Conformed to His Image

One of the most distinctive doctrines in Orthodox theology is that of theosis – divinization – becoming “like God.” Those who inquire into the faith likely stumble across this teaching fairly early, and, no doubt, some are drawn to it. Of course, there are those who run away from it and fear that it is saying something that it isn’t. Perhaps the most attractive aspect of theosis is the unabashedly positive note that it places in the midst of salvation. Whereas many Western treatments of salvation major in “not going to hell,” theosis gives tangible content and a goal that is more than avoidance.

But what is theosis? How should we think of it?

There are a few clues in the New Testament to which we’ll get in a moment. But I was first thinking about various images that have floated through my thoughts that are probably misleading. One of them is drawn from the Mount of Transfiguration. I remember the first time I read about the life of St. Seraphim of Sarov. He famously shone brighter than the sun in his conversation with Motovilov. He was also seen walking in the air, a few feet above the ground. The discussion of the Divine Energies and their association with the Mount of Transfiguration also suggested these images to me as I contemplated theosis. So the scheme goes: you pray until you glow or begin to float.

I know stories of a contemporary saint (not yet canonized) who was seen levitated in prayer a foot above the ground – and the stories are quite reliable. So this is not a pipe dream. On the other hand, such wonders seem to be far and few between. They also might be misleading with regard to the nature of theosis.

We fail to notice that St. Paul never says, “And then you begin to glow…or float…” It should be noted, as well, that such miraculous manifestations of theosis are utterly beyond our reach. In what way or manner would any cooperation (synergy) on our part have anything to do with transfiguring light or levitation? They are, when they occur, seemingly sovereign acts of God for purposes that are not at all clear. Witness the fact that neither sign is found in the accounts of most saints’ lives.

There is a milder form of theosis that likely guides the thoughts of many. That is the acquisition of moral perfection, or, at least, a progressive acquisition of moral perfection. That is very much of a piece with general themes within the modern imagination. “I’m getting better…” No doubt, Christian maturity is real, we do “get better” at some things, in some fashion. However, the perfectly “moral” human being would not seem to equate with theosis, in that it’s simply a “better” or “improved” version of what we already are.

In the New Testament, however, there is an abundant witness of conformity with the divine image. Theosis is a clear promise. That divine image, however, is that of the crucified Christ:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me. (Gal. 2:20)

Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christand be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death,if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.(Phil 3:8-11)

Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you;but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.(1 Pet. 4:12-14)

In many ways, this theme of co-suffering with Christ, is embedded throughout the writings of the New Testament. Though the Transfiguration, or the Walking on the Water, or various miracles of Christ’s ministry have an importance, it is the Cross that is the very heart of the gospel. Of His death on the Cross, Christ says, “For this cause I came into the world.” (Jn. 18:37)

Central to Christ’s suffering and death is an understanding that these are not simply events that brought about our salvation. They are also revelatory events. The fullness of who Christ is and His making known the Father to the world are not fully accomplished until His death on the Cross and His rising from the tomb. His self-offering in the Crucifixion is also echoed throughout His teaching, whether in the commandments to radical generosity, the forgiveness of enemies, or the “loss” of self. He describes our kindness to enemies in terms of theosis:

“But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:32-36)

Such passages are too often treated as moral exhortations, ignoring their reasoning: “You will be sons of the Most High.”

We may say (as has been said before), “Kenosis is theosis.” That is, self-emptying is the path to divine likeness. It should also, I think, serve as a check on our every thought of God and our obedience to Him. The crucified love manifested in Christ is the revelation of who God is. St. John says, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him [lit. “exegeted” Him].” Christ is the interpretation of the Father. (John 1:18)

In John’s gospel, to be “glorified,” is to be crucified. It makes for interesting reading if that meaning is held in mind when we read the word, “glory.” It also makes for interesting discipleship if we apply that same understanding in our lives. This “momentary trial” (whatever it may be), is the glory of God being worked out in my life.

My forgiveness of my enemy is the glory of God. My generosity to the poor is the glory of God. My kindness, even to the evil, is the glory of God.

If this is what it means to participate in theosis, then I have to say that I have been witness to it in many lives. It is the sort of thing that gives us pause, but it is the sort of thing which we only dare enter because of love. It is what we are all looking for, if we but knew it.

