Concern Over God’s Judgement: What Does It Look Like?

In homily 51, St. Isaac begins a paragraph by quoting St. Gregory (I don’t know which one): “He is a temple of grace who is united with God, and is constant in his concern over His judgement.”  St. Isaac then asks, “what is concern over God’s judgement?”  His answer is quite surprising, a non sequitur really.  He doesn’t actually deal with God’s judgement at all, at least not in the way that most of us are used to thinking about it.  For St. Isaac, God’s judgement does not refer to anything that God does or doesn’t do.  It refers to Who God is and how our own conscience responds to the deepening knowledge or encounter with God.  For St. Isaac and in about all of the reflection of the Church Fathers and Mothers on this matter, God’s judgement is never a matter of God deciding or determining—as a human judge would have to do when making a judgement.  Rather, God’s judgement is the response of the human conscience to the awareness or knowledge of God.

OK, here’s what St. Isaac says: Concern over God’s judgement is the “continual seeking after His rest; mourning at all times and a contrite meditation on account of those things that always remain imperfect because of the wretchedness of our nature; constant sadness on their account, which the mind retains through powerful thoughts and offers up before God in prayer as an offering with humble compunction; and, inasmuch as is possible and within a man’s power, to hold solicitude for the body in disdain.”  Wow, that’s a mouthful.  Let’s unpack it a little.

To begin with, concern over God’s judgement is the continual seeking after His rest.  Please note: concern over God’s judgement is not the continual seeking to do or be better.  There is no better or worse from the perspective of God’s judgement.  As the scripture generally and St. Paul specifically and repeatedly reminds us, “All have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” Certainly, in regard to sin, there is better and worse from the human perspective.  For example, it is far better to merely hold a grudge in your heart than to take revenge on your nemesis by killing his first born.  However, to a conscience seen clearly in the Light of God, both are murderers.    And isn’t this exactly what Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount?

Of course it is better to do what you can to bridle yourself and control your words and actions so that you give as little power as possible to the wickedness that lies in your heart.  Some foolish people (myself included—especially on particularly bad days) will have the thought: “Well, if before God it’s as wicked to carry the sin in my heart as it is to speak about or perform the wicked deed, then I might as well just do it.” But that is just the thinking of the pouty child that still somehow lives within me.  It really makes no sense whatsoever.  It’s kind of like saying that just because—due to my carelessness (a tossed cigarette butt, perhaps)—I’ve caused a blade of grass to catch fire, I might as well, then, let the whole forest burn down.  No.  As soon as I notice a fire, I need to stomp it out and not let it cause any more damage than it already has.  The more I let my sin rage, the more I damage myself and those around me.  St. Isaac says earlier in this homily, “If you are not holy in your heart, at least be holy in your body.”  It’s the least we can do.

But to get back to St. Isaac’s thoughts on concern for God’s judgement.  He says that concern over God’s judgement is continually seeking after His rest.  St. Paul says in Hebrews 4:11 that we are to strive to enter God’s rest.  This is St. Paul’s allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament Sabbath.  Just as God ceased his work on the Sabbath, so we, when we enter His rest, cease from our labour.  What labour is that?  It is the labour of trying to appease or even just to please God by our behaviour: by what we eat or don’t eat, by what we do or don’t do.  When we really accept that we fall short of God’s glory, then the nature of our spiritual effort changes.  Instead of striving to please God, we strive to enter His rest.  But entering His rest does not mean that we are suddenly sinless.  No, not at all.  That’s why St. Isaac goes on to talk about mourning and contrite meditation.

We enter God’s rest with a profound awareness of our abiding imperfectness “because of the wretchedness of our nature.”  We “always remain imperfect,” St. Isaac tells us, so long as we remain in the life of this age. And there is very little we can do about it except control it (limiting the damage as much as we can), mourn it, and offer it “up before God in prayer as an offering with humble compunction.”  Remember—and say this to yourself over and over again—God is my saviour, I am not my own saviour.

