What Does There But for the Grace of God Go I Mean?

If you’ve ever narrowly avoided a bad situation and been looking for the right words to express your recognition that it was a close call, and your relief to be out of the woods, you’ve come to the right place. Keep reading to learn all about the common idiomatic expression there but for the grace of God go I.

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What Does There But for the Grace of God Go I Mean?

This expression is used to acknowledge that one’s fate is not entirely in their hands, and that another person’s bad luck or misfortune could easily be their own. While the phrasing suggests that one feels they avoided an unfortunate situation or general adversity in life because of the grace of God—in other words, divine assistance, favor, or mercy from a higher power—the phrase can be used by anyone, whether or not they believe in God and the concept of divine intervention, to generally convey the understanding that hardship can happen to anybody. It’s an expression of humility, of respect to the outside forces at work. 

Here are some example sentences using the idiomatic saying there but for the grace of God go I:

  • Right as I was pulling up to the stoplight, there was an accident in the intersection in front of me. It could have so easily been me involved in it; I just kept telling myself there but for the grace of God go I. 
  • My neighbor was laid off from his job, and he hasn’t been able to make his mortgage payment; he may lose his house. When I found out, I thought to myself there but for the grace of God go I. In these difficult economic times, I know that I could also be without work and find myself in the same boat. 
  • As a nurse in New York City, every single day of this pandemic I have thought there but for the grace of God go I, as I’ve seen the difficulties my patients face. 
  • I can’t pass a homeless person on the street without thinking there but for the grace of God go I: I’ve faced my fair share of difficulties and had my fair share of problems, and I know I’m lucky to have a roof over my head. 

You may hear or see the phrase shortened to there but for the grace of God or even just to but for the grace of God. The saying can be written without or with commas, as there, but for the grace of God, go I or there but for the grace of God, go I

The Origin of the Expression

As is so often the case with the common phrases we explore here at The Word Counter, no one is exactly sure when and with whom this saying originated. 

When it comes to this particular saying, most people attribute the expression to the 16th-century English preacher and martyr John Bradford, although evidence has never been found to prove he did in fact say it. Indeed, his credit for the phrase has been called, by the author of The Writings of John Bradford, “universal tradition,” aka, a probably false tale repeated so often as to become truth with the lapse of time; as said above, it’s still widely accepted as fact today.

There’s a record of this attribution to Bradford in A Treatise on Prayer written by Edward Bickersteth in 1822:

“The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, ‘there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.’ He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end.”

As universal tradition, or legend, has it, Bradford uttered the expression using his own name when seeing criminals being led to their death, realizing it could be him. Interestingly, he didn’t escape such a fate for long: He was burned at the stake in 1555. 

Others have also been credited with the expression. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, attributed the phrase to the 17th century English Puritan church leader Richard Baxter in The Boscombe Valley Mystery, which was first published in 1891:

“Why does fate play such tricks with poor, helpless worms? I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.’”

Other religious figures have also been credited with the saying, including John Newton and Philip Neri.

Understanding Idioms

There but for the grace of God go I is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

The phrasing of there but for the grace of God go I on its own makes the expression a touch confusing to understand. What’s more, there’s nothing indicated in the statement about where the person is going, making it impossible to understand in the literal sense. You need to know that it has a figurative meaning: that a person could easily be in the same shoes as another who has experienced hardship or adversity, were it not for the grace of God or some other forces at play.Some language experts also classify the saying as a proverb, or a concise, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Many other idioms and proverbs also discuss a higher power, such as God helps those who help themselves, cleanliness is next to godliness, and pennies from heaven.

Discover the meanings and origins of many more of the English language’s most fascinating idioms.

Summary

Use the expression there but for the grace of God go I when you want to express that you understand you could be experiencing the same misfortune or be suffering the same bad luck as another person, and you’re grateful that you’re not. You can use the saying if you’re religious and believe that you escaped a bad situation or have avoided adversity thanks to God’s mercy, or you can use it more secularly, simply to point out that you recognize your fate isn’t all in your hands; you could suffer hardship, as many others do, and you feel humbled by this knowledge.