I was thinking about this common phrase today. "There but for the Grace of God go I." And then I was thinking about the secular variant, "There but for fortune go I." Both sentences express a certain degree of gratitude, but as I thought about it, I realized that it is important to note that the secular version is not expressing the same idea as the religious version.
For example, if we see someone who is homeless, we may say, "There but for fortune go I," in which case we mean that it is mere luck that I'm not homeless myself. Such an expression really describes, whether consciously or not, a nihilistic view of the world. We are saying that the world is simply random chance, and, thankfully, I happened to have dodged that bullet.
What is even worse is if we apply the religious version in the same way to the situation of the homeless person. Then we seem to be saying, yes, there is a God, and, thankfully, God shed his grace on me instead of thee.
What if we looked at a situation where there was culpability involved. Does that make a difference? For instance, if we say about a murderer or a priest who abused children, "There but for the grace of God go I," are we saying that God withheld his grace from that person and gave it to me? That doesn't seem like the just and merciful God I have heard about and try to know.
Maybe we are saying that God offers the same grace to all, but if I had not accepted God's grace, then I could have been that murderer or that abusing priest. I think that situation is getting closer to the mark. But even that makes me feel as though I am taking too much credit for any good I do. It still seems to smack a bit of the Pelagian heresy, which said that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps (that our works can achieve salvation through our own efforts and without God's grace). Maybe it's what Fr. Benedict Groeschel calls "semi-Pelagianism." Certainly God's grace needs our cooperation and an act of our will, because God gave us freedoom to choose good over evil, or vice versa. He does not coerce our love, but nurtures it.
Perhaps the phrase is really not all that useful in the end. I was thinking today about why do I not do some of the deeply terrible things that our wounded human nature is prone to do? (Which is not to say that I don't sin.) I certainly don't want to leave all the explanation up to psychology. There is a mystery at work that science can't explain away. But how do we get a glimpse of that mystery of sin and grace, of you and me and Him, and how it all ties together? As St. Paul says, "where sin increased, grace abounded all the more" (Romans 5:20). So maybe we should be thinking, "What profound transformation is God trying to work in that broken life, and am I too inured to my own sin to seek out the grace God is offering to me?"