The Awful Grace of God

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair. against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. — Aeschylus.

A few weeks ago, I came across the phrase, “the awful grace of God,” in a novel I was reading — Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. ( A book I highly recommend by the way.) The phrase bothered me at the time but I stored it away. Then last night as I was reading Tori McClure”s A Pearl in the Storm there it was again. This couldn’t be a coincidence I thought. Besides, this time I was provided the original quote from Aeschylus.


Mr. Krueger must have been bothered by what Aeschylus meant because in the novel, Rev. Drum repeats the quotation to his older son Frank, who asks skeptically, “Awful?” Rev. Drum merely responds, “I don’t think it is meant in a bad way. I think it means beyond our understanding.”

I don’t like to think that the word “awful” and the words, “grace” and “God” have a place together. We know that Aeschylus didn’t mean the words in reference to a universal God or Jesus. He was a Greek who preceded Jesus by at least five hundred years.

Interestingly in my research I discovered that the quotation was used in 1968 by U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy on the night of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. RFK referred to his own grief at the 1963 murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and then said, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’” The quotation was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy.

So the question is what does the phrase, “the awful grace of God.” mean? I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t mean that wisdom only comes from suffering or that God’s grace only comes to those in pain. At least I hope not. But perhaps it means that given the right attitude, pain and suffering also offer the opportunity for wisdom and grace. That has certainly been true in my life. I welcome your thoughts on what “awful grace” means.

Perhaps the better inquiry we should have about the words that have haunted me since reading Krueger’s book is how do we learn and gain wisdom during those difficult moments in our life, because we all have them and will again? I believe the answer lies in the words “through God’s grace.” And if we do learn then maybe we can go about following the advice RFK gave later in his speech that night — “Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”

About the author

Webb Hubbell, former Associate Attorney General of The United States, is an author and speaker. His novels, When Men Betray, Ginger Snaps, A Game of Inches, The Eighteenth Green, and The East End are published by Beaufort Books and are available online or at your local bookstore. When Men Betray won one of the IndieFab awards for best novel in 2014. Ginger Snaps and The Eighteenth Green won the IPPY Awards Gold Medal for best suspense/thriller.


  1. Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
    falls drop by drop upon the heart until,
    in our own despair, against our will,
    comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
    In ministering to families and individuals who were separated from loved ones by death, (and even in my own similar experiences) grief and its awesome pain is an ever present, agonizing and bewildering stalker. The pain of lose is deep and unescapable, enduring even during our sleep. It is fed by the remembrance of the loss, the absence of what or who once gave a wholeness to our perception of our world Yet this pain is all we have to hold on to or how to honor our departed loved one. Yet, we must go on to fulfill the sacred purpose of our life in the earth, the destiny bequeathed to us as our purpose for being here. Therefore, the One who allowed us this experience here intervenes with His Grace to give rescue from that blissful state of painful agony. And, although begrudging the rescue, the bereaved does finally give way to that rescuing Grace which in the moment is awful but in time, a blessing.
    Even though the poet preceded that understanding of the divine activity we call “Grace” in the Christian era, the poet can be said to have conceived of its actuality apart from its naming or revealing through the Christ event. If as the poet declares that the Grace is bequeathed by God or the Greek god(s) then one might entertain that Grace has the eternalness of God as an attribute of God. It therefore, known or unknown, could be spiritually discernable by the poet as an intervention by God in lifting one from the precious debilitation of grief so one can achieve one’s destiny on earth.
    Thanks for the opportunity to explore this poignant reflection of the poet!!!

  2. If you look up the word “awful” in the dictionary, you will see that an archaic meaning of the word is “inspiring reverential wonder or fear.”
    Word Origin and History for awful:
    c. 1300, agheful “worth of respect or fear,” from aghe an earlier form of awe (n.)

    1. Nailed it! Yes, by the awful/unexplainable grace of God. But the quote is really focused on explaining that it is very hard for people to be honest with themselves, to admit their faults/shortcomings and make the hard change. However, if you follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, in your darkest moments you will suddenly see the error of your ways and finally make the changes necessary to become a more perfect and content human being. This quote also makes me think about how the more truthful knowledge you have about the world and it’s history the more ignorance you lose and your blissfulness right along with it! I have a MA in Social Science and I learned how ugly human history really is! It’s easy to lose sight of the bright spots: Gandhi, MLK, RFK, Lincoln, and the others that had the integrity and awful grace of God to admit their faults, change, and then try to help others to do some painful learning!

