There’s an expression that we use in ordinary parlance which has begun to irk me as I work in the area of justice. You probably guessed it from the title of this posting – “but for the grace of God” - or, the longer version, "there but for the grace of God go I." Here’s how we tend to use it. Someone is down on their luck – that is, they’re having a tough time, either due to their own poor choices or because of circumstances beyond their control, and in an effort to avoid an appearance of judgmentalism or hard heartedness, we say “but for the grace of God.” Sounds innocent enough - even pretty spiritual - but what are we REALLY saying?
Well – this is what I’m thinking. We’re actually saying that God’s grace has kept US from harm and hardship but God’s grace has NOT been extended to this unfortunate person. This poor person is suffering BECAUSE they are outside of the range of God’s grace. In other words, if God’s grace was active in their lives they wouldn’t be in the mess they’re in. They wouldn’t be homeless, or suffering from mental illness, or unemployed, or in an abusive relationship, or filing for bankruptcy – you get the picture. Or, they wouldn’t have been born in a country where there is never enough of anything to go around – food, water, shelter, education, money, hope. In other words, the trials and struggles of life are evidence - for both individuals and for entire countries – of living outside of God’s protection – outside of God’s grace.
This is ridiculous! I would argue that God’s grace IS sufficient for ALL people in ALL circumstances. God’s grace is not a magic shield that deflects all hardship and suffering. God’s grace is IN the suffering. Could God’s grace even CAUSE the suffering? Hm. Or does it simply ALLOW the suffering? I suspect that we’re more comfortable with the idea that God allows suffering but does not cause it. I’m not so sure though. Of course this is not a simple thing. If we dissect ANY situation – trying to untangle the various factors that are involved – we discover very quickly that IT’S COMPLICATED. Sometimes it seems pretty straightforward – a bad decision, a bad gene, bad timing – but as we dig a bit deeper, we discover more complex explanations and relationships. Did God cause Job’s suffering? No – you might say – he ALLOWED it but he didn’t CAUSE it? But didn’t God turn Job over? Would Job have suffered as he did if God had not set him up? Now that I’ve mentioned Job, I’ve probably messed up my argument since in his case, suffering WAS evidence of God’s intentional removal of his protection, and then, when the period of testing was over, God restored to Job MORE than he had lost. But that was Job and that was BEFORE Jesus came. What about us? What about God’s grace today?
And what about EVIL? From a Christian worldview, I believe that there is evil and that our life here on earth is only the visible part of a broader reality. But is every “good” thing evidence of the work of good spirits (sometimes called angels) and every “bad” thing evidence of the work of bad spirits (sometimes called demons)? Of course not! Bad things – so called - DO happen to good people – so called - and good things – so called - happen to bad people – so called. What’s “good” and what’s “bad” after all? Doesn’t the bible say that it rains on the just and unjust alike?
God’s grace is not a shield but a force. It can be found in the most inhumane and unjust places and systems and relationships and it can be found in beauty and peace and relationships that honour the image of God in each of us. It cannot be manipulated or contrived. It is God present and persistently working to build his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
But for the grace of God? I think this is bad theology. Let’s stop using this platitude to excuse our arrogance and pride and our inaction in the lives of people who could really use our presence in the midst of hardship and suffering.