“God condescends whenever He is not seen as He is, but in the way one incapable of beholding Him is able to look upon Him. In this way God reveals Himself by accommodating what He reveals to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.” (St. John Chrysostom, in Archimandrite Amilianos’s The Way of the Spirit, p. 323-324)
Chrysostom’s observation that God accommodates His revelation to the capacity of the person beholding God is fascinating on so many levels, and really does seem true to what the Scriptures present about God’s manifestations to the world. It does mean that God takes into account each person readiness for revelation and each person’s personal abilities and adjusts the revelation accordingly so the person can understand what is being revealed to them. It also means that no two person have the exact same perception of God. Take for example the Transfiguration – five people besides Jesus are present, and each would be encountering something slightly different about Christ according to their differing personal abilities to comprehend the revelation. It means that no one person’s experience of God, no matter how true or how capable they are of describing it, ever has a full experience of God. Certainly in the case of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Tradition as expressed in iconography has each of the apostles differently able to perceive and understand the revelation. Peter, James and John are understand as experiencing the Transfiguration differently which is shown in the icon by their different responses to the event.
God reveals Himself as love and God reveals His love to us, and each of us experiences it slightly differently based on our own capabilities of receiving the revelation. God does not require everyone to experience the exact same thing or to understand the revelation in the same way or even to be able to express what one has experienced in the exact same way as others do. There is a true and unique synergy which occurs between God and each person to whom God reveals Himself.
A good example of this comes from the post-Resurrection experience of the disciples found in Luke 24. We can consider a few verses as examples.
1] Luke 24:15-16 – While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
Here are two disciples who are personally familiar with Jesus having been discipled by Christ directly as they sojourned with Him. In this chapter, they are walking with Him and talking to Him and yet they do not recognize Him with their own eyes. Apparently, not only do different people have different capacities for receiving God’s revelation, but also at different times in life any one person’s lifetime, the ability to understand God changes. According to Chrysostom, God takes this into account and only reveals what we are capable of receiving, so while our experience of God may be true, it may also be incomplete or just beyond our comprehension.
2] Luke 24:19-26 – And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”
The people were able to see the mighty deeds of Jesus and to hear his powerful message, yet they did not fully comprehend either Him or His message. The disciples admit they thought they understood who Jesus was, but their hopes were dashed. The crucifixion of Jesus was an unexpected revelation about God which blinded them to the truth of what they were seeing in Christ. And finally though some of the disciples were moved enough to go look into the claims about the empty tomb and resurrection, they still were not capable themselves of seeing Jesus yet. They knew Jesus’ own teachings about the resurrection, they had the testimony of the women disciples, they saw the empty tomb, and yet still they were not ready to receive the revelation. It takes time for them to realize and embrace what God is revealing to them. God reveals Himself as the disciples are growing in their ability to understand the revelation. It is a lesson for mission work as well – people may need time to hear the message and to understand it.
3] Luke 24:30-31 – When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.
Seeing him with one’s eyes and realizing who He is are two different experiences. The two disciples are talking with Him and yet their eyes are not opened. However, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize Him – their eyes are opened and in that moment He disappears! Seeing with one’s senses is one thing, but it is not the only vision we are capable of. Another lesson is that as we are more prepared to accept the revelation, we may find ourselves less reliant on proofs and move more into a faith mode, letting go of the “props” that helped us believe and allowing Christ to enter into our hearts. And we see in the icon that each of the two disciples sees Christ from their own point of view, they are not seeing identical things. And Christ in these icons hands them a broken piece of bread – each receives a unique piece broken from the whole, they are not given identical pieces. They are given according to their ability to receive the gift.
4] Luke 24:33-35 – And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
The Lord chooses to whom He will appear. Not everyone sees Him in the same moment. God respects those who are ready for the revelation. Others may simply not be ready, and so God doesn’t appear to them, or He appears to them and they don’t recognize Him. We see again Chrysostom’s point that God appears in the way and to the degree that the person is able to receive the revelation. Peter goes to the tomb and is not yet ready to embrace the revelation, but in the right time, the Lord acts and Peter sees the Lord.
5] Luke 24:36-41 – As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”
The Lord chose the moment to reveal Himself at once to all the disciples. We see their reactions – startled, frightened, doubts, thinking some ghost has appeared to them. Not all can see as clearly, but Christ proceeds with the revelation as they are able to receive it. So then, there is disbelief, wonder and joy. What they experience and understand is changing and growing. Christ accommodates Himself to the ways in which they are not yet fully prepared to see or believe or understand. Christ is guided by mercy and empathy for those to whom He reveals Himself, taking into account their weaknesses and accommodating His revelation to them. There is no need to admire those who understand more nor to despise those who understand less. God is accommodating His revelation to the needs of each based on His own love for them. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to God’s revelation as each receives the revelation as they are able. God entrusts to each person the revelation according to their abilities. And there is no need for everyone to think exactly alike, because God accommodates His revelation to each.