But, you may ask, what about theosis, what about deification?  Isn’t some kind of perfection possible in this world?  Well it depends on what your mean by ‘perfection.’  Fullness, yes.  God likeness, yes.  However, what St. Isaac calls “the wretchedness of our nature” and the imperfectness that it occasions will not be completely removed from us until death separates our souls from our bodies.  Theosis, however, is nonetheless possible while we are still in this body of death (as St. Paul calls it).  But theosis is not something we do to ourselves.  Theosis is something God does to us.  It is something that God does to us as we long for it, as with a contrite and humble heart we confess that we do not have it.    That is, as we strive to enter His rest, as we mourn our abiding wretched imperfections, and as we offer in prayer our broken lives to God, God Himself works in us by His grace in hidden ways.

In The Hidden Man of the Heart, by Archimandrite Zacharias, (at least I think this is where read him talking about this) Fr. Zacharias responds to a question about feeling dead or empty in prayer.  What does one do when prayer is just going through the motions and your mind and heart are so not into it?  Fr. Zacharias answers this question by saying that when that happens to him—and notice that even holy monks in monasteries experience this—when that happens to him he just stops saying the usual words of the prayer and starts pointing out to God how wretched he is.  He says things like, “I’m so lazy and inattentive.  Look at me, I don’t even want to talk to You.  Have mercy on me.  Save me from my lazy mind, etc.”  As he says these things about himself to God, as he offers the imperfections of his wretchedness to God as prayer, compunction or sadness enters and softens his heart so that he begins to pray—even if the words of the prayer are only, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me!”

You see, at the end of the day, all we have to offer God is ourselves.  Adam and Eve had to come to God naked even after they sinned, but they didn’t.  They tried to improve themselves, they tried to hide their wretchedness.  And we do the same thing.  We wear ourselves out striving to be better, trying to sew better fig-leaf outfits, vainly thinking that God will somehow like us better if we could only just pray more and eat less or serve more and sleep less, etc. etc. : basically the spiritual version of run faster and jump higher.  But God is not a heavenly coach and we are not trying out for his team.  God is our Father, and he loves us.  He knows everything about us, He knows our wretchedness better than we do, and still He loves us.  God knows our wretchedness and He is ready to heal it, if we would only just come to Him, enter His rest, weep over our sin, and offer it to Him as prayer.

Concern over God’s judgement has nothing to do with striving to be better.  Concern over God’s judgement is to continually strive to enter God’s rest, to humble ourselves and feel sadness over our wretchedness, and to offer that wretchedness to God as prayer.  This is what concern for God’s judgement looks like according to St. Isaac the Syrian.

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for reminding me again of God’s Father heart for me. It is so good to see Him as my loving Father.I love that I receive a small glimpse of where I am supposed to be heading when I read your writings!

  2. Unbeknownst to you, Father Michael, I take you with me on my daily morning walks. : ) Your podcast and blog are so encouraging and enlightening. Thank you for your ministry, and for this beautiful post!

  3. “For St. Isaac, God’s judgement does not refer to anything that God does or doesn’t do. It refers to Who God is and how our own conscience responds to the deepening knowledge or encounter with God. ”

    Father,

    Does St. Isaac in your reading address God’s judgement beyond a kind of acsectic relationship or disposition (what he is calling his/our our “concern”)? Does he speak to the ontology of God’s Judgement – which is revealed to us in the Church by what is called “the Sunday of the Last Judgement” (examples being of course the Sunday of the Last Judgement, the creed, etc. etc.). I am thinking of course of the current phenomena of Orthodox universalism and those who claim St. Isaac is a universalist who theologizes beyond a “concern” or ascetical relationship into an actual ontological negation of God’s Judgement?

