Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! That the mountains might shake at your presence. (Isa. 64:1)
A common question people ask a priest goes something like this: “If God is real, why isn’t it obvious to everyone?”
One way I begin to answer such questions is by saying something like this: God is obvious to everyone—as obvious as the air we breathe. But just as we easily take for granted and no longer notice the air we breathe (unless there are some unusual pollutants in the air or we are having trouble breathing), so too we easily ignore the obvious reality of God. The only exception to this tendency to ignore the obvious, is when we intentionally pay attention. When I intentionally pay attention to my breathing, I notice the air. Similarly, unless I work at paying attention to God, I can easily ignore Him.
Many of us, however, would rather that God’s presence be less easy to ignore. Like Isaiah, we want God to tear open the heavens so that no one can deny the reality of the Creator. But this is the very thing God does not want to do. Archimandrite Vasileios says that “He exists as if He did not exist. He intervenes as if He were absent, out of respect for His creature.” God respects His creation so much that He treats the creation as He Himself would be treated: with freedom. God does not come to us in any way that would overwhelm us, that would strip us of freedom and force or coerce us to obey and love him. In fact, once obedience is forced, it ceases to be obedience—not the obedience of relationship, the obedience that a mother wants from her child or a lover expects from his beloved. Forced obedience is mere conformity to outer criteria. God does not want that, for it is no foundation for genuine relationship.
Neither does God want a forced love, a necessary love, a love that must be because there is not choice. The only love God wants is that love that is freely given. The freedom God gives us is the freedom befitting God Himself. As I said above, God treats us as He would be treated. Were God to manifest His power, we would be overwhelmed. We would not understand it. We would be much like the children of Israel, who shuddered at the foot of Mount Sinai while the mountain itself quaked, but before forty days were passed, they had already begun to worship a calf made of gold. We would be in awe of the power, not the Person. We would tremble at the manifestation, but be unable to apprehend the Person behind the manifestation.
God comes to us with humility. God comes as a still, small voice. God comes as an infant in a manger. God humbles Himself and becomes a human being so that we can come to know Who He is, His personality, what God is like. Archimandrite Vasileios puts it this way: “I—the [One who is] beyond-being, come down, I empty myself, I approach you, I become one with you in order to make you my own; in order to save you by teaching you things untaught. By saying to you through my conduct that ultimately, what is great, unapproachable and terrible in me is not the power, the inconceivable magnitude, but the ineffable love, the kindness of beauty and the condescension of humility that is manifest in the way I behave.”
The manner in which I exist is the kenotic mode of love and sacrifice. Do not be afraid of my power, then. You should be afraid of my ineffable goodness and humility. You should be afraid, not because I threaten you, but because I respect you more than you deserve or understand.” [The Thunderbolt of Ever-Living Fire, p. 50]
God teaches us about Himself by his conduct, by the way He behaves. God respects us. God grants us the freedom worthy of gods. And this, not God’s might, is what we should fear. God lets me have what I want.
You might object: “No He doesn’t! I seldom get what I want.”
That is because you want what is not possible. You want corn without planting. You want flowers without gardening. You want love without sacrifice and self control. You want to sow folly but reap wisdom. You want reality to be something different from what it is. No, this is not possible, not for creatures. God gives us freedom, and we build houses on flood planes. God gives us freedom, and we build houses without basements in tornado country. God gives us freedom and we give guns to boys and fill their minds with hatred. God gives us freedom and then we call the consequences of our exercise of that freedom “the wrath of God.”
But even this suffering, this experience of what is called the wrath of God, even this—and perhaps especially this—reveals God to us, the God who became man and suffered. In our suffering we can, if we are willing, come to know the God who also suffered, the God who suffered all of the consequence of sin, all of what we call the wrath of God. God suffered as a human being, willingly, to show us the way, to show us the way of love, the way of freedom, the way through death to resurrection. And in showing us the way, God has revealed Himself to us.
What does God look like? God looks like Jesus. And so when God does come down, He does not rend the heavens; rather, He allows himself to be torn. God comes down and the mountains do not quake, but the gates and bars of death and hades are destroyed. God comes down and the angels of heaven sing, but only a few shepherds are listening. God comes down and only a few wise men from afar notice the Star. God comes down and enters the Temple of His people and only an old man and prophetess recognize Him. God comes down in such humility and meekness that only those who are looking for Him see Him. And in coming this way, God has torn the false heavens and shaken the lying mountains that have told us that God is proud and angry and full of vengeance toward us. It is only this false notion of who God is that has been torn and shaken.