37 comments:

  1. Father, thank you. Your words are clear and concise. They compliment some thoughts that have been floating around in my heart but not at all clear yet.

  2. Fr.,
    So helpful. Your discussion here reminded me of a remark my wife once made, that many people seem to think being Orthodox is like being a Jedi: adhere to a strict moral code from an order of celibates, wear a long robe, and then get magic powers (like glowing and floating).

    However, the reality is that Orthodox living is largely modest and meek, not spectacular and showy. When we think of the faith as if it’s a path to get cool powers and be seen as awesome, we’ve lost the way.

  3. Thank you Father ,great teaching again .It took reading On the incarnation by St Athanasius for the penny to drop for me.
    For God became man so men can become god’s.
    It was abig wow moment.
    All will be well
    Dave

  4. I’m reminded of ‘For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life shall appear, you also will appear with him in glory’

    Put slightly differently is it not a self-forgetfulness, in the knowledge that we are held in the Remembering of God?

  5. Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, tells a story of a humble and obedient monk in one of his books. The monk is saying his daily prayers, and an angel of light ( actually some sort of devil disguised) appears before him and burns brighter and brighter. Finally, unable to concentrate, the monk looks up with annoyance, and says “Can’t you see I’m praying?” I always thought this was a good story to illustrate the folly of chasing visions and spiritual experiences.

  6. In my understanding, “Kenosis is theosis” is linked to hypostatization: The fullness of our personhood. We exist as ‘glass half full’ hypostases. I don’t know how to articulate the relationship between kenosis and the fullness of our personhood except to say that suffering (or, ascetic disciplines) and humility is the way. I am also thinking of the existential idea of authenticity. People talk about being their most authentic selves which is like saying “How can I be the best glass-half-full that I can be?” I can’t help but see in the desire for authenticity an unrecognized expression or hunger for the fullness of hypostasis, which is salvation. Also, there is a failure to recognize–not necessarily their fault–that the very possibility of a ‘true self’ is grounded by the communion of the persons of the Trinity.

  7. … and yet genuine experiences do occur. Most fade but some endure. Not “seeking” them as due or looking outside the Church or that having experience makes one special.
    Neither does categorically denying them protect. Discernment is the key as the monk in Merton’s story. Spiritual direction, humility and obedience as one is called and able.
    The existence of valid experience is also of the Incarnation. The transforming power of the Sacraments for instance.

    The question is do we seek Jesus Christ and Him Crucified or a second rate light show? Salvation or personal gratification?

  8. Also, there is a failure to recognize–not necessarily their fault–that the very possibility of a ‘true self’ is grounded by the communion of the persons of the Trinity.

    The nature of our salvation: our union with Christ. It is here that we become what we were created to be. Wonderful thoughts!

  9. Perhaps this is the righteous fulfilment of “you shall be like Gods” which Satan drew the humans to snatch at too soon for themselves, rather than wait for God’s time and hand.
    So much we lost, and lose, by mistrusting the Father’s loving intent.

  10. Karen, yes it is easy to loose much in even minor sins when they persist in my heart. Yet even in the deepest depravity there sits a throne that is fir Jesus alone.

    Repentance by Grace is the key
    Mt 4:17.

    I find it easy to get complacent and forget how much help is available from our brothers and sisters in Christ, the saints and angels, fasts, feasts and the Sacraments.

    I am a all to often stubborn and picky man. I tend to limit the help available to what stands up and whups me in the face.
    My dear wife is less picky and she has taught me not to be quite so closed off to help at hand.

    Of course, The Cross is frequently involved.

    “This is the day the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it. “

  11. Simon,
    You expressed theosis beautifully. Furthermore, if it were a toss-up of which is more important, I would put love first (St Paul’s words), humility, and lastly, asceticism. In that order. However, if one understands asceticism as self-emptying, then perhaps I suppose that might be needed first to receive the love of Christ, to love others in the way of Christ. An empty vessel to receive the love of Christ.

    I note, however, there is no way to systematize this process, this giving over one’s life to Christ.