  3. If you’ve experienced evil or immense pain, you’d understand its meaning. I hope you can continue to speculate, but pain is the best teacher: it is unforgiving, merciless, and vigorously persistent.

    1. Life and Death

      Sacred and Profane

      Joy and Pain

      Light and Dark

      ALL Things are perfectly balanced in Nature, Energy…Physics.

      The quote is the best dissertation re: God moving in mysterious ways. Knowledge of the world informs factually. Wisdom sits in the spiritual and often ethereal realm. Knowledge is temporal. Wisdom eternal, everlasting.

      Joyful events, moments often bring knowledge and at times, enabling us to trace the visionary company of God’s love.

      Yet pain, challenges, troubled times enlarges us beyond knowledge to a State of Wisdom. Often the most informative, when one faces their own mortality with a prolonged disease, a life long life threatening chronic illness.

      I have faced such 5 times in my Life. Two of which, no medications, or other healthcare protocols, < 5 % to live. I have then gone on to assist the sick. I have tied to impart the “wisdom” that now imbued in me. It’s too difficult almost ineffable to describe how one walks through the shadow, how one survives against all odds…steps into Light.

      I have helped some 48 people. Most have departed to their new “wonderful becoming.”

      Many profess to believe in this religion or that, or science most relevant here physics. As we know, Energy can not be created, no destroyed. Ended. Only appears such when coming upon different matter.

      And so the same with us.

      Yet so many, in my experience 9 out of 10 at the remains of the day, truly don’t believe.

      Some did come to the” wisdom” perhaps (operative word herein sentence() with some assistance through my conversations, or simple presence, BEING THERE. Yet most likely they came to such on their own accord. In Witness, Being There for Themselves in true meditation, not our commercialized form.

      One must hold two seemingly mutual exclusive thoughts eg “I have leukemia” and own it, cradle, soothe …”I have all these things, goals I will do in the next chapter.”And I will do.

      BELIEVE before Faith. Love

      Even the Father had to conceive it…then make a covenant to bring it into Being. Fruition. The earliest understanding of “religion” was in action. Not prayers, words.

      The Buddhists some it up nicely First do no harm. A summary of the first several Christian commandments. Which starts with Honesty of Self and Others. Few look deeply until a threat to their very existence.

      Then if no Harm ..Go out and Do some Good.

      Jesus told us often in the Affirmative, and in action with others the same. The Corporal & Spiritual Acts of Mercy

      The Greek and Stoic philosophers re: Virtues which can be summarized into a Triangle or pyramid staring with base foundation:

      Honesty , Curiosity, Empathy

      Acceptance, Patience, Forgiveness

      Just Justice, Mercy .. and Grace

      When one experiences the Awful Grace of God and looks deeply at the withiness and the withoutness.,,

      They will come to understand at a daily intrinsic level the above .. for themselves ..,bestowed onto others.

      BELIEVE is a 7 words for a reason.

      BELIEVE before Faith, Love

      Nothing Real can Hurt You
      Nothing Unreal can Hurt You

      Expectations ..,from Others

      Everything ..,and Nothing

      Those that understand the above …are on their way.

      Be Well

  4. The first thing that came to my mind when I heard this quote via Kennedy ( actually in a snippet in the XFiles series, S4 E7) I knew that the awful grace of God means grace that is awed and majestic and feared.

    Many of us have had drops of pain fall steadily upon our hearts, and despair, but how many open their hearts to God for His imparting of Grace?

  5. I just stumbled upon this saying reading an article about MLK jr and wondered the same thing. That’s why I’m now here. My though would be that to experience God’s grace, we would need to be in a position that is not ideal. We would need grace in some manner – given by God non the lease. If we need grace, that would mean we are not in a position we want to be, and it most likely would be an “aweful” place to be in to experience that grace. The grace is wanted, but not the position we must be in to receive if. It’s like aweful cough syrup. We don’t want to be sick, and the syrup will help us, but it’s no always enjoyable taking it, but it’s what is best for us. It’s hard to relate Gods grace to cough syrup though.

