St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

IsaacTheSyrian-headerThere is a strain within some forms of Western theology that is deeply concerned with the “justice” of God. Some even go so far as to say that God is constrained by His justice – that He cannot deny its demands (to do so, they argue, would make Him “less than just”). It is common for Orthodox theology to find this problematic. Here St. Isaac of Syria states the case quite clearly:

Mercy and justice in the same soul is like the man who worships God and idols in the same temple. Mercy is in contradiction with justice. Justice is the return of the equal. Because it returns to man that which he deserves and it does not bend to one side neither is it partial in the retaliation. But mercy is sorrow that is moved by grace and bends to all with sympathy and it does not return the harm to him who deserves it although it overfills him who deserves good. … And as it is not possible for hay and fire to be able to exist in the same house, the same way it is not possible for justice and mercy to be in the same soul. As the grain of sand cannot be compared with a great amount of gold – the same way God’s need for justice cannot be compared with his mercy. Because man’s sin, in comparison to the providence and the mercy of God, are like a handful of sand that falls in the sea and the Creator’s mercy cannot be defeated by the wickedness of the creatures.

I understand that many have a passion for the justice of God – believing that in the end everyone will be requited in the proper manner and this “balancing” will somehow make right all of the evil that may have been tolerated for a while. There is no doubt that many times our evil actions bring evil consequences on us (not as punishment from God but as our own self-willed estrangement from His Divine Life). But the vision of the Fathers and the vision of Christ’s revelation of the Father as received in the Church is of the infinite mercy of God. 

Abba Ammonas states:

Love is not in enmity with anybody, it does not abuse anybody, it does not detest anybody neither believer nor unbeliever or foreigner or fornicator, or unclean. On the contrary it loves more the sinners and the weak and the negligent and for their sake it toils and mourns and weeps. It empathizes with the wicked and the sinners more than it does with the good, imitating and drinking with them. Therefore when He wanted to show us which is the true love he taught saying ‘be then compassionate as your Father is compassionate'(Luke 6:36) and as he sends his rain on the good and the wicked and makes His sun rise on the honest and the dishonest, the same way he who truly loves, loves everybody and has compassion for all and prays for all.

This sort of discourse can provoke anger in some readers – particularly those who demand that justice must, in the end, be done. I cannot help but feel that those who demand justice of God are like those who stood about the woman taken in adultery and demanded her stoning. Christ rebuked them, seeking to show them the sin in their own heart (“he who is without sin let him cast the first stone). By a strange quirk of Christian theology, there are those who feel “righteous” in their own heart, arguing that, having accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, they now have the righteousness of Christ (“imputed righteousness”) and thus feel safe in calling for justice to be done to others (thinking, I suppose, that this threat will provoke repentance). But justice is a very dangerous thing indeed. Though it may be called for in the interest of provoking someone to repentance, it can quickly become a thing in itself, and gather us up into the company of those who are outwardly righteous but inwardly “full of dead men’s bones.”

Spiritually, it is of far greater benefit and safety to simply beg the mercy of God for those who are trapped in sin, and see and treat them with the mercy of God. We are commanded to love even our enemies. I can think of no commandment that says we are to judge the unrighteous. 

By the same token, I think it becomes theologically dangerous for us to project this judgment onto God who has shown us His mercy in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” This unbounded love of God is limited only by theologians who seek to set requirements on the reception of the love of God. Let them return to His mercy and first determine where it ends before they suggest the beginning of something else.

Comments

  1. coffeezombie says

    I don’t think I can read enough of this line of thinking. I know I still struggle with this in my own life. After years of growing up Baptist, I still have a very “just” idea of God, feeling that, when I sin, I anger Him, and so on. It leads to a certain despondency, where it can even become difficult to pray, because, in the back of my mind, I feel those accusations, “How can you dare to approach the throne of God, filthy as you are?”

    It is good to remember that this is not the way God truly is. Now if I can just teach myself to really believe that. :-)

  2. Karen says

    Dear Father, bless! A resoundng Amen! Thank you for saying it again so clearly. We don’t realize that we are seeking our own condemnation every time we wish for justice to be vindictively served in the case of someone else’s sin.

    What is maddening is the theological schizophrenia induced by seeing God’s justice as in opposition somehow to His mercy and the double standard introduced when we adopt notions of “imputed righteousness” on the basis of what is in effect largely a nominal understanding “faith.” In so doing, we have to redefine God’s impartiality everywhere affirmed in Scripture to mean its opposite!

    Even when language is used insisting that God’s mercy and justice are compatible (in Western theologies of penal substitution), one will find that “mercy” has merely been redefined, in George Orwell “1984” fashion, to mean God’s selec