  12. I have been thinking about this article and I believe there is a connection between “kenosis is theosis” and “bearing a little shame”. I believe that what we typically take to be our ‘self’ is really just an accretion of sense impressions, biases, inherited biology, environments we have been exposed to, etc. Here is a metaphor I hope that works. In an electrocardiogram the source of the electrical “signal” is the heart. This will appear as an undulating waveform. An “artifact” is a waveform that appears in the measurement, but does not originate from the heart. It could be from anywhere else. It is important to our heart health to distinguish between the source of the signal. Signal comes from the heart; artifacts are noise in the system. I would suggest that the willingness to bear a little shame will, by small degrees, reveal the ‘true self’ that originates from the secret place of the heart and the aggregation of ‘artifacts’ that are foreign to our hypostatic reality.

  13. Simon,
    that put me in mind of this quote from, Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos.
    ‘Christian struggle has mainly this kind of meaning: you struggle and fail, you struggle and see no result, you struggle and ultimately, in doing so, you feel more sinful, more spiteful, more awful. In the end you get convinced you’re unable to do anything on your own. As the Lord says, ‘without me you can do nothing.’
    By struggling honestly, little by little, you become aware that you are nothing, you come to think and experience that you’re nothing. And, also, you realise that something will come out of your struggle if, and only if, God sets His hand. And then, the Spirit comes and regenerates you.
    Christians ask, ‘what should I do?’ Do nothing, just humble yourself. Humble yourself by embracing who you are through and through. And once you take things this way, God will at once illuminate you.’

  14. Father, as it says in Phil 2:5-7 unless I am interpreting incorrectly.

    I always go off track when I think of myself more highly than I ought. Forgetting that I am the least of my brethren. A sinner in all things except by the grace and mercy of our Lord.

  15. Simon, you’ve written another beautiful and creative reflection. I appreciate your use of the electrocardiogram metaphor. It’s very edifying and I too believe it works very well and is helpful as a way to reflect on kenosis.

    Andrew, considering how much I fail, I appreciate your quote as well. It serves to help me from falling into despair and helps me to accept my failures with the hope I might learn.

    Indeed, Father. In certain areas of my life, I’m prone to fail and ask for your prayers.

  16. Fr. Stephen,
    Simon’s comment is very helpful. It’s so hard to acquire humility, but for God all things are possible.

  17. Dee,
    it is such quotes as that and reading Fr. Stephen’s blog and the comments section here, amongst other things I read (and most importantly God’s grace and mercy), that keeps me from falling into despair.

  18. On the idea of progress, I think that the quote about ‘doing nothing’ is noteworthy. It reminds me of the parable in Mark 4, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how. For the earth yields crops by itself: first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Think about the passive, do-nothing imagery present in these verses. The sower goes to bed, gets back up, goes back to bed. He does this day in and day out. Probably watches some TV and reads the paper. Argues with people online that you could never get along with anyway. Then one day he sees the seed sprout. But how he does’t know. The process has occurred outside of his awareness. It’s a part of the mystery. The “earth yields crops by itself.” I see in those words an awareness that the human heart is actually geared to respond to God. There is nothing we can add to that and it has not–despite how long it seems we’ve been struggling–lost that potential. It’s an inherent potential of the nous.

  19. Simon, the idea of progress is an idea we made up to give us a reason to abandon God. We can put a little fertilizer on the field though if we follow the direct instructions of both Jesus and St. John, the Baptist: repent.

    In part that means not doing a lot of things to “work on our own salvation” as you suggest

  20. Simon wrote:
    “I can’t help but see in the desire for authenticity an unrecognized expression or hunger for the fullness of hypostasis, which is salvation. Also, there is a failure to recognize–not necessarily their fault–that the very possibility of a ‘true self’ is grounded by the communion of the persons of the Trinity.”
    Indeed. I might say it was my own search for authenticity that led me to know my faith and to seek this way. At some point, only God could help me. The funny part is that it really didn’t matter what my intention or desire or expected outcome was, or what my goals were. God got a hold of me and led me anyway. I know I am not the only person for whom this is so.

  21. PS The really amazing thing is that what you said, Simon, means that who we are is in some sense infinite and inexhaustible. It is as if there is a depth which can simply continue to be plumbed. I think Father has written before that this is because our ultimate union is with God whose quality is such. That is why theosis gives us a lifetime of fullness of the walk, and the mystery always beckons us on. It’s such a tremendous fullness really and something that can fill every moment if we pause for it. Of course, prayer is linked to this too. I admit I struggle thinking I must be crazy at times, but somehow it makes me joyful and does good things in my life.

