The scene was clear: three men were beating another man who had been handcuffed. The injustice of the situation was clear. No danger could possibly be seen coming from the handcuffed man, and no reason could be discerned for the beating. The man with the handcuffs was black, though he need not have been. The officers were white, though they need not have been. It made me feel sick.
I recall a scene from a Dostoevsky novel. A horse pulling a cart drew up lame. The man driving the cart began to beat the horse. The horse was unable to respond. The beating continued. With graphic detail Dostoevsky described the beating, including the fact of the whip striking the horses eyes. It is a terrible scene of brutality, one that Dostoevsky had actually witnessed in his life and chose to place in the novel. He seems to have collected stories of brutality from newspapers. In the Brothers Karamazov, he places that habit of collecting into the life of Ivan, who cites, in detail, various real-life stories in his case against belief in God. His account of a child abuse case is one of the most moving and graphic passages in the novel.
Our news media, always aware of their audience, consistently seeks to make its point through the device of “personal interest.” A story reported with facts and figures is never as effective as a story illustrated with a single fact and a single figure, particularly if that fact and figure have an accompanying video. Like the readers of Dostoevsky, we are moved. We place ourselves in the position of the handcuffed man, the beaten horse, the abused child. Our instinct for justice cries out and says, “Enough!” We feel rage, or perhaps we feel manipulated. Perhaps we think the story-teller is being unfair and one-sided, misrepresenting the facts and drawing us to a false conclusion. Our hearts cry out and say, “Enough!” We feel rage.
There is a different way to see these things.
Most frequently, we identify with a point-of-view within such scenes. It is from that beleaguered position that we empathetically experience the injustice and enter into our rage. A different approach is to empathetically enter into both positions in the scene – the one who is beaten and the one who beats. We might extend that to include the person who is trying to relay the story with their own point-of-view. In that extension of the self into the whole of a scene, our empathy reaches out in order to make ourselves both the sinner and the one who is sinned against. In no way do we seek to excuse. However, if we blame, the blame now falls on us, just as the injury does as well. We can see this described in one of the Macarian Homilies:
Those who have been judged worthy to become children of God and to be born from on high of the Holy Spirit … not infrequently weep and distress themselves for the whole human race; they pray for the ‘whole Adam’ with tears, inflamed as they are with spiritual love for all humanity. At times also their spirit is kindled with such joy and such love that, if it were possible, they would take every human being into their heart without distinguishing between good and bad. Sometimes, too, in humility of spirit, they so humble themselves before every human being that they consider themselves to be the last and least important of all. After which the Spirit makes them live afresh in ineffable joy. Pseudo-Macarius Eighteenth Homily, 8 (PG 34,79)
This exercise is a radical extension of the self in the love of God. When we view these things from an external perspective, watching them as though they are happening outside of ourselves, the inevitable result is to be drawn into the warring passions which they embody. It doesn’t cause us to end such things or to somehow repair the world. No angry person ever made anger go away. No one raging against rage makes rage disappear. Violence, no matter how carefully planned or executed, never creates justice. Retribution is not justice.
Those who have suffered loss want what they have lost to be restored. That is a partial justice. There remains the “debt” of the taking ever having happened. There is a deficit in the soul when we are violated. No amount of “restitution” can heal that deficit. It can do much, but it cannot do the whole of it.
Christ is the incarnation of justice. However, we find in Him a justice that transcends the limits of our time-bound existence. The justice of Christ is manifest and revealed in the Cross, an instrument of injustice. There the Innocent was nailed and mocked, then buried in a borrowed tomb. Beyond this, He descended into Hades, where no one without sin had gone before. The Cross is itself transformed, becoming, not the instrument of injustice and death, but the weapon of resurrection and life. The resurrection does what no amount of restitution, punishment, or retribution could ever do. It makes that which was evil to be good.
There is an eschatological theme of unvarnished joy that runs throughout the Scriptures. The evil that has been done will be no more (nor is there apparently any memory of it). It seems to have disappeared:
He will swallow up death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face and remove the disgrace of His people from the whole earth. For the LORD has spoken. Isaiah 25:8
For the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd. He will lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'” Revelation 7:17
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)
This, I think should not be seen as a memory trick, a mere forgetting. It is a transformation of that which was (as in the crime of the Cross) into that which is (as in the victory of the Cross). This is a mystery that can only be known in union with Christ.
