep exercising it–and remember that it’s not just something we show to others, but to Ourselves (frequently and abundantly). Is it Friday yet? Nope, not quite. God bless you Big, Debbie–much love, sis Caddo

    1. Dear Caddo of the honest confession –
      Oh friend, who amongst us hasn’t found some empty consolation at one time or another in thinking that, while what we did was terribly wrong, another did something wrong(er).
      I love you for your open-hearted honesty.
      You challenge me to walk the talk!
      love and grace, my friend,

  10. I certainly see what you’re saying and I hear this among the men too. But, when they’ve said it, it seems to come from that place that they know the where they’ve been and how easily they can return. I should stop using “they” because it’s definitely “we”. I completely know what you mean and it makes me pause to consider the next time I think or say that…where is my there? Excellent perspective, Debbie.

    1. Debby –
      I think when your men say it, it’s very much like John Bradford.
      I pray for that heart to be my heart – always.
      Thank you for knowing what I meant with these fumbling words.

    1. Thank you, Joss.
      I’ve been having very little internet access so I’ve fallen far behind on your journey. I hope to catch up soon.
      ~ Debbie

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