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.