This example states the obvious. Clearly our experience informs how we see something. Those who have been trained in gymnastics see what I cannot see when they watch girls complete in the floor routines or the uneven bars at the summer olympics. An experienced elementary teacher can see individual learning capacities in a room full of kids that I am clueless about. Our experience creates an awareness of certain things while excluding others. It's like a filter that helps us to process what we observe.
Jesus often spoke of this. After feeding the five thousand, he was warning the disciples about the "yeast of the Pharisees." They thought he was talking about the fact that they did not have any bread. To them he said, "Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?" (Mark 8:18). He was challenging their understanding of what he was saying. Their perception or their ability to see and hear Jesus' meaning did not line up with what Jesus meant. Their filter filtered out the truth.
In the prologue of John's Gospel we read a general statement about how people did not see Jesus rightly:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:9-11).Light is meant for the eyes so that we can see the truth correctly, but those who saw Jesus did not see him as he was. Their experience did not give them eyes to see who Jesus was. They could not receive the light because they projected their expectations upon the light and therefore interpreted Jesus as being other than who he is. In the first century Jewish context, God's Messiah was supposed to restore Israel as a nation, to re-establish the Temple to its former glory, and to drive out the Romans. (This is the point that N. T. Wright so clearly drives home in his writings about Jesus.) But Jesus did none of these things, at least not as expected. Their cultural expectations of the Messiah kept them from seeing what God was up to through Jesus.
It is tempting for us today to castigate those blind people for not seeing who Jesus was. However, we do the same things today; we just have a different set of experiences that cause us be blind in different ways. For instance, those of us who live in the United States have been shaped by the pursuit of personal happiness. And while there are many good things about this aspect of our culture, this pursuit can cause us to search high and low for a mechanistic formula that promises such happiness and fulfillment. If we do the right set of actions, then we will attain the level of happiness that we desire. After all, almost every commercial promises to have the secret insight into our personal achievement.
This life experience of the pursuit of the right formula for personal happiness can easily be projected upon God. As a result, we see God as being a means to an end of our personal fulfillment. If then we follow the right set of instructions, then we will live up to our potential. We will be all that we can be for God.
The danger of the way that our experiences project expectations upon God is that we cannot see how it could be otherwise. This was the case of faithful first century Israelites. Their interpretation of Jesus—which resulted in him dying on the cross—was faithful to their way of viewing the world. No Messiah would come as a humble servant who washed feet, much less as one who would die on a cross.
And it is the case today. Because our common life experience trains us to see the world in terms of that which can add to our life and that which will subtract from our life, we tend to evaluate things in terms of goods and services. We invest in that which we view as providing goods and services that will enhance our living. And this is how we can "see" Jesus.
When we do this, we de-personalize God. He becomes a vendor of spiritual goods and services, a supplier of a product that will make our life better. He becomes the engineer in the sky who provides mechanistic patterns doing the right things so that we can get the right outcomes.
While there are incredible benefits to knowing and following Jesus, as soon as we see Jesus through this perspective, we actually miss the benefits. The benefits are secondary, which means that we only reap the benefits when we see him for what he is. Jesus did not come and provide a technique for attaining a better life. Instead he came as a person. He showed up and walked among us. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." When God wants to show us what life is really about, he comes in person and invites us into relationship in order to receive life. We don't relate to a formula or a technique. We relate to God.
The problem is that most of us do not have much experience understanding this view of God. To see God rightly requires revelation, an unveiling, a surprise from the outside of our experience. Most of us project our expectations and experiences upon God. This is normal. We have to be open to having our way of seeing changed. We must hold our perspectives loosely before God and make room for the Spirit to change how we see things. Jesus spoke about it to the disciples in this way:
“All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it” (Luke 10:22-24).The disciples did not start following Jesus seeing this truth about Jesus. The prophets and kings of the Old Testament shaped their expectations, but now they were seeing something different about God the Father and the Son who was walking around before them. Their eyes began to see as they were exposed to the revelation of Jesus' life and teaching.
Think of it this way. Their life experience—and ours today—might be compared to that of walking around a track. Previous experience causes us to interpret life in terms of what we already know. While there might be new things that we learn along the way, these new things do not change the trajectory of the track. They only expand it, adding new lanes, if you will. But the revelation of God in Christ, is not something that we come up with based on past experience. It's an insertion of something other from outside the track of history. A different way of seeing the world is inserted into history, a way that does not fit the expectations of that track.
The revelation of God comes to us from the outside of us. This means that we must be open to that which does not conform to our experience. God gets to define God. We do not, which means that we must hold our pre-conceived ideas about God and about God's salvation loosely. As soon as we turn our concepts about God into a system that defines God, then we start relating to that system instead of to God.
This is why seeing God as triune is so crucial. If God were an individual, then at God's core would be his isolation from others. However since Jesus reveals God as being Father, Son, and Spirit, God is inherently relational. God is known then not in the concepts about God, but in the relational space between. God lives in love, in open communication between the three persons, and therefore we know God in this open communication.