The quote, "There, but for the Grace of God, go I" has bothered me for a long time. The phrase seems to imply that God's grace is with me, but not with the unfortunate person whose life and circumstances occasion the comment. Does that phrase have any biblical basis, either directly in the text or in the implied theology?
That is an excellent question. I haven't thought of a biblical passage which expresses grace in that form. The way I understand the statement is nevertheless consistent with my understanding of grace; I then think of 1 Tim. 1.15-16. The emphasis in the statement should be on "grace." The statement is not one of scorn or superiority. I understand it rather as a statement of the deepest humility. The only reason why I am not acting and experiencing life like the person to whom I am referring in the statement is because of grace, favor that I do not merit. The other person is not like that because he or she is not a recipient of God's grace. In my Wesleyan understanding of Scripture, God's prevenient grace, the grace that draws us to the salvation in Christ, comes to every person; Christ died for everyone. A Calvinist must operate the same way because only God knows whom are God's elect so that we must treat everyone on as one for whom Christ died. As John Wesley said regarding a beggar covered with dirt and rags, "I see, through all these rags, that he is purpled over with the blood of Christ" (Wesley sermon, "On Pleasing All Men" 2.5). The person hardest to love shares with us the highest dignity, being one for whom Christ died. The only thing different about us is that we said, Yes, to God's drawing us to God's salvation. Oh, if that person would too!
Ideally, the sentence, “There, but for the grace of God, go I” is spoken in a grateful spirit of humility and solidarity, as if to say, “The fact that I am not in the same dire straits or moral difficulty as that person is not due to my own excellence or wisdom or righteousness, but only to the grace of God – and therefore, in truth, I am no better than that person. In fact, I could easily be that person, and so in this sense, when I see him or her, I should relate to them, empathize with them, and act toward them as I would want someone to act toward me.” Understood in this spirit, the sentence is a kind of commentary or corollary to the second part of the so-called, “Great Commandment”: “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).
But as your question rightly points out, there is a deep and troubling ambiguity here, as there so often is in religion and theology. For the sentence need not be spoken in a spirit of “humility and solidarity”; it can also be spoken in a spirit of pride and contempt (often masquerading as thanksgiving, humility, and solidarity!), as if to say, “I thank you, gracious God, for being so much more gracious with me than you’ve been with that miserable wretch over there…” Jesus tells a parable about just this sort of trouble in Luke 18, in which a Pharisee at worship (and please note, Christian readers should always translate “Pharisee” as “Elder,” “Deacon,” “Pastor,” or “Good Christian Leader”), upon seeing a man he considers to be a pariah, prays, “God, thank you that I am not like other people” (Luke 18:11).
And so the sentence you cite can cut both ways, depending on the spirit and circumstances in which it is spoken. But then again, even a sentence as beloved as “love your neighbor as yourself” is open to a similar kind of ambiguity, since it can lead to a radical generosity in one case, and a form of narcissism in another (since it can amount to a way of “loving yourself”). All of these examples show that religion, even and especially with respect to its most cherished treasures and sayings and sacred texts, frequently involves the spiritual trial of confronting ambiguities like these. It’s not just the words that matter, but the spirit and occasion in which they are spoken. And sure enough, the ambiguity of religion is a prominent theme in Jesus’ teaching (see, for example, the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 – 7).
I am not aware that it is a direct quotation from the Bible, but Psalm 124 comes pretty close: "If it had not been the Lord who was on our side,...when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us up alive..."
I think such judgments are always made in retrospect, when you look at some past or present disaster that nearly or could well have happened to you but didn't, and you can find no other explanation than the grace of God that saved you from it. It is certainly not what the Germans call Schadenfreude viz. pleasure at someone else's misfortune, or even pride that you have God's grace and he doesn't; rather it is simply thankful recognition of God's inexplicable grace, which of course must always be prayed for.
The best commentary on this that I know is Joseph Conrad's short story "The Secret Sharer," in which two men meet by chance, discover that their earlier circumstances had been very similar, but that only one of them has had a fortunate life and career, not because he is any better than the other, but apparently by sheer chance. Here if anywhere the fortunate one could say "There but for the grace of God go I."
In fact I have noted a number of my old friends and colleagues who have come into a bad situation; and when by the grace of God I can admit that I am really no better than they are, and consequently how easily I could have ended up in a similar situation, I can only say "There but for the grace of God go I."