My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. ~ Psalm 131:1
Recently I’ve come to believe that there’s one essential question we each must answer: At the core of my being, when all else is stripped away by time and circumstance—What do I really believe about my God?
This is to see beyond the formulas and creeds; to look past theological statements you think you’re supposedto affirm. It’s to honestly complete this one sentence:
God is ....
For a long time, I’ve had right theology. I believed God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and all the other “omni’s” I learned in seminary, read about in theology books and affirmed in the creeds—and I still believe that stuff.
However, I’ve come to change how I respond to the essential question—“At the core of my being, what do I really believe about God?”
What I now affirm about my God is that ...
He is Strong.
He is Loving.
He is Wise.
He is Faithful.
And all the rest is commentary.
I do confess, that I’ve been toying with a sixth quality of my God to add to those five essential affirmations. My struggle is with all the negative, rigid and harsh baggage laid on this quality over the years and centuries. It’s to be able to say that my God is Holy.
What I wrestle with is a fear-filled, run-from, terrifying, scorching kind of holiness that reflects only harsh judgment lacking grace and compassion.
In Exodus 34, when God descends to proclaim to Moses His name YHWH (the Lord), God doesn’t just give a nickname or a first name. It feels like He declares His full name, including what God sees as His essential qualities:
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Ex. 34:5-7)
I suppose someone will point out the last sentence and say to me, “there’s the kind of holiness you’re trying to avoid.” But is that being “holy” or being “just” – which can be seen as a subset of His being Good, Wise and Faithful.
God self-identifies as One who is essentially compassionate and gracious, patient, loving, faithful ... and just – something I’d be willing to say can be subsumed under His goodness, wisdom and faithfulness.
Nevertheless, in the midst of the holiness code in Leviticus, God self-identifies again as He calls His people to live in a way unique from any other people when He says:
I am the Lord your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy. (Lev. 11:44)
There it is. We can’t escape God’s holiness. So, I must then ask: What’s it mean to say that God is Holy?
What occurs to me is that I cannot not see any one of God’s qualities in isolation from the others, for each quality is not really a noun but an adjective that describes God and modifies His other qualities. None of His qualities stand alone, for the Lord is by nature an integrated being.
That means, God’s holiness must be a...
And, that’s a kind of holiness I can embrace. However, since “Holy” is an adjective descriptor as well, it, likewise, modifies the others. This makes them ...
With that in mind, to say God is Holy becomes less problematic.
A Biblical experience of God’s holiness that grabs my attention is in the story of Moses’ first encounter with God whileshepherding his father-in-law’s flock on the backside of the wilderness at Horeb, the mountain of God. God’s angel appears in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of a wilderness bush. Fascinated by what he saw, he moves closer and stares ... for the bush was blazing away but it was not consumed.
Moses said, half to himself and half out loud, “What’s going on here? I can’t believe this! It’s amazing! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”
When God saw that he’d turned aside to look, He called from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
Startled, Moses said, “Yes? I’m right here!”
God said, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
While Moses did hide his face, afraid to look at God, he did not run away barefooted nor did God send him away. Instead, God spoke to Moses. God had him stand and stay in His presence on holy ground. And, God gave him an assignment, despite Moses’ objections. God welcomed him. God equipped him. God commissioned him.
That Moses was welcomed onto holy ground as seen through the lens of how, in many eastern and middle-eastern cultures, you are to take off your shoes when welcomed into the house of a friend or family member. Jacob before him, this was for Moses, his Bethel. He could say with the patriarch,“Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it! This place is awesome! It’s none other than the house of God, Bethel (which means, “House of God”). God welcomed Moses into His mountain home.
Holiness that welcomes rather than repels is a new idea for me.
But there’s more. For as a homecoming can sometimes be hard, so an encounter with holiness may hurt. But like the humbling welcome of the prodigal in Jesus parable, the hurt that comes with a holy welcome is meant to redeem and restore us ... as when Isaiah was “welcomed” into the temple only to encounter the Holy One in a time of great uncertainty in Isaiah 6.
After reigning in Judah for 42 years, King Uzziah died. His reign marked the height of Judah’s power. During his reign, the nation prospered—battles were won and tribute was coming in from subdued nations; desert land was reclaimed by water conservation; Jerusalem’s defenses were rebuilt and strengthened. All went well for four decades—but, then Uzziah went the way of all flesh. He died.
The question on the minds of all was “Now what?” Who will fill the power-vacuum created by King Uzziah’s death? Who will be king now?
That moment the prophet enters the Temple where he encounters the Holy One “high and lifted up, seated on a throne as the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isa. 6:1). In other words—the king may be dead but God is still on the throne of the universe.
The story is told of how on the night of Abraham Lincoln's death, a crowd of 50,000 people gathered in front of the Exchange Building in New York City. Emotions ran high and people were worried. In fact, there was a good chance the crowd would become a mob and violence would erupt. Out on the balcony of the building, there stepped a man in an officer's uniform. His voice, clear and sharp, cut through the babble of the crowd: "Fellow, citizens! Clouds and darkness are round Him. His pavilion is dark waters, and thick clouds of the skies. Justice and judgment are the establishment of His throne. Mercy and truth go before His face. Fellow citizens, God reigns and the government in Washington still lives." Instantly, the crowd was stilled. The man was James A. Garfield. Years later, as President of the United States, He too, was assassinated.
What Isaiah saw in a vision was that although the great king had died, he was assured that God, the Great King, the Holy One, still reigns.
“Above him were seraphim, each with six wings,” says Isaiah. “With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook, and the temple was filled with smoke.
The sight of such awesome holiness undid Isaiah and he cried, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”
Then one of the seraphim, took a live coal from the altar with tongs, flew to Isaiah, touched his mouth with it, and said: “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Isaiah next heard the voice of the Lord say, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And, almost involuntarily, he replied, “Here am I. Send me!”
Isaiah’s encounter with the scorching holiness of God in the coal was not intended to destroy him, deform or distort him ... and it did not do any of those things which we would associate with third degree burns. Rather, it happened to purify and purge away that which was not of God, to remove that which was foreign to the image of God within Isaiah so that he could be who God intended him to be and do what God had for him to do.
As the writer of Proverbs says, “The crucible for silver, the furnace for God, but the Lord tests the heart” (Prov. 17:30). Destruction is not the intent. Purification and restoration is God’s desire.
An encounter with God’s holiness changes Isaiah, purging away sin, restoring God’s original design of one created in His image and intended to bear His image to the world. In reality the encounter with God’s awesome holiness was not to unmake him but to remake him.
To encounter holiness that is good, strong, loving, wise and faith by nature, is indeed redemptive and restorative – which is the goal of salvation. For the goal of salvation is not merely fire insurance. It’s not just a rescue operation. It’s about restoration of God’s original design. It’s about a return to God’s original design for all things—us and creation.
God’s welcoming and restorative holiness is indeed a quality I can embrace ... and be embraced by.
How do I now answer the one essential question put to us all? At the core of my being, when all else is stripped away by time and circumstance—What do I really believe about my God?
It’s really simple theology. I can say now that God is ...
All the rest? It’s just commentary.
That’s a God I can trust! One to whom I can come with my worries and know He cares. For God, as He’s revealed in Jesus Christ, is a person nota theological proposition.