The sad case of the Kim family from California, which got stuck in snow and stranded while trying to take a shortcut in the Oregon Coast Range on their Thanksgiving vacation, has prompted a lot of people to trot out the saying “There but for the Grace of God go I.” This is fine as far as it goes, since we know what they’re saying is that they can see themselves getting into the same situation, and are – for the most part – showing that they emphasize with the family. (In the Kim’s case, James Kim tried to walk out to get help and died in the attempt. His wife and their two young daughters were rescued when spotted by air search crews. And, indeed, they had stumbled into just the sort of situation anybody who likes to travel off of main highways has stumbled into at one time or another.)

Empathy is good. But may I say that the phrase is horrid? As used that way?

I’m speaking both as a former atheist and as a woman who tries to be godly these days. As an atheist, that phrase held me back. Think about it. Atheists hold that God doesn’t exist, but they’re also prone to thinking that if He is out there he’s not worth worshipping for one reason or another. They also contend that religious people are superstitious fools. To say ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’ when somebody else suffers a tragedy plays into that. Nicely. Completely. It paints a picture of people who are sunk in superstition or a God who rolls dice and capriciously hands out sorrows. It sorts people into us versus them. It certainly doesn’t paint a healthy picture of what Grace is or what it does. Does it?

I don’t mean to undercut the amazing power and realness of God and of His Grace. But that’s just it. I think this phrase reduces the concept of Grace to something mean and narrow. It reduces the concept of God to something mean and narrow. It reduces religion to something it isn’t. Religion isn’t a neat-o vending machine that lets you have nice things and good luck in return for going through a few rituals. Perish the thought.

Religion is turning toward God, who can make you whole. Whole isn’t the same as lucky. And, if I may say so, I think it’s not right to say “There but for the Grace of God go I” when what we mean is “There but for dumb luck go I.”