  6. WISDOM and understanding come at the death of fearful, innocent and blissful IGNORANCE, this is the awful grace of God.

    My understanding of the Aeschylus quote is it’s about DUALITY. You only know and understand good by knowing or experiencing of evil. Pleasure makes no sense (pun intended lol) without pain…. Wisdom is an awakening of the mind to said knowledge, however the knowledge is Bittersweet and comes at the price of pain (of letting go of blissful ignorance)

    This bittersweet sensation that comes from awakening to knowledge/becoming wise is what Aeschylus was alluding to in the oxymoronic phrase “Awful grace of God”… Awful symbolises the pain experienced to get to the Grace (symbolising by wisdom)… & Finally God is the symbol of duality (the force responsible for this cosmic balance of yin and yang)

    For Christians there is a verse in Ecclesiastes (1:18) that describes this very duality or ‘awful grace of God’ as Aeschylus put it. The verse goes “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” Hence even the writer of Ecclesiastes was familiar with this universal dual principle.

    Which overall means that Pain and knowledge or good and bad are two connected opposite sides of the coin that is duality. They all come together for THEY ARE ONE… hence why Aeschylus begins the quote saying “he who learns MUST suffer.”

  7. Interpretation varies in the context of polytheism. Those Greek gods did not always dispense a gentle kind of grace.

  8. This quote was used at the end of episode 6, season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS.

    It drew at me quickly to research it’s origin and then I find your blog post. Though he was not of at that time, Hebrew faith, his phrase still carries power to the depths of how the translation was worded. And then even the wisest writer of Ecclesiastes said some words similar, that was pointed out earlier.

    I believe that at different moments in our lives, phrases like these are spoken to carry us to the next moment by the strength gained from enduring.

  9. I think awful grace means that we cannot understand just how God doles our grace and wisdom of understanding. In other words awful grace could mean although painfully graced we cannot understand fully the reason or the level of grace bestowed on the person or individual needing it. It could very well be release for the person but pain for the others who are not in the full understanding of the gift.

  10. The word despair in Kennedy’s version is a mistranslation. The correct translation is despite which clarifies the mood. And yes, the ancient translation of awful is full of awe.

  11. I first read this quote in The Exorcist. I know that many people despise both the book and the movie, but the book is actually very “Christian “, in the values it suggests and illustrates, in the most awful of circumstances. What the quote means to me is that only some of the worst of situations will force us to see beyond our own physical and mental needs and wants-especially if we are stubbornly valuing this life over the next. Wisdom is pain, even if minimal. It is the Creator’s way of forcing us to look to Him and the Eternal, rather than this world and the Other.

  12. I think that “awful grace” could be a way of emphasizing that portion of the words. My grandmother, born in 1900, used to say, e.g., “awfully pretty”, to communicate the epitome of prettiness or whatever she wished to comminicate, through an apparent oxymoron. Oxymorons do grab the attention of the brain momentarily as it tries to unravel the meaning of these seemingly opposite concepts, and in that moment of arrested focus, we register this as being potentially important. So “awful grace”, actually profound, beyond understanding, true grace becomes the focus of the quote. Also, that crystal clear image of “drop by drop upon the heart” gets coupled with the grace concept and we end with a quote superficially being about suffering, grief and/or despair being remembered as being about an image of awesom grace dripping like a balm upon the heart that aches.
    Which is exactly the way that we we experience recovery from great sorrow:slowly, one tiny drop at a time.
    And an illustration of the way that ancients loved to express themselves (that is still used today): with an outer and inner or superficial and deep understanding of a concept.

  13. I think that “awful grace” could be a way of emphasizing that portion of the words. My grandmother, born in 1900, used to say, e.g., “awfully pretty”, to communicate the epitome of prettiness or whatever she wished to comminicate, through an apparent oxymoron. Oxymorons do grab the attention of the brain momentarily as it tries to unravel the meaning of these seemingly opposite concepts, and in that moment of arrested focus, we register this as being potentially important. So “awful grace”, actually profound, beyond understanding, true grace becomes the focus of the quote. Also, that crystal clear image of “drop by drop upon the heart” gets coupled with the grace concept and we end with a quote superficially being about suffering, grief and/or despair being remembered as being about an image of awesom grace dripping like a balm upon the heart that aches.
    Which is exactly the way that we we experience recovery from great sorrow:slowly, one tiny drop at a time.
    And an illustration of the way that ancients loved to express themselves (that is still used today): with an outer and inner or superficial and deep understanding of a concept.

