“But for the grace of God go I.” It is an oft-repeated prayer or phrase of good fortune. The saying is frequently recited silently in a children’s hospital when one sees ill or devastated youngsters and their families.
For the believers in the providential power of grace or for those for whom grace means nothing, the message is the same: “I’m lucky. I’m not one of those poor folks.” We look out onto the travails of others, wipe our brows and whisper a sigh of “that was a close call.”
It is our way of saying, "I escaped." It could have been me, but it’s not. Based on what we call grace and God, the conclusion varies: our near escape is a product of nothing; it is an act of natural consequences; it is arbitrary. Our good fortune is based on some divine formula. Lastly, we may believe we influence divinity positively or negatively by our actions.
If it is the latter definition when disaster hits another, there is a risk to slip or march headstrong into a feeling of “I’m special. I am righteous. God loves me more. He hears my prayers over the noise of the masses.”
“But for the grace of God go I” fits our human experience only until we no longer escape the vicissitudes of life. We are the other guys. We cannot flee. Instead, it is as if grace has fled. Trials don’t go; they come. They stay. It is now simply “go I.” The exception goes away.
We were abused. We have the child who is born with defects, or we are that child. There is an unnamed victim, and we are the next of kin waiting for notification. We are out of work. Our home is underwater either by storm or value. We can be fired with cause or quit. We are falsely accused or betrayed. We have the boils of Job. We are the patient or parent of a patient in room N330 in pain from an incurable disease. It is our son or daughter on drugs or in prison. We are the grandparent-parents to our teenager’s baby. We are holding the cardboard sign on the freeway offramp.
Whether it is you or me or a person totally unknown and removed by miles or means, there is a someone. There is a family whose daughter dies in a plane crash. There is a father or a mother who is taken suddenly or slowly by an unrelenting disease. There is a sibling whose sister or brother was hit by a stray bullet or swept away in a flood or taken by a car crash.
There are countless, contradicting explanations why bad things happen to good people or good things happen to bad people. Statistics explain everything. Randomness is alive and well. Luck is in play. The math of complexity cannot predict because there are too many variables, but if it could, would there be a number for this entire “But for the grace” stuff? Maybe it is 42, the answer to every question as found in the "Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy."
There are lessons of good fortune, but what is the lesson of faith for us?
Bad things do happen to both the good and bad. Therefore, we should all say gratefully, “With God and his grace go I and all my woes.”
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and a hospitalist at Primary Children's Hospital and the University of Utah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.