    1. I don’t think St. Isaac would make the distinction between the encounter with God’s Judgement in prayer and the final or ontological Judgement. That God is Judge and that there is a final judgement are not in doubt. What St. Isaac is challenging is how we think about and experience that judgement. In other words, he is not saying that there is no separating of sheep from goats. However, he is saying, I think, that how we understand what that is should be based more on the experience of holy people in prayer than on speculations based on how human judges and justice function. The sheep and the goats is a parable. The “nations” that they represent could refer to the nations referred to in the psalms, which much of the spiritual tradition of the Orthodox Church has interpreted to be the worldly and wicked thoughts and motions of our hearts. If that’s the case, and I think St. Isaac would see it that way, then the separation of the nations (the sheep and goats) at the end of the age is a parable about separating what is evil from what is within each person rather than separating people from people or whole nations from whole nations. St. Isaac is not a universalist in the originistic sense nor in the sense of those who claim there is no hell. St. Isaac talks a lot about hell. But how he understands hell and what its function is, is quite different from what is popularly spoken of.

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful reply Father. I agree that hell and Judgement as “popularly spoken of” (which of course is a central aspect of our western, scholastic/protestant spiritual inheritance – the jurist Calvin being the most usual example) is simply not what the Fathers such as St. Isaac are talking about. Ours is an experiential, even “scientific” faith based on Saints who really experience God and Revelation. Parables are exactly that, parables and not metaphysical, or even theological (even apophatic) statements per se – ‘The mysteries of Christ are hidden from the profane, even from the prophets, for Christ has communicated them only in parables’ (Clement of Alexandria). Think about that – even from the prophets! Only full communion/glorification/”theosis” will do!!

        Still, we are at the end of the day still created beings that have a beginning and an end (a kind of end – our mortality) and live in the created order in time. Christianly, dying (in the proper way – following Him and crucifying our selves) and thus Living in God has this “ontological” aspect that can not be escaped. If on the one hand an overly metaphysical and forensic understanding (Calvin and western Christianity in general) is to be avoided, we also know from the Church and her struggles against false paths (rather termed “heresy” or not) that a kind of gnostic tendency to internalize the Eschaton (I was going to say “immanentize the Eschaton” but that phrase is associated with the internal protestant debate over the “social gospel”) – subsuming it into a gnostic disposition of the heart/nous in a way that is essentially neoplatonic (and is Origen’s real error) is equally to be avoided. I wonder sometimes if St. Isaac skirts a bit close to this (false) spirituality. The universalists (by their very existence and testimony) would seem to support this understanding of St. Isaac (they do claim him as one of their own) *but* when I read St. Isaac (and your explication of him) I don’t get the sense that he comes out of this tradition (i.e. universalism/neoplatonic “christianity”). St. Gregory of Nyssa on the other hand is a different story altogether…

        1. Dear Christopher, sorry it has taken me so long to approve your reply. I have been busy, and I didn’t want to approve it until I had time to carefully read it and respond. I think you have created a false dichotomy: inner (ontological) vs. scholastic. That parables can be read very profitably in what you are calling a neoplatonic way does not mean that they cannot also be profitably read in other ways. If we read the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, as referring to the separation that takes place in each human soul, that does not mean that the parable cannot also refer to some final judgement among people or even nations (as the text says—although that doesn’t make sense logically [unless you are a zionist]). This is particularly the case if one considers that the final judgement may have to do with our own clinging to our sheepness or goatness. This is speculation on my part, but parables are tricky things. They point to realities that may seem logically contradictory or even impossible—which is, perhaps, why they must be expressed in parables.

  4. Thank you father for this. St. Isaac is my name saint and I am always seeking to better understand his writings. I am currently reading the Ascetical Homilies, but haven’t made it to 51 yet.

  5. Thank you Father. I just heard you on Ancient Faith radio (3:00 am) and it was on this specific topic and I am glad you posted your thought so I could read and better digest.

    1. I was wrong. It was not this topic on Ancient Faith but another…about Gehenna. Either way, I am glad I found your blog and look forward to your writing.

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