“There but for the grace of God go I.”

I’ve heard this uttered and may have even said it myself a time or two. It’s usually said in response to seeing some unfortunate soul pass by with some known, perceived or just surmised devastation.

I know it’s often said with the best intentions, and surely we should draw lessons from what we see around us every day. But I’ve come to see it as a cruel statement. It turns someone else’s bad situation into your own private lesson, which is egotistical at best and dehumanizing at worst.

I once heard someone say that God put a person with a debilitating disease in their life to help them appreciate what they themselves have. That’s not only theologically but also morally indefensible.

One person’s tragedy is not my primer lesson. I may glean wisdom from the situation but, at its core, the situation is their tragedy.

“That cross of ash is a sign of both penitence and hope.”

Too often, we look at other people as the plumb line with which we gauge our own lives—with troubling results.

Perhaps this is why Ash Wednesday remains one of the holiest days of the year for me. Some see it as a public display of piety, which it certainly can turn into, but I see it as the great and holy leveling field of the liturgical year.

We are made of dust, beloved. And we will return to it. We will return to dust with all our ill-advised statements, all our greed, all the times we shoved a needle in our veins to feel or not feel. We’ll all return to dust with the good times buried in our hearts, with our tear-stained cheeks and with all those secret devastations no one knows about except for God and the diaries of our souls.

That cross of ash is a sign of both penitence and hope. We live with our “sorry” displayed for the world to see on Ash Wednesday, but in that act we also make a bold claim. No longer is it “There but for the grace of God go I.” Now, on this holy day, we say in a humble but confident response, “Here by the grace of God go I.”

Here by the grace of God go I. And you.

We stream from our sanctuaries, our “ashes to-go” street-corner stations and our early-morning Masses, walking with a little more weight on our foreheads but a little less weight on our souls.

We become walking beacons of messy redemption who no longer must compare ourselves to anyone else because we’re all marked with the same mark, stamped with the same grace and held in the same arms.

Here by the grace of God go we.

Tim Brown
Tim Brown is a pastor, writer, and ELCA director for congregational stewardship.

Read more about: