There But For the Grace of God
When I was a little boy, men in tattered clothing and worn work boots would come to the kitchen door and knock. When my mother went to the door, one would ask, hat in hand,
“Can you spare a sandwich, ma’am?” My mother would prepare a sandwich, pour a glass of milk, and serve them on a tray. The man would eat, then politely say thanks and go on his way. When I asked about these men, my mother would say, “Oh, they’re down on their luck and haven’t recovered from the Depression. There but for the grace of God go I.”
When we read the newspaper or the magazines, do we say “there but for the grace of God go I?” or do we smirk at the foibles and failures of our fellow human beings?
The Germans have a word for the snide guffaws we offer when others slip on the banana peel of life. They call it Schadenfreude, and it means, “The joy we take when someone else is brought to shame.”
My mother’s words were born of experience. The Depression was an exceedingly hard time in our house, and she felt the struggle to survive. She knew from personal suffering how hard it was to get by, so when she said “there but for the grace of God” she meant that it could just as easily have been her – or my father – sitting on the back step begging from someone else. A sense of solidarity with others and her spiritual self-assessment enabled her not to judge those in dire straits.
We so easily forget that it’s always “there but for the grace of God go I.” But more is at stake than the thin line between poverty and plenty. Just as we have a tendency to blame the poor for their own lot, so we tend to forget that we can fall into moral failure with little provocation. Furthermore, we also tend to take heart when others stumble and fall because we think, secretly, that their failure somehow makes us look better.
All religions note our tendency toward Schadenfreude. In the Religions of the Book – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – this tendency is part of what it means to be sinful, to miss the mark of being fully human, for which redemption is necessary. The spiritual giants with one accord remind us that comparison is the deadliest path in the spiritual life. To compare yourself with another person is an act born of pride. In the Gospels, this is clearly shown by the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:9-14), which Luke introduces with these words: “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others.”
A crusty guy named Wayne owned EX LIBRIS, a theological bookstore in Chicago. Once I called him up and he asked how I was. I told him I was fine and dandy, and he replied, “All your righteousness is as filthy rags.” What a great reminder.
Even if I am not a drug dealer or a pervert, all my righteousness is as filthy rags. I take joy in other’s failures at my own peril; the next failure might be my own! Only by proper self-assessment can we emerge from the burden of pride, and only deep faith gives us the tools for proper self-assessment. The next time you are tempted to chortle at someone else’s public failings, remember what my mother might say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Even more, seek the resources of your faith to help you overcome this prideful way of life.