  22. Dee,

    Many walk about knowing they are the humblest of all! I know this to be true. I’ve spoken with them and they’ve told me! (And yes, this post is written with tongue firmly planted in cheek)!

    As for true humility? I don’t know. It seems to me to be something that we may practice but don’t recognize in ourselves very well. Perhaps it seems more like weakness or despondency to us? Maybe the breaking of our hearts is never recognized for what it really is, except in hindsight by God’s grace? I don’t know. I’m too prideful to figure such things out. I cling to things such as, “do things that love would do” (even if you don’t love)…. Maybe humility is like that? Just do things humbly (even if you have no humility)…!

  23. Dee, great question. I rather think we are shown we are not humble. That is when I run into brick walls.

  24. Michael, oh yes, brick walls — seem to be my specialty 🙂

    Father, in addition to Dee’s question, I would also like to know more about the humility of God! Maybe a blog post sometime? I think about, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” and all the other assorted times and ways we see Scripture speak of what we might call “little ones.” Maybe even God’s tolerance, speaking strictly for myself, because it seems to me that God loves me no matter what and has endless patience.

  25. My understanding is that humility and bearing shame go together. Christ was certainly humble. Did Christ bear shame? Yes.

    If we think of healthy shame in terms of acknowledging and respecting boundaries, then Christ was a shame-bearer. In our struggle we frequently relate shame for having transgressed boundaries. That is almost the only way we know how to think of it. What about recognizing and not crossing boundaries? Certainly it requires humility. But, does it entail shame? A proud person would give it the old bull-in-a-china-shop treatment: Barge in, tear things up, and leave without so much as a ‘How do you do?’ I would think that of necessity there would be shame. However, it is a shame that is difficult to describe because we have such difficulty even bearing a little shame. Perhaps a better indicator of humility isn’t the self-awareness of being humble, but the willingness to bear shame.

  26. Simon is, again, precisely correct. Humility, in the teaching of St. Sophrony, consists in the ability to bear a little shame (or even great shame). I will note, as to writing an article on the humility of God, that I already have: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2021/01/28/the-meekness-of-god-2/

    At least, this is under the heading of meekness.

    The persons of the Holy Trinity exercise perfect humility in their relations. The Fathers classically hold that humility is the queen and source of all the virtues. I think that, inasmuch as we are bearing shame, we are well aware of humility. But, when it becomes a “habit” then our awareness of it becomes less prominent – we are aware of the other (in wonder and awe).

    For what it’s worth, this is also the source of love (or, there certainly cannot be love without humility). Think of the passage in 1Cor. 13:

    “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

    What we see revealed in Christ is a humility in its fullness. We begin by learning to bear a little shame.

  27. Fr. Freeman,

    Thank you for yet another spiritually profitable essay. I particularly found the last four passages most illuminating.

    However, I have a couple of questions (Please excuse the length; Conciseness is not my strong suit.)

    Granted, we see many instances of people achieving “Moral Perfection” (with reference to their self-subscribed standard) wihout being transformed in Christ.

    But such people don’t concern this discussion since they are not aiming at transformation in Christ.

    Also, granted, Theosis is not identical to moral perfection.

    But does this mean that, for a person who consciously aims at transformation in Christ:

    (A) Theosis is not moral perfection just as mathematics is not algebra (i.e., the part is necessarily lesser than the whole)

    or

    (B) Theosis is not moral perfection just as mathematics is not pencil-sketching? (i.e., they are disconnected areas, but you could probably use one in the other, if you wished)

    I undrestand it is wrong to reduce theosis to moral perfection, but is moral perfection a necessary component of theosis for the average human being, or is it simply an “optional extra?”

    In other words, does the path to Theosis pass through the stage of moral perfection, provided the person has sufficient time?
    (I add this qualification regarding time because the case of St. Dismas is often cited in this regard. However, couldn’t it be said that he displayed some level of moral perfection when he was able to acknowledge that the two of them were guilty but Christ was not? Even if this interpretation is rejected, in cases where the person who undergoes conversion has more time in this world, there seems to be some sort of moral improvement involved (e.g., Zaccheaus). )

    Or is it purely incidental that some saints display moral perfection?

