Many quotes stand the test of time. The same can be said for, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Websites disagree on the source of the quote, but many people attribute the saying to political prisoner John Bradford (1510-1555). Sources say he uttered the now famous saying while in the Tower of London, witnessing a public execution. Since that time, lawmakers and laymen have repeated the phrase, including President Obama following his visit to a federal prison in 2015. I thought about this quote after hearing a guilty plea from a former Episcopal bishop.
In December 2014, Heather Cook, a bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, decided to go for a drive, a drive that would forever change her life and position. Cook was well above the legal limit for driving while intoxicated and she struck a bicyclist who later died from his injuries. That event led to Cook pleading guilty in September 2015 to auto manslaughter, DWI, driving while texting, and leaving the scene of an accident. Meanwhile, this was not Cook’s first run-in with authorities. In 2010, Cook was arrested for DUI, and published reports say Cook was drunk before her installation as bishop.
I, Chris Woodward, could have been another Heather Cook. I drank excessively as a teenager and my consumption only increased after I entered college as an unsaved, in-name-only Christian. During that period of my life, I drove a car many times under the influence of alcohol. I never hit anyone, but I did get arrested on my college campus for DUI in 2002. A police officer (on a bicycle) saw me entering a parking lot the wrong way and confronted me. I do not recall my blood alcohol level, but it was high enough that he doubted my claims as to only having “a few” drinks.
Several months later I appeared in court with a lawyer my mother paid dearly for and we saw my DUI overturned. It was not because I was innocent. Instead, there was a dispute between the attorney, my arresting officer, and the time of my arrest and booking. Nevertheless, I went through a campus-mandated AA-style class every Friday afternoon for several weeks. I even managed to avoid alcoholic beverages, at least for a few weeks.
In 2004, I left a restaurant after having dinner and drinks with a few classmates. My plan was to drive to a friend’s apartment before heading home. In order to save time, I wanted to cut through a portion of campus to arrive at said apartment. However, a police officer pulled me over just before I entered university property and, again, I was arrested for DUI. A week later I hired the same attorney I had in 2002, and once again, we appeared in court to see my arrest overturned. Apparently, the arresting officer thought it better to visit the shooting range that particular day and time. I remember the judge looking at me and saying, “Boy, you got off easy this time.” He was right. I did get off easy, and it was not the first time.
Go ahead and think whatever you want about me. I can just imagine someone saying, “He’s a Christian and he did that?” You would be right; I would be guilty. But I am now a born-again, saved Christian that made some really dumb mistakes before knowing Jesus. Actually, I made a disastrous decision every time I drank too much and got behind the wheel. Either way, what I did was illegal and immoral. I could have killed someone, and while I did not hurt another person, I did harm myself by consuming large amounts of alcohol in a relatively short span of my life.
This is where I think we fail to remember our faults when other people make headlines for their bad decisions. That is certainly the case in the news business. But in general terms, people are so quick to judge others, even if it’s a statement such as, “That’s awful!” As Christians, we put off our former selves and try our dead-level best not to return to that lifestyle (Ephesians 4:22), but somewhere in there I think we forget that we too were dead in trespasses and sins prior to our profession of faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:1, Titus 3:3, 1 Corinthians 6:11). It isn’t until we take everything into account that we really see grace for what it is, an unmerited gift given by God to believers in Christ.
Take a moment today and reflect on your past. Think about what it is that you’ve been saying about other people and their actions. They might not have done the same things you did, but we are all sinners in a fallen world. That said, thank God for what he has given you, for helping you overcome sin. Meanwhile, pray for those who have done wrong or broken the law. Why? “There but for the grace of God go I.”