So much of our perception of the world is essentially secular (“independent of God”) – even when it is “moral.” Secular morality is a dominant element within our culture (indeed, secularism may very well be the most “moral” philosophy ever devised). We judge right and wrong. As a secular culture we are committed to the right and would gladly punish the wrong. This, at its heart, is at the very core of the secular commitment to “building a better world.” But in its wake, this progressive march towards a better world leaves broken lives, “justly” (we imagine) cast aside. Dividing the world into good and evil, we see the evil accumulate and overwhelm. When we smash it, it only multiplies. No morality can ever heal what is broken. No reapportioning of injustice can establish justice itself. This requires the work of God.
It is into this very work that we are invited when we are Baptized into Christ. There we are crucified with Him, hung between two thieves. One finds paradise. The other Christ Himself will find in Hades. We are not called to separate the good from the bad, to put a sorting hat on the world and assign destinies. We are invited to see as God sees, to love as God loves, to bleed as God bleeds, and to live as God lives. As we see, and love, and bleed, and live, the whole Adam slowly sees, and loves and bleeds. At last he can live without sorrow or sighing or tears.
This is God’s justice. Only when the whole Adam is made whole can there be the fullness of life for which we are created and for which our true heart yearns.
Illustration: The Empty Tomb – 1889, Mikhail Nesterov.
Thank you for this, Fr. Stephen. I have personal childhood experience (I was 9) of loss of life of a person close to me (a child) at the hands of another person close to me (a parent) and in my heart as a child I Knew then as I know now that I was able to empathize with both people by the grace of God, although I did have anger and hatred for years toward the adult. I have known in my heart for a long time what you are touching upon here as the “truth” — I’m referring specifically to your sentence here: “We are invited to see as God sees, to love as God loves, to bleed as God bleeds, and to live as God lives. As we see, and love, and bleed, and live, the whole Adam slowly sees, and loves and bleeds. At last he can live without sorrow or sighing or tears.”
However, it is very very difficult for me to have empathy for others outside of my personal situation, I know that Our Lord is the Lover of Mankind and He can help me with this, but quite honestly know that I feel stretched beyond comprehension with my own circumstances. Lord have Mercy! I continue to pray to understand what you write about as “bearing a little shame” and know that this is all connected. Thank you for writing.
For some reasons all this brought the tumultuous and varied accounts of the Maccabbees’ books into mind. It is all there: unimaginably unfair persecutions, divine interventions, oppressions, (even snitching and prototypical ‘track and trace’ style human inventories of the persecuted) stories where you empathise with the best and the worst humanity has to offer, divine transformations of hearts and minds from one extreme to the other. The fact that we can read all this occurring some years before Christ’s incarnation and witness God’s providence at work despite it all and through it all is remarkable.
Now I want to be Orthodox. Thank you. Father Stephen, you have hit the nail on the head of something that has been bothering me for quite a while: the confusion between morality and the Christian life. You said it much better than I can, so I will just leave it there. Again thank you.
Thank you for telling the truth Father. Unfortunately it is a truth people are so blinded to through popular rhetoric, etc. Only one who has experienced it can testify it seems.
Something that I appreciate about Dostoevsky, over and over again, is that he is not satisfied with one side of the story. The true conundrum of human suffering has to include the perpetrators as well as the victims. In truth, we are sometimes one and sometimes the other.
When I was a child (50’s), like most of the children I knew, we were punished in our families with whippings with a belt. Sometimes those punishments went well beyond any kind of reasonable limit. The image of being whipped when a parent was clearly angry was seared into my consciousness at an early age. It was a fearful thing. When we had children, I could not bring myself to hit them – not in any way. So, we found other ways to correct and train (and they were quite effective). If anything, it was because the image of an angry parent inflicting pain on a child was alive and well in me. It was not my experience as a victim – but my loathing of being the one who could look at a child in that manner – that stayed my hand. I knew that I was all of those things.
And those are “small” things. But it is the same dynamic across the board. I have thought long and hard about violence through the years – because I’ve seen a bit of it – and seen its effects. I referenced Dr. Timothy Patitsas’ The Ethics of Beauty in some earlier articles and comments. He has good chapters on violence. It is the “soul wound” that violence inflicts that concerns me. Reflecting on the book, Achilles in Vietnam, Patitsas looks at the wounds endured by warriors and the dangers of “rage” (the “beserkers” of ancient times).
