But For The Grace of God?

I’ve always been open about my struggle with depression, generalized anxiety, and panic disorder. I don’t keep it a secret, mainly because it doesn’t do me any good to hold it in and it doesn’t do you any good if I act like I don’t have any problems. There are no secrets here.

I recently had to go back to my psychiatrist for the first time in nearly seven years. The medication he had given me back then worked well for a long time, so we had never seen any reason to fix what wasn’t broken. The last year or so brought a lot of changes in my personal life, though, and my anxiety had peaked again. Along with the nearly out-of-control panic attacks, I suffered from nearly crippling depression.

(Whether you’ve been there or not, I don’t think I have to tell you that that’s not good.)

So with fear over the inevitable medication adjustments to come, I made an appointment with my psychiatrist. I was expecting to leave with a couple of new prescriptions; I was definitely not expecting to leave with a couple of new diagnoses.

Bipolar disorder. Attention deficit disorder.

It hit me like a ton of bricks when my doctor said it, and I remember furrowing my eyebrows and shaking my head in disagreement. “Nobody’s ever told me I’m bipolar,” I insisted. “I don’t know about that. And attention deficit? Let me tell you about my school record…”

But over the past few months of talking with my doctor (who knows more than I do, as it turns out), tracking my moods, and trying different medications, it appears that I do suffer from bipolar depression and adult attention deficit disorder. The symptoms all line up and the relevant medications seem to be doing their jobs.

While I am thankful that I’m doing better, the adjustments in my medications have forced an adjustment in my mentality. Apparently, while I was at ease sharing personal stories to eliminate the stigma about depression and anxiety, I was harboring an unfair stigma about bipolar disorder and the people who suffer from it. To my knowledge, I didn’t know anyone who rode the waves of manic and depressive episodes. I didn’t know what it looked like and didn’t understand what it felt like. And, as is typical to human nature, I feared that which I didn’t understand.

I didn’t understand bipolar disorder. I didn’t know anyone who lived with that diagnosis. And while I never, ever would have said it out loud, I think I had a prideful attitude that whispered, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”

“There but for the grace of God, go I.” It’s a great phrase, and I think it’s used relatively often in Christian circles. I had to do a little research on it, because I wasn’t too sure if I was even using the phrase in the way it is intended.

According to legend, the phrase originated in 1555 when English Christian evangelical preacher John Bradford happened to be a bystander watching criminals being led to the scaffold for execution. He is reported to have said to those nearby, “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.” He recognized that the same evil tendencies within the hearts of those condemned lied within his own heart as well; he implied that the grace of God had saved him from the same fate.

Sadly, not long after he supposedly spoke those words, Bradford himself was led to be executed (albeit on different charges). As I read his story, a question popped in my mind: Had the grace of God therefore somehow abandoned him, for him to have to walk that path after all? 

I had to ask the question, because like John Bradford eventually had to walk the same steps as those with more difficult destinies, I too have had to begin down a path I never expected.

There but for the grace of God, go I.

But now I do “go there.” And I have wrestled with guilt over how I used to perceive those who were bipolar, and have wrestled with what this means for me. It has been humbling. It has been difficult. And it has made me take long, hard looks at my own heart. Whereas I had before kept myself at a safe mental distance from those with more difficult diagnoses, I can no longer lazily separate myself from difficult diagnoses by simply pointing to God’s grace. And just as in hearing of John Bradford’s fate at the stake of martyrdom makes me ask myself what role God’s grace has in that, I have asked myself what role God’s grace has in this diagnosis.

There but for the grace of God, go I?

And I’ve decided that, if I’m understanding that phrase correctly, I don’t think the wording is entirely appropriate. It seems to imply that God’s grace will keep us from hard things. As though we are only escaping the scenario upon which we are looking because we enjoy the protection of God’s mysterious and arbitrary bubble of grace. The implication somehow is that with God’s grace, we are protected from hard things, but that should grace depart – should the bubble of grace be lifted – suffering will come. Under the bubble? Sunshine and blue skies and smiley faces and hearts. Outside the bubble? Unfathomable storms.

I have a problem with that assumption, and I think that’s why I have struggled a little with my new diagnosis. And maybe, friend, it’s why you’re struggling with something in your world today.

Because here’s the thing: God’s grace may well protect us. I believe His hand of grace can shield us from danger and allow for our miraculous escaping of harm. It happens. I’ve seen it.

But if bad things happen, that does not mean God’s grace was absent. To my new understanding, a personal theology of “There but for the grace of God, go I,” reduces the magnificent grace of our loving Father into little more than a rabbit’s foot on our keychain. An amulet around our necks. A ritualistic good-luck exercise.

And if that is the meaning of the grace of God, I see nothing special about it. That kind of grace would never reach into the dark places or search desperately for the lost or stretch itself on a cross to redeem those who are still refusing it. Jesus didn’t die to grant us good luck. Jesus died to extend a grace the world couldn’t escape.

So I think it should be more like this: Even there, with the grace of God, I will go. There is no person and no diagnosis and no scary hypothetical situation that is somehow exempt from God’s grace. Sometimes His grace protects us from a situation altogether…and sometimes it allows us to simply endure. It is grace in whichever form it comes.

And so today, as I tell you that I am one of the five million Americans with bipolar disorder, I tell you that the grace of God is as fully present in my life with this illness as it has ever been. His grace is here. His grace is alive. And His grace is more than sufficient for every day of this diagnosis and any other that may come my way.

Wherever I go, I go with God’s grace. And so do you.


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