The last sermon in our Jesus Is My Candidate series had the theme “He gives me a vision.” The scripture I used was Mark 8:22-26 in which Jesus heals a blind man twice. The first time He heals the blind man’s eyes, he can only see partially; it’s the only time Jesus had to do a redo. Since Jesus was never inadequate in His healing power, most Christians have concluded that His purpose in this healing was to provide a symbolic act for us to think about three stages in our ability to see God and experience His presence – blindness, partial vision, and full vision. These different stages can be used to describe the historical development of humanity as a whole as well as our individual salvation experience. I made a chart like the one I’ve reproduced below to partition out these different phases of salvation. I will explain further below the chart.
Adam (spiritual blindness)
There are two significant dimensions to the story of Adam and Eve’s fall, and the second one generally gets ignored. By eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve disobeyed God. This is where the emphasis usually falls. But few people ask, “Why did God warn them not to eat it?” The answer to that question lies in Genesis 3:7: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.” Adam and Eve discovered that they had selves that were vulnerable and naked. The irony is that this opening of their eyes was the beginning of their spiritual blindness, because self-absorption is what keeps us from seeing and worshiping God as well as empathizing with other people.
In the mode of existence represented by Adam post-fall, our capacity for relationships is self-serving and utilitarian at best; at worst, we are tossed back and forth between waves of wrath and chaos as we inflict and receive violence from other people. This was the state of the world that God looked down upon in the time of Noah (Genesis 6:11). To people in those ancient days and in our day living in the fearful defensiveness of self-preservation, God is perceived as nothing but wrath, despite the fact that He is constantly reaching out to them in love. I think there are plenty of Christians who are stuck in this state of spiritual blindness. They are the ones I have described as having mixed up the fear of punishment with the fear of God.
Israel (partial vision)
God’s relationship with the people of Israel is signified by three things: His initial covenant with Abram, His wrestling match with Jacob on the beach at Peniel when Jacob is renamed Israel, and the laws given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The type of humanity known as Israel hence are people who believe God’s promises, wrestle with God, and try to follow the laws God has given them. Their relationship with God is a mix of trust and both kinds of Biblical fear — fright and awe. The community is grounded in the covenant God has established with Israel as a people. The reason that this state of existence is a “partial vision” represented by the “world goggles” in my picture (think beer goggles) is that people who are promise-believers, God-wrestlers, and rule-followers still fall into a trap that prevents them from seeing God clearly. Because they think their standing under God depends upon their faithfulness to His covenant, they get entangled in self-justification, a state of mind in which they have to be constantly right and because of which they choose to hide their sins underneath rationalizations rather than face them and repent.
Many Christians live in this mode of self-justification, particularly those who have substituted arguing about doctrine for spiritual discipline. Likewise, it’s also important to say that even though I’m using Israel as a trope here, I realize many Jewish people are able to delight in Torah and have a meaningful relationship with God without turning into the sanctimonious rule-following Pharisees that fought Jesus. Jesus’ cross liberates Christians from self-justification by providing a justification through His sacrifice for our sins that allows us to be wrong without shame and face our sins with integrity. When we are freed from the distorting lens of self-justification, then we can begin to see God with clarity.
Jesus (full vision)
Obviously none of us are Jesus, so we all continue to persist in the partial vision Paul describes as akin to “a reflection in the mirror” (1 Cor 13:12), but Jesus is the perfect prototype of the type of humanity into which the Holy Spirit is transforming us. Having been liberated from self-justification, our souls are opened to the Holy Spirit’s cleansing. This mode of existence instead of being self-preservation or self-justification is instead self-emptying according to the model of Christ in Philippians 2:5-8. Instead of having chaotic, sociopathic relations with other people or relations that are only as secure as our obedience to a unifying covenant, we are able to experience the full authentic intimacy of communion with each other. Though we continue to fear God in the sense of being awed by His holiness, we are not afraid of Him but rather love Him instead.
The paradox of our continued growth in Christ is that when we think we see Him clearly, we have plateaued and are thus not growing closer to clear vision. It is when the fog is clearly present that we know we are advancing. Clarity is always a temporary idolatry because we are talking about an infinite Creator who can never be fully seen by His creature except in whatever mysterious way this occurs when we are glorified before Him. Of course the goal of human existence is to see God because God is the source of every good that we love; when we love each of the goods in our life rightly, what we’re loving is God; anything short of that is idolatry.
I hope this metaphor provides a helpful new angle for contemplating the process of salvation. I think it’s possible to backslide or at least to get sucked into a temporary spiritual blindness by sin even after we’ve had our eyes open. Of course, Hebrews and 1 Peter give very stern warnings to those who fall back into their old ways of life after experiencing the kingdom. I know that some of the best growth for me has happened when Jesus did what He promises to do in John 9:39: making it clear to me that I was blind when I thought I was seeing the truth.