I was thinking this morning about the phrase “But for the grace of God, go I.” Along with a number of other Christian clichés, this one tends to be trotted out in public during dubious shows of humility. And, also similar to other Christian clichés, “but for the grace of God, go I” is hard for me to speak aloud with any degree of seriousness. It might be correct, but it just feels awkward and a little stodgy—like saying “Those are they” or “It is I.”
Too often, the private truth of our inherent vice often rings publicly false, like the melancholy histrionics of a fasting Pharisee. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are plenty of people who say and think humble phrases who actually believe them. But I’m equally sure that plenty of people who say “but for the grace of God” about themselves don’t actually believe it. Some people say it because it’s the right thing to say in the face of another person’s “fall from grace” (like “Lord willing” after you make a plan). Some people say it because they are superstitious: for them, “but for the grace of God” becomes the Christian version of “knock on wood.”
Obviously, I can’t see into anyone’s heart. But I am suspicious of humble-sounding phrases when they aren’t supported by lives of compassion and understanding. Many of the people who most frequently attest to their own potential for folly don’t seem to understand or empathize with “great” sinners. This lack of public compassion betrays the private reality. They might look at a pedophile and say, “But for the grace of God, go I,” but they don’t actually think they could go there. Many of them don’t even understand how someone could go there.
Perhaps this lack of understanding is permissible. Maybe “but for the grace of God” is another article of faith. In other words, it might lead you to think, “I don’t know the particular paths and circumstances that could lead anyone into this sin that is so foreign to my current tendencies, but I know I have this very sin in me somewhere. I’m going to find the root of it in myself, and I won’t stop searching until it’s destroyed.” This would follow from Paul’s recommendations in Galatians 6:1:
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.
But it seems obvious that such a therapeutic process is best pursued in private—in your heart before God. Unless, like Paul, you are called to indulge “in a little foolishness” for the public benefit of other Christians, uncovering the personal mechanics of your private piety often sours its sincerity. This seems to be the thrust of Jesus’ advice to pray in your closet and carefully attend to personal grooming while you’re fasting (Matt. 6:1ff).
On the other hand, I have to fight a tendency in my own heart to automatically condemn questionable public shows of religion. I think my generation especially suffers from this tendency, and it is merely an inverted image of the pharisaical double-mindedness we purport to loathe. We think our parents and forefathers, “the fools in old-style hats and coats,” make too much of a show of religion. We cringe at their flowery prayers and their Puritan politics. We view ourselves as the simple publican beating his breast, more spiritual than religious. In actuality, I can almost hear myself saying sometimes, “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee.”