Fr. Al Kimel has recently posted an article (The Injustice of Grace) on the triumph of God’s mercy that is well worth reading. The following is an excerpt in which he quotes passages from St. Isaac the Syrian and St. Antony the Great:
The seventh century ascetical master, St. Isaac the Syrian, boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:
Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)
The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:
God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!
The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. As St Antony the Great wrote:
God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.
To Father Al’s thoughts (which take these quotes to other important conclusions) I would add my own. This thoroughly patristic understanding of God’s justice and the metaphorical sense that must be applied to such words as wrath, etc., is utterly essential in the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It goes to the very heart of our understanding of God. Nothing, in my mind, has done more damage to the Gospel of Christ than the loss of this understanding, and the substitution in its place of various theories in which the anger of God has been propitiated by His only Son. It is surely true that Christ’s death is a work of atonement – it makes possible and restores our relationship with God – but it brings about no change in God. The love of God is made manifest in that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The death of Christ on the Cross makes no change in the love of God – but every possible change i