Superficial gratitude can distort the reality of grace. It’s easy for people in relative comfort to compare ourselves to other needy individuals, pity them, and offer gratitude to God for our good fortune. The God of grace invites us to recognize our own neediness so that we can live with gratitude, compassion, and mercy.
“There but for the grace of God go I.”
It sounds like a humble statement. It’s usually uttered when we see someone in dire straits—someone who has lost a job, is grieving a family member, or who has made a terrible decision or a series of minor bad choices that have led to some disastrous conclusion.
On one level, “there but for the grace of God go I” is a way to indicate solidarity. Even if I’m in a position of wealth, power, or health, I recognize that I didn’t earn my good fortune. All could be lost in a heartbeat. It’s also a statement that can signal humility, a recognition that I could sin just as readily, could fall just as far.
The Problems with Thoughtless Grace
And yet, that statement has some insidious implications. First, there’s the sense that God’s grace is arbitrary. That it happened to be bestowed upon me, which explains my good fortune or wealth or power or health.
Second, it’s a statement of pity, not compassion. Pity is a posture of the heart that distances me from the unfortunate one. “I’m so glad I’m not you,” might be another way to say it. Compassion, which at its root means suffering with, is a posture of the heart that moves towards the person currently in need. “How can I stand with you in your pain?” might be another way to express the meaning of compassion.
Third, “there but for the grace of God go I” implies that misfortune, loss, and suffering can all be explained by God’s grace, or by God’s withholding of grace. In either case, attributing human suffering and human security to the grace of God can oversimplify the complicated relationship between God’s grace and human choices.
“There but for the grace of God go I” makes God’s grace arbitrary, allows me to distance myself from whoever is experiencing need, and gets other human beings off the hook for human suffering.
God’s Grace is for All
Biblical writers puzzle through this dynamic often. The Psalmist doesn’t understand why the wicked seem to prosper (see Psalm 73:3). Jesus talks about how God’s blessings of rain fall on good and bad (Matt 5:45). He explains that towers fall and affect the just and the unjust alike (Luke 13:4). Suffering comes to all. God’s grace is available to all. And yet God’s grace is not coercive. It does not manipulate. It simply, and always, invites us into God’s love.
Human beings are invited to participate in God’s love, by God’s grace. Human beings are invited to be God’s hands and feet, God’s body, in the world. We are invited to stand up against oppression and injustice, to work for healing and order and truth, to offer our time and abilities and passions to the work that God is already doing.
Luke records a story that Jesus tells of a religious man and a self-acknowledged “sinner” coming before God. The religious man “stood by himself and prayed, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people’ . . .” (Luke 18:10-11). The “sinner,” who Jesus commends, simply asks God for mercy.
Giving Thanks for Grace
As we enter into this season of Thanksgiving, we are not to give thanks like the religious man. We are not to compare ourselves to other needy individuals, distance ourselves, pity them, and thank God for our good fortune. Rather, we are invited to be like the “sinner,” the one who knows his own need, the one who trusts in God’s mercy, and the one who Jesus says goes home justified. We give thanks out of our awareness of our need.
The grace of God does not protect us from misfortune. But the God of grace does invite us into lives of compassion, mercy, and blessing.
I am writing about gratitude in the month of November. Last week, I wrote about gratitude and grumpiness and about how superficial gratitude can distort our understanding of grief. Tomorrow, I’ll write about gratitude and growth, offering a “how to” practice gratitude in the midst of the grumpiness, grief, and grace of the everyday.