Violations of justice trigger anger within us – rage being its most extreme form. We do not fear it enough. Whenever the present society anger passes over to rage – extreme danger is possible – with disastrous and long-lasting effects for everyone concerned. The one who has been given over to rage does not see innocent people or things. Everything is a target – including the self. A society in convulsions of rage can simply implode on itself.
We must pray for one another – and, as much as possible – heal the rage and anger within us. St. James says, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”
Father, your words are a balm to my soul . Thank you!
Today everything is expressed in “sides”
“Violations of justice trigger anger within us – rage being its most extreme form. We do not fear it enough.”
This is very true. I thought I feared this anger enough and have found in recent months that I most certainly have not. Strangely, it has not been the injustices around me in the world that have consistently yanked me out of an attitude of prayer, but when I felt that my fellow Orthodox Christians were being dismissive of the suffering of others or dehumanizing them in some fashion. Especially I have become angry when I felt that some attitude or practice of love in the Christian spiritual life was being misused in such a way. It reminds me of how families often press each other’s buttons in ways no one else could, and how we can be especially and ironically uncharitable with those we love when we perceive them as being unloving.
Immediately following the counsel Father Stephen quoted from St. James, the passage continues “Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” I am acutely aware of how far I often am from doing so, and how often my desire to love is turned. It is easy to love the beauty and coherence of Orthodox Christian theology analytically, and so much harder to know the meekness and justice of God inwardly.
I can relate to the whippings. Rage.
I don’t know what you mean about it being a “small thing”. I’m sure I misunderstand.
I have found Dr Patitsas’ book to be invaluable.
Thank you for this post.
I’m aware in my ministry of many, many stories of terrible abuse – compared to which, my whippings would seem “a small thing.” I only use the word out of respect for those who have endured so much more than I have. However, even a “small thing” creates its own trauma, and that has to be respected as well.
You wrote “…but my loathing of being the one who could look at a child in that manner – that stayed my hand. I knew that I was all of those things”.
I am of a different generation, but was disciplined by my father physically many times. At least in my case the discipline was usually just my father losing his temper when I was being unreasonable or disobedient and taking out his anger on me physically. One of those instances left me covered over my body with bruises.
Years later I spanked my own boy for the first and only time when he was about two and a half. He was throwing a temper tantrum, I was angry and embarrassed, and I spanked him *because* I was angry. I can remember the sickness that flooded me afterward as if I am still there today. I never spanked any of my children again, but I did wonder if my father had felt that same sense of sickness and wrongness and I empathized with him even as I still carried such conflicted feelings toward him. I’m certain that he did know that sense of sickness. All these years later my father’s sense of shame and guilt is palpable and continues to haunt our relationship, acting as a barrier to closeness even when I want to bridge the gap.
As you say, prayer (especially for him) has been the greatest balm. It has helped me to be more compassionate and tender hearted toward my father, and more patient when it feels like the work toward healing is bearing little fruit. It is a hard path to persist in.
Yes, I see. Thank you.
I can’t imagine what you have heard. Dr Patitsas’ answer to those who ask how our confessors bear the pain of such stories is that they give it to God.
As an offering.
Helps to realize that and apply it to ourselves in how we share one another’s burdens.
He says priesthood is an essential element of humanity, as created in Christ’s image. He goes on to say we must overcome our childhood issues in order to fulfill our priestly identify.
I can not remember when I have ever been so greatly challenged as much as in reading and taking seriously this book. Our life in Christ is about as easy as being crucified and fulfilling as being resurrected andborn again.
Lord Have Mercy…
As always, thank you, Father.
Thank you Father. These words are so timely and needed today.
Thank you Father Stephen for these words – I have much mused over James’ words, ‘man’s anger worketh not the righteousness of God’ in these days, and can also relate to that anger that wells up and to which Reader Christopher alludes – a response to unhealthy shame’
Also with Paula, I can attest to the incredible gift of Dr Patistas’ book, which has often stopped me in my tracks as I’ve read it this past week or so.
That a priest from another tradition whom I have never met might recommend a book from an obscure publisher – obtained only with considerable difficulty (I live far away 🙂 ) – might be such a Gift, only witnesses to the deep mystery of our existence, how little we know, and thus how Gentle we should be with others, and indeed ourselves.