    Further, I have another practical question:

    A well-defined goal is of unparalled advantage in providing us with quotidan motivation.

    Jordan Peterson says in his book:

    Everyone needs a concrete, specific goal—an ambition, and a purpose—to limit chaos and make intelligible sense of his or her life. But all such concrete goals can and should be subordinated to what might be considered a meta-goal, which is a way of approaching and formulating goals themselves. The meta-goal could be “live in truth.” This means, “Act diligently towards some well-articulated, defined and temporary end. Make your criteria for failure and success timely and clear, at least for yourself (and even better if others can understand what you are doing and evaluate it with you). While doing so, however, allow the world and your spirit to unfold as they will, while you act out and articulate the truth.” This is both pragmatic ambition and the most courageous of faiths.
    – Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, Rule 8 “Tell The Truth, or at least, Don’t Lie”

    1. If I understand theosis as eventually glowing and floating, I have something concrete to aim at.

    2. If I understand theosis as moral perfection, I have something concrete to aim at in my particular situation in life.

    3. But If I understand theosis as Kenosis, what concrete goal do I keep before my mind to get myself out of bed every morning?

    Towards the end of the essay, you provide some instances of God’s glory: forgiving enemies, generosity to the poor, kindness to the evil.

    However these could just as easily be re-framed as moral prescriptions: “Forgive your enemies, etc.”

    C.S. Lewis says in his essay, The Weight of Glory

    The Christian, in relation to heaven, is in much the same position as this schoolboy. Those who have attained everlasting life in the vision of God doubtless know very well that it is no mere bribe, but the very consummation of their earthly discipleship; but we who have not yet attained it cannot know this in the same way, and cannot even begin to know it at all except by continuing to obey and finding the first reward of our obedience in our increasing power to desire the ultimate reward. Just in proportion as the desire grows, our fear lest it should be a mercenary desire will die away and finally be recognized as an absurdity. But probably this will not, for most of us, happen in a day; poetry replaces grammar, gospel replaces law, longing transforms obedience, as gradually as the tide lifts a grounded ship.”

    Using his “grounded ship” metaphor, just as ships are built in dry-docks which are then flooded to float them on water, can’t desire for moral perfection perform a similar function to this dry-dock?

    Can’t we (at least for a beginner) consider Theosis as “Moral Perfection subordinated to God’s Glory by means of Kenosis?”

    – NSP

  28. NSP,
    I follow your reasoning. “Moral perfection” is an ambiguous term (which is my fault for using it). One popular use of the term would mean “avoiding doing anything wrong.” That “negative” meaning yields a very tepid, banal existence. “Nothing wrong” can lack the content of goodness if meant in this purely negative sense. I think that’s mostly what I had in mind in the article. When I was a child, the Sunday School teachers in my Baptist Church mostly had this meaning in mind as well. It was boring.

    But “moral perfection” could mean “keeping the commandments of Christ.” There’s nothing boring about that – and it is glorious. On a daily basis, it is a good thing to hold as a goal. Indeed, in many instances, those commandments direct us towards a kenotic way of life.

    So, with that in mind, I’d easily agree with your suggested path.

  29. NSP,
    The goal of Theosis is to be one with God. Since I am seldom at one with myself (temptation, sin and all that), I find that a goal to focus on is to repent always for all things giving glory to God for His Mercy. In total honest eventually. BUT one has to be acquainted with the person, Lord Jesus, as a real person and it helps if one has some experience of mercy (given and received).

    Still, in reading the Fathers, most people have to suffer some extremis event before acknowledging, really, the Person, Jesus Christ and be desirous of His Mercy.
    Even then it can take awhile longer to actually accept His Mercy in an intimate way. But that too is part of the package. A practical trinity: Knowing, Asking, Accepting.
    The Holy Scripture expresses it in many ways.
    My major problem is still the same–I tend to make things too complicated but it is not linear. Frank Herbert’s ‘Litany Against Fear’ from Dune is descriptive in a limited way.

    May Jesus’s Grace, love and mercy be with you in all things today and awaken your heart a bit more than it was yesterday.

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