Mercy and Justice in Isaac the Syrian  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Isaac was not only intoxicated with the love of God, he was intoxicated with the notion that God is love.  This even leads him at times to downplay God's justice, as contrasted to God's love.  Quotations illustrative of this are found on pp 40-43 of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev's magisterial The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Cistercian Publications/Liturgical Press 2000)


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 harbor 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!

Mercy is opposed to justice.  Justice is equality on the even scale, for it gives to each as it deserves...Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness...; 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.  Like a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so are the sins of the flesh in comparison with the mind of God.  And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obscured by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of his creatures.

And what is a merciful heart?  It is the heart burning for the sake of all creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons, and for every created thing; and by the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears.  By the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and by his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or see any injury or slight sorrow in creation.  For this reason he offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those that harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy.  And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns without measure in his heart in the likeness of God.