Thinking about small worlds. I first ran across Dr. Patitsas’ work in the small magazine, Roads to Emmaus. The nun who does the interviewing in his book is its editor. She had a couple of interview/articles with him and I was struck by them – so much so, that I called him on the phone to ask a question. He answered the phone, I told him who I was, and he said, “Oh! You’re the famous uncle of _____ _____ (one of my nieces who doesn’t live in his city and isn’t even Orthodox – she’s Anglican). I was stunned! Turns out, when he did his grad work – it was in the city she lived in and she participated in a study group with him…and apparently mentioned me from time to time. Well, it was a wonderful way to strike up the conversation. I’ve since met him in person and conversed much more. There are some things in his work that are “idiosyncratic” – only in the sense that he speaks of them in ways that you will not likely have heard – though he’s thoroughly grounded in the tradition. But he has a fresh understanding that can only come from someone whose take on the tradition is experiential/existential – probably the only kind of people who can ever really teach you anything.
I’m enjoying recommending him!
“There are some things in his work that are “idiosyncratic” – only in the sense that he speaks of them in ways that you will not likely have heard – though he’s thoroughly grounded in the tradition.”
Yes Father…if you mean concepts like “unknowing” or to “talk or think backwards”. I thought, wow, is there no end to the paradoxes and inversions in the Orthodox language!
His experiential knowledge does give life to this work, an organic feel. The book ‘enfolds’, as he describes in the intro. At the same time, he is straightforward, in good old American fashion. He hits upon some seriously deep things about the human soul, as it relates to Christ, and by extension, our’neighbors’ and all creation, yet speaks in a way that this average lay person can understand. But I have to read, stop, go back, take notes…let it sink in. This is what you do with a treasure. This is a large volume’d book with lots of treasures.
I wish I could count how many times he uses the phrase “for the life of the world”, to drive home the point of our life ‘in Christ, crucified’. Nope, never been challenged like this. What else do you do when faced with these truths, but to accept the challenge. Fearful, yet wonderful. How typical.
Amazing story about your niece, Father. It is indeed a small world. So very good that you spoke at length with him. Then to introduce his book on your blog. Very thankful for that.
Funnily enough, I’d already come across RTE some years ago. The good folk at St Nicholas Press who sent me my copy, kindly protected it with two very old copies, one of which was on Orthodoxy in Wales – in an old slate mining town I know well, and of some of the first millenium heritage of faith in that borderland, something about which I knew a little from my associations with a community clinging to the edge of the South West corner of that land. It was a lovely gift, to enclose a Gift 🙂
It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about this writing in parallel to Les Miserables with many Orthodox themes. This article on the work of Christ’s grace and the law in Les Miserables struck me alongside this writing. All the while acknowledging we can be all of the characters and the heart is always the place of our true battleground.
I have thoughts and opinions about things like everyone else. Usually it’s just academic or if the topic is right an opportunity for interesting discussion with friends. The stuff going on these last couple of months has just left me stressed and feeling sick inside. It’s different than the other things I’ve experienced in my life. I’m not a young man, been around over half of a century. I don’t feel like I need to make sense of it all but I would like some peace. I want to see the world like monks do. It’s hard to wrap my mind around things that way. Of course that’s really just another way of saying I seek to acquire the mind of Christ. Lord have mercy.
Wonderful as always Father; just wondering how long you took to write this. Some of the drafting, e.g., “Most frequently, we identify… just as the injury does as well…” i thought was particularly tough.
Also felt the piece had a musical quality about it, ebb and tide, and reaching a peak towards the end (“It is into this very work that we are invited when we are Baptized into Christ…. whole Adam slowly sees, and loves and bleeds. At last he can live without sorrow or sighing or tears”) and then the calm (“This is God’s justice…life for which we are created and for which our true heart yearns”). Beautiful.
Thank you for the kind words. I wrote it, off and on, over the course of a day. The music, for me, is an echo of the Liturgy. Christ is “the One who offers and is offered, the receiver and the received.” Those sorts of cadences are the poetry of the faith.
God give you grace! We are living through something that will be named in time. But it’s very hard to see what it is at the moment. It’s certainly difficult to see where it is going.
Robert, it is not just monks. I have often been encouraged by the words and life of Pastor Richard Wurmbrand.
A Romanian Jew who became evanglelical Lutheran. http://www.oodegr.com/english/empeiries/finishing_the_race.htm
It is interesting
Here is the problem with justice in my book–it requires all of the pertinent information known through trustworthy sources and legitmately obtained anything less makes justice approximate and conditional. Even then it is still an interpretation. Mercy on the other hand requires only love and humility. If God who does have absolutely everything required to execute justice chooses mercy…..
