Awareness of Misery Key to Mercy of God
You ask me if a soul sensible of its own misery can go with great confidence to God. I reply that not only can the soul that knows its misery have great confidence in God, but that unless it has such knowledge, the soul cannot have true confidence in Him; for it is this true knowledge and confession of our misery that brings us to God.
All of the great saints — Job, David, and the rest — began every prayer with the confession of their own misery and unworthiness. And so it is a very good thing to acknowledge ourselves to be poor, vile, abject, and unworthy to appear in the presence of God.
“Know thyself” — that saying so celebrated among the ancients — may be understood as applying to the knowledge of the greatness and excellence of the soul (so that it may not be debased or profaned by things unworthy of its nobility); but it also may be taken to refer to the knowledge of our unworthiness, imperfection, and misery.
Now, the greater our knowledge of our own misery, the more profound will be our confidence in the goodness and mercy of God, for mercy and misery are so closely connected that the one cannot be exercised without the other. If God had not created man, He would still indeed have been perfect in goodness, but He would not have been actually merciful, since mercy can only be exercised toward the miserable.
You see, then, that the more miserable we know ourselves to be, the more occasion we have to confide in God, since we have nothing in ourselves in which we can trust. The mistrust of ourselves proceeds from the knowledge of our imperfections. It is a very good thing to mistrust ourselves, but how will it help us, unless we cast our whole confidence upon God and wait for His mercy? It is right that our daily faults and infidelities should cause us some shame and embarrassment when we appear before our Lord. We read of great souls like St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, who, when they had fallen into some fault, were overwhelmed with shame.
Again, it is reasonable that, having offended God, we draw back a little in humility and from a feeling of embarrassment, for even if we have offended only a friend, we are ashamed to approach him. But it is quite certain that we must not remain at a distance, for the virtues of humility, abjection, and shame are intermediate virtues by which the soul must ascend to union with God.
There would be no point in accepting our nothingness and stripping ourselves of self (which is done by acts of self-abasement) if the result of this were not the total surrender of ourselves to God. St. Paul teaches us this when he says, “Strip yourselves of the old man, and put on the new”; for we must not remain unclothed, but must clothe ourselves anew with God. The reason for this little withdrawal is only so that we may better press on toward God by an act of love and confidence. We must never allow our shame to be attended with sadness and disquietude. That kind of shame proceeds from self-love, because we are troubled at not being perfect, not so much for the love of God, as for love of ourselves.
And even if you do not feel such confidence, you must still not fail to make acts of confidence, saying to our Lord, “Although, dear Lord, I have no feeling of confidence in Thee, I know all the same that Thou art my God, that I am wholly Thine, and that I have no hope but in Thy goodness; therefore I abandon myself entirely into Thy hands.”
It is always in our power to make these acts; although there may be difficulty, there is never impossibility. It is on these occasions and amid these difficulties that we ought to show fidelity to our Lord. For although we may make these acts without fervor and without satisfaction to ourselves, we must not distress ourselves about that; our Lord loves them better thus.
And do not say that you repeat them indeed but only with your lips; for if the heart did not will it, the lips would not utter a word. Having done this, be at peace, and without dwelling at all upon your trouble, speak to our Lord of other things.
The conclusion of this first point, then, is that it is very good for us to be covered with shame when we know and feel our misery and imperfection; but we must not stop there. Neither must the consciousness of these miseries discourage us; rather it should make us raise our hearts to God by a holy confidence, the foundation of which ought to be in Him and not in ourselves. And this is so inasmuch as we change and He never changes; He is as good and merciful when we are weak and imperfect as when we are strong and perfect. I always say that the throne of God’s mercy is our misery; therefore the greater our misery, the greater should be our confidence.
This article is from a chapter in St. Francis de Sales’ The Art of Loving God, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.
Art for this post on misery and mercy: Cover of The Art of Loving God, used with permission. Saint Francois de Sales en gloire (Saint Francis de Sales in Glory), Anonymous, 1677, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.