  14. Dear Tim:

    I appreciate the sincerity and the gentle good nature that comes through in your posts, so I want to make that clear before I write this. I am no worker of the devil, or anyone trying to deceive you. Everything I will say is true, and it’s up to you whether you wish to permit for this comment to appear on your site, or even read it.

    What you are asking for has a much more profound truth than any Hebrew scriptures stolen with the bad bits buried beneath all the child sacrifices, and so on.

    1The LORD said to Moses,
    2“Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine.” (Ex. 32:1-2)

    The interpretation of the above verse is that this refers to “consecrating into the priesthood,” but I’ve never heard that the beasts were inducted into the priesthood. It very clearly refers to the practice of sacrificing first-born children.

    You are a part of a religion from a tradition that slew its own children on altars in propitiation of its paranoias, and who believes that it was right to murder ritually a man named Jesus for propitiation of the sins of other people.

    Alas, nothing I say will likely persuade you of the fallacy of both of these religions, which are ultimately only good if you ignore most of the Bible, including commandments of Jesus to abandon families, to have no cares and not to work, or the one where he calls people dogs, or many others you can read about here, if you so wish. Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild?

    But I digress. What I find extraordinary is that it is possible to read something so profound from Aeschylus and make a blog post about it – BUT NOT READ THE PLAY. In other words, you are to glean some profound wisdom about your god by reading the words of an author from before your god even existed, without reading the play to which context the text refers to. Is it possible that Christianity makes people this simpleton?

    Regardless, what you do in asking these questions is precisely what Aeschylus tried to accomplish, and it’s a testament to his genius that so many centuries later and in a different language (and the translator’s) he achieves the very thing which he wanted the audience to achieve at this point in the play.

    This is called Anagnorisis, and exists in all great literature, but begins with the Greeks. It refers to a revelation into the true nature of things, by the process of living through something which simply could not be explained with a priori knowledge, and cannot be understood except through the experience – but which highlights the fallacy of what one used to believe and renders it inescapably false, irreparably so.

    In reading those words, you not only explain his meaning in asking this question, but the morale of the play AND act out through your questioning the very definition of the literary technique – anagnorisis.

    Because if you are truly honest with yourself, you will recognize that the problem of evil is simply irreconcilable with a loving god. The suffering, the misery. All you can do is look away from those things and pretend they’re not real, and carry on with the belief in nothing. But it doesn’t make the nothing good, it doesn’t make it evil, because nothing is simply nothing.

    “”He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls, drop by drop, upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

    To Aeschylus, and to all the Platonists and the Neoplatonists, they recognized the truth of the world – that there are no gods, and that most things people believe in are illusions. Fantasies to which they permit themselves to be initiated because of their pain of knowing they will die, and the pain of losing those they love whom they will never see, and the pain of the pointlessness of life, and the pain of knowing all things will one day end – a point the writer of Ecclesiastes makes for all things but the earth, the poor bugger didn’t know that even the universe is expanding and will atrophy and entropy will set in, all things will end and light doesn’t overcome the darkness.

    And that is the suffering that he who learns must experience – the same suffering they try to trick us against with the tower of Babel story, the same morale in the Garden of Eden against eating from the tree of knowledge – because once one knows the truth, life is nihilism and misery. There is no ultimate justice, and evil people get away with being evil and making themselves rich all the time.

    The second part of that phrase is that through suffering we see the truth, but through suffering we relate to other people and recognize our common humanity when we recognize all the religious stuff is nonsense. The religious people are never good people – because their reward awaits after death, and they talk gleefully about others burning in hell. But the man who recognizes the truth feels sorry for everyone, because he feels sorry for himself; he doesn’t add to the suffering, since all suffer already. And it is through this suffering and misery that he sees how awful this grace of god truly is, and how false god is – a man made instrument that rather than making is better makes us evil. The second part is an invocation – a call to arms, if you will, to improve the world.