Still there is a time for even approximate, conditional justice but it never occurs as the result of inflamed passions.
A few months ago you posted a Youtube video of a children’s choir singing a beautiful hymn. Do you still have that link? I was really wanting to listen to it again.
Justice is always difficult or impossible, whereas mercy can be given in abundance, with ease. That being the case, we must admit that we have failed to have mercy as a nation – but, it is still mercy, somewhere or somehow, that will redeem us, if we are to be redeemed at all.
It seems mercy is not easy. The last American President who seriously suggested it was shot.
Thank you, Father. I feel very strongly the pull toward a “moral” society. Usually this means some kind of convergence of conservatism and liberalism. It is easy to justify this to myself. It seems good on the surface. It is hard to acknowledge that desires that seem outwardly good and justified, even born in what feels like “love” for another, are really no such thing. They are part of our moral secularism. And all the while, I haven’t learned one whit in the process how to see how God sees.
I think it’s time to turn off the news and the internet and to spend more time praying, reading, and with family.
I think I am confused about your comment that ‘Justice is always difficult or impossible, whereas mercy can be given in abundance, with ease’.
I’m sure I’m misunderstanding what you mean, but it seems to me that to extend mercy is very difficult in the darkened state that human beings find ourselves in. I agree with Michael that love and humility are the foundation of mercy, but they are equally the foundation of genuine justice. In my own experience seeking to receive and practice love and humility is a constant interior struggle, which would put both mercy and justice firmly in the domain of ‘what is impossible for man is possible with God’.
Also, it seems to me that the distinction being made between mercy and justice only applies in relation to a world ignorant of its own nature and purpose, but collapses in the person of Christ. Is this wrong? What purpose could the Christian have for making such distinctions? In the Christian life don’t justice and mercy serve the same redemptive end?
I feel like I’m missing something in what you are saying…
Justice seeks to restore what has been lost, to establish the right and proper state of things. As such, it can require a great deal of understanding and consideration – and there may be many roadblocks to its implementation. Mercy need take no account of what is deserved, owed, etc. It is simply and abundance of generosity and kindness.
Let’s take someone who was recently freed from slavery. Justice. How do you restore what has been lost? How do you compensate for the damage done? Etc. That is very difficult, if not impossible. But, mercy. What would mercy look like? Every form of dignity being accorded. Every kindness extended. An abundant resource and assistance to begin a new life, etc. In the tradition – it is pretty much only God who could actually calculate justice. But, even God gives us abundant mercy – a generosity far greater than mere justice. St. Isaac of Syria said, “We know nothing of God’s justice – only His mercy.”
I do have some additional questions, but I don’t want to belabor the point, so feel free to ignore me if you think I am doing so.
I don’t remember that statement from St. Isaac, but it seems strange to me to say we know nothing of God’s justice. That would only be true in my mind if we equate justice with retribution or in some sense our making recompense. In our faith though is not God’s justice on full display in the Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection of Christ? Christ is not only restoring that which was lost, re-ordering and renewing all of creation, but in an overflowing abundance beyond, that Christ becomes all in all. In Christ are not mercy and justice woven together? My readings from St. Isaac would lend me to think that he would agree with such a thing, and would only reject the impoverished sense in which we tend to approach justice in this world, but I admit that I have not read extensively from him.
It is without doubt that justice in this world is difficult or impossible as you say. Who can properly restore the slave or compensate a slave for what was lost or damage done? Still, even in the scenario you describe are justice and mercy so far apart? As slave narratives show over and over the most profound loss of slavery is human dignity. So to show mercy in a manner that restores between two people a sharing in life and understanding of human dignity is the most meaningful justice in my mind. Still, the vanity that we all live in testifies to how difficult such a restoration of dignity is, and how rarely such mercy is extended.
I guess that is the heart of my confusion. We have in the person of Christ the pouring forth of both justice and mercy, so we need not talk or think of either in the limited or outright wrong sense in which the world treats those ideas (something your writings testify to over and over), with attendant concepts of retribution, power, redistribution of wealth, etc. At the same time, the full sense of both mercy and justice are hidden realities to our eyes spiritually, and even as followers of Christ we struggle toward them, by God’s grace, in prayer and humility. So, it both seems strange to me to say that we know nothing of God’s justice, and equally strange to say that mercy (in this world) is somehow easier to extend than justice is to obtain. Both are remote to man trapped in ignorance, and made close to man only when the heart subjects itself to the love of God.
