The title of this article comes from the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:2-11), one of the best-known stories in the Gospel. In this story the scribes and Pharisees bring to the Lord a woman “caught in adultery, in the very act” (v. 4). And they inform Him, “Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” (v. 5). The whole situation is obviously supposed to be a trap. The Pharisees clearly imagined that the Lord would have no choice but to either reject the law of Moses—and thereby throw away His credibility—or state that the stern sentence should be upheld, thereby making Himself seem less than compassionate in the eyes of the public.
The setup was a mockery of justice to begin with. The Pharisees did indeed know the law—but why were they dragging this woman into the street to be judged in public? Where was the man with whom she had committed adultery? The Lord’s first act was to communicate that He wanted nothing to do with any of it. He “stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear” (v. 6). But when they pressed Him, He turned the situation around by revealing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees: famously, He told them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first” (v. 7).
All this is powerful, but what’s perhaps the most powerful part of the story occurs right at the very end. When the crowd was gone and the Lord was alone with this woman, He asked her if anyone had condemned her. When she said no, He told her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more” (v. 11).
These words sum up the Lord’s entire attitude towards our sins. He does not condemn us. He never condemns us. He has absolutely no interest in condemnation; it doesn’t serve His purpose. He loves us. He wants to make us happy and bring us to heaven. How would condemning us serve these purposes? It’s antithetical to His attitude towards us. The Heavenly Doctrines of the New Church make this point very clearly:
The Lord is as far from cursing or being angry with anyone as the sky is from the earth. Who can believe that the Lord, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, who with wisdom rules the universe, and so who is infinitely superior to all weaknesses, could be angry with such pitiful dust, that is, with human beings? (Arcana Coelestia §1093)
Now, being described as “pitiful dust” isn’t exactly comforting. When we describe something as “pitiful,” usually what we mean by that is that it’s worthy of our contempt. But the whole point of this article is that the Lord is incapable of contempt. We may read contempt into the idea of pity, but it doesn’t have to be there. In this passage, “pitiful” simply means worthy of pity. Someone in a “pitiful” state is someone who needs help. And—at least in comparison with God—all of us desperately need help. How could He not look at us with pity, or with compassion?
And as for us being “dust”—again, we can read a note of contempt into this statement, but it doesn’t have to be there. To say that we’re like dust in regard to the Lord simply means that compared to Him we’re powerless, and really small. Another way to put it is that God is so much bigger than we tend to realize. If we were a speck of dust on the ground, He, by comparison, would be bigger than creation itself.
Imagine an adult being angry with a child. Not just scolding or disciplining a child, but actually being angry with that child—rejecting them, treating them with coldness, looking for vindication. We would say that that adult was out of line. The emotional and mental “smallness” of the child, in comparison with the adult, makes that sort of anger especially inappropriate. In comparison with God, we are that child—and in fact we’re so much smaller. We’re a piece of dust on the ground, and He’s greater than the whole starry sky. How could He be angry with us? How could He ever see us as anything but wayward children who need His help—children who need His compassion?
All of these ideas are held within the Lord’s statement that He does not condemn us. Compassion is the very foundation of His relationship with us. He is incapable of coming to us with a critical heart, incapable of turning up His nose at us, incapable of turning away His face with disapproval. And this is true even when we sin. The Lord said that He would not condemn a woman who had been caught in the very act of adultery—and adultery is no small sin. He knows all too well how much pain adultery causes.
He does not want that pain. He has compassion on us even when we make destructive choices, but He also sees (much more clearly than we do) just how much hurt those choices cause. He will not condemn us, but we’re capable of condemning ourselves. And that is not what He wants. So He didn’t only tell this woman caught in adultery that He didn’t condemn her; He also told her, “Go and sin no more.” He didn’t flinch away from calling her sin a sin. That wouldn’t have helped her make a better choice—and so it would not have been loving. He is infinitely wise, and that means He knows what will make us happy and what will not. Being love itself, He’s not content to simply let us make unhappy choices. He’ll allow us to walk an unhappy path if we insist on it. But, because He is love itself, He works eternally and unyieldingly to show us a better way.
To put it very simply: His goal is to save us. His goal is to save us from our sins and lead us to the greatest joy that we can possibly receive. Never—not for the smallest instant—does this cease to be His goal. And anger is incompatible with this goal. To abandon us would be incompatible with this goal. Condemnation is incompatible with this goal. Not for the smallest instant does He waver from this purpose.
[The Lord is] Love itself, to which no other attributes are appropriate than those of pure Love and so of pure Mercy towards the whole human race, that Mercy being such that it wills to save all people, to make them eternally happy, and to impart to them all that is its Own—thus out of pure Mercy and by the mighty power of love to draw towards heaven, that is, towards Itself, all who are willing to follow. (Arcana Coelestia §1735)
—Rev. Jared Buss, May 2020