    And that is the “wisdom” piece which is discussed even in the mythical Solomon’s works – what Plato called “benevolent lie.” All the good things begin with Plato, as has been said – because he is the one who comes up with the notions which you today ascribe to your god; the concept of hell, as a punishment, heaven, as a reward, the understanding of objective and non-objective realities and the foolishness of things like “country” “money” “status” “borders,” these are all imaginary, and also the idea of “one source of all” as a singular god of light which is taken out of the Greek Mysteries of Demeter anyways, but most importantly, the psuche, psyche, soul.

    Plato understood you can’t turn people around into moral beings – you required a process, and so religion required replacing one set of terrible barbaric customs (child sacrifices) with a more benevolent kind (don’t kill Isaac, Abraham, even though I just told you to, it’s not necessary, kill the animals instead), and gradually civilize the people.

    And in the typical Greek way, where the height of virtue was to be “an old man who plants trees under which he knows he will never rest,” for the successive generations to continue our species and our life, because it is worth preserving – that is the TRUE wisdom and true VIRTUE, not one where you believe in god and his grace for your own selfish reasons and send money to charlatan preachers and believe that murdering a man propitiates for your sins because you’re “covered with the blood of Jesus.”

    Wisdom isn’t knowledge, or truth necessarily. Wisdom includes using deception if necessary if it helps the people you’re trying to help, and that’s the essence of the fallacy of god – it’s a necessary tool for a suffering world. But by this point, it’s caused more suffering than it’s alleviated.

    “”18 I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts.

    19 For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.

    20 All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.

    21 Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?

    22 Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?”

  15. Have you read Flannery O’Connor? She combined Southern Gothic literature with her devout Christian realism. She firmly believed that grace could be an awful and painful experience but necessary. Her short story “Revelation“ perfectly encapsulates this idea.

  16. MY BELIEF is that this poem of Aeschylus is about the breaking down of the ego, hence the feeling of awful (both awe inspiring from a soul perspective and also difficult from an ego perspective), as the ego is not able to accept itself, and yet this is a requirement of finding oneself, of finding one’s Godly-ness, which is what we are all here to find, this is why we are here, as instruments of God, as we are God, in manifest, in order to experience, as this is the wish of the divine, to experience (itself), and we do, as we are human beings, and in our being-ness, we experience “ourselves”, and thereby find ourselves, and pain is an integral part of living, and of death (and my belief is that this goes “way back”, that this transcends all religions, and therefore it is no mystery that Aeschylus could write this, from one of his in-touch moments)

  17. The word awful did not use to mean what it does now. The root is awe, so the word as used in old texts refers to causing one to be filled with awe as with wonderful. How it came to be a synonym of dreadful or yucky is a mystery. I have never seen the etymology explained. I came across this and assumed from it that the Greeks had a concept of a single overarching deity as the plural godhood of the pantheon does not make sense here as the polytheistic apologists claim. I did not find any thing related in my search but I have encountered a number of quotes from that era which refer to God as an entity much like that of monotheism.

  18. Interesting to watch the anguished contortions of those who feel obliged to force God to conform to their own personal or received understandings, when any God that can be fitted into a box of our construction can only be too small to be God. If you think it impossible for the grace of God to be awful, I suggest a reread of the Book of Job is in order. And please do not be so parochial as to think Christianity has a franchise on the idea of divine grace. It’s been a key component of certain strains of Hinduism for at least 5,000 years. I am not attacking Christianity, only suggesting that its practice include a due proportion of humility. Remember, the Pharisees were certain of their understanding of their their understanding of prophecy. As a result they did not recognize John the Baptist as the promised return of Elijah, or Jesus as the Messiah. In the same way, you’re going to be wrong about some things. Me, too—

  19. I will always remember this beautiful quote by Aeschylus, and I can still hear Robert Kennedy on that night as I watched the tv. I would love to take a course on Aeschylus.

  20. What if it was supposed to be “awe-full” instead of awful? That changes things drastically!

  21. It means awe full. Gods grace is His endowment of the ability to endure an experience that imparts His wisdom and character into our life for His purpose.

  22. I interpret the quote as being in those moments of our lives when we are in pain or suffering, “God” is at work. What we would interpret in those moments as “awful” is actually a design for his earthly creations. Not all of his designs are the opposite of awful; some are though, since at the time they bring pain and suffering. But through the pain and suffering we find wisdom and yes, his grace. His “awful”, awful grace.

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