I’ll stop there. I do not mean to split hairs, so I hope I don’t come across as being argumentative.
With justice – we get what we deserve. With mercy, we get far better than we deserve. It is in that sense that St. Isaac says that we know nothing of God’s justice. His mercy transcends justice-as-desert. It is also possible to say (and I think this is what I hear in your thoughts) that the mercy of God is, indeed, His justice.
The Penal Substition Atonement theory makes Christ’s death to be about justice – and runs into all kinds of problems as a consequence. I generally prefer the language of St. Isaac.
Father the example you use of slavery is simply not amenable to justice. Even limiting it to Afro-American slavery in the US. There is not a person alive who has not benefited from slavery or been hurt by it or both. The best example of mercy I know is Fr. Moses Berry. I have stood next to him twice as he put on his great-great uncle’s iron slave collar weighing about 25 lbs. It was the collar the man was wearing when freed by Union soldiers. The family kept it! But to see Fr. Moses put it on and see the sadness and the fierce rejection of such a thing and the pride and dignity in overcoming but over it all the mercy all commingled and the tremendous strength communicated because of the mercy.
It is not an easy mercy, it has taken Fr. Moses his life to come to it and he works on it every day even though it is a family tradition which also led them into uncommon acts of mercy. Repentance, forgiveness, long-suffering.
I will never forget those two moments and my words are not adequate. There is no justice that could equal the fruits that come from mercy.
Unfortunately Fr. Moses is in poor health and prayers are needed.
Yes, you nailed it, to say that the mercy of God is His justice is exactly how I have conceived of it. It is also why the way people in our society often talk about justice feels so wrong to me. In the gospels Christ seems to continually challenge the sense of justice of those he is speaking to, such as when Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness and Jesus answers by inverting Lamech’s song of vengeance.
Penal substitutionary atonement is what I grew up with in Reformed evangelical Christianity, and a big part of the reason why when I returned to Christianity as an adult I could not remain in a Reformed church.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen,
These are words I needed for today.
from St Isaac the Syrian (from his Ascetical Homily 51):
“Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves; and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons. Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot coexist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy.”
Michael, that whole homily is addressing man and not God, and I would suggest that justice in the context of this passage be understood as the justice of this world or as we experience it. Our understanding of justice as “just desserts” is terribly stunted, and as abundantly demonstrated in Ecclesiastes it fails even within its own limited scope. Therefore, as St. Isaac points out, it is right and healthy for man to incline to mercy and away from such justice. As St. Isaac writes just before the start of your quote, “The man who corrects his companions while his soul is infirm is like a blind man who shows others the way”.
If we take St. Isaac’s definition of justice in this passage and apply it to God then we find ourselves in the untenable position of saying that Christ is merciful but not just, for each man does not get as he deserves but in Christ we receive “wine and milk without money and without price”. It cannot be that God is not just; God is perfect justice. In his essence God is perfectly simple and therefore God does not have attributes in the way we conceive of them. In God mercy and justice are perfectly convertible with one another. In the redemption of man and the renewal of the cosmos Christ is restoring and revealing all things according to the will and ends of God. That created being should know God, know itself in God, and know its end in God. That is the mercy of God which is his justice, for in God these two cannot be set at odds. Such a dichotomy fails.
Man’s justice is a stumbling in the darkness of spiritual blindness. We incline ourselves toward wickedness and the dealing of judgments that we ourselves would not wish to be judged by. We cry for mercy for ourselves, but extend none. We receive forgiveness of debts from the king and then turn and pommel our debtors and demand payment. St. Isaac is pointing out the divided heart of man and urging his reader to the beginning of divine wisdom which “is clemency and gentleness”, thus he emphasizes mercy over justice.
Our justice is a house of idols, but we can remember and hope for God’s justice. We cannot perform God’s justice. We cannot set to rights that which is clearly not right. Still, I tend to think that when my wife and I show each other mercy and love and grow closer to one another that God’s justice is also at work within us.
I am behind on reading your posts, Father, but this article and all the ensuing comments have been very helpful for me today as I attempt to navigate a lot of anger that I feel towards someone in my life right now. Many thanks to all.