Pop Quiz

Time for a pop quiz. I’m a teacher; I love to give pop quizzes. But this one is easy. Only a single question. Fill in the blank with one word:

God is ___________.

How would you complete that sentence? Stop and think about it for a minute.

OK. Time’s up. What word did you pick?

There are many ways you might have chosen to answer that. If you’ve grown up in a strong Christian tradition you might have picked “love” based on I John 4:8, or some of the songs we learned as children (“Jesus loves me, this I know. . .”) God is love.

Maybe you picked “good.” God is good. Psalm 107:1 affirms this. What a wonderful truth to cling to in difficult times.

But I wonder if we could throw open the heavens and see God as he really is, what would our first impression be? God is love? God is good? Or something else?

Isaiah had an experience like that. For whatever reason, he was transported instantly into the presence of the Lord in a way perhaps only a small handful of mortals have ever experienced. It’s recorded for us in Isaiah 6. What was Isaiah’s first reaction to seeing God as he really is? Let’s read and see:

 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: 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. “Woe to me!” I cried. “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 seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

I think we see how Isaiah would have answered the question. God is holy. Holiness = God’s immaculate perfection, his untouchable purity in unspeakable glory. God is first presented to us here (and in Revelation and other places in Scripture) as a holy God. Isaiah’s first impression was not the love of God, or the goodness of God, though we know from Scripture that these things are true of God. But Isaiah was immediately struck by the holiness of God.

For Isaiah, he was immediately convicted about the things he had said in his lifetime. “I am a man of unclean lips . . .” Perhaps Isaiah had struggled with gossip or profanity. What do you think would be your first reaction to seeing God like Isaiah did? “Woe is me, for I am a man or woman of unclean . . .” thoughts? desires? actions? One way or another, comparing our sinfulness with God’s holiness is not a pleasant thing!

Isaiah’s first reaction was not to run into the arms of God and give him a great big hug! Rather, it was “Woe is me!” Now don’t get me wrong, the Fatherhood of God is a wonderful thing, and we can crawl up in his lap and cry “Abba (Daddy), Father” according to Romans 8:15, but we have to keep in mind that it is only through the blood of Jesus Christ that we as believers can claim that amazing access. On our own, in and of ourselves, we cannot.

We see the seraphim, the angels in God’s presence, also crying out to one another: “Holy, holy, holy. . .” but not “Love, love, love” or “Good, good, good.” Let me be clear: God is love and he is good and gracious and a host of wonderful other things as well. But our perspective is out of focus.

Here is the bottom line: God’s holiness makes his love and his goodness that much more awesome. We do not teach the holiness of God enough in modern Christianity. This has led, I believe, to serious misunderstandings and misconceptions among believers and non-believers alike. From the time our children are young we teach them “Jesus loves me this I know. . .” which is very true, but because we neglect the teaching of God’s holiness, God’s love becomes, in our understanding, an obligation to us as his creatures. Of course God loves us, it’s his job, we think. Kind of like a big grandpa or Santa Claus.

Subtly, and (probably) unconsciously, we think we deserve God’s love and grace. When we understand God’s holiness we realize that as sinful creatures we don’t deserve a thing other than eternal separation from God. And then to find out, that God loves us? God loves me? Though I am sinful and undeserving of that great love, He sent his Son to die for me? Unthinkable.

But how does this play out for the unbelieving world? Consider this: What’s the world’s reaction (or maybe even our reaction) when some kind of tragedy strikes? When a tsunami or an earthquake or a hurricane levels cities and kills thousands, or when hijackers fly airplanes into skyscrapers, what’s the big question we hear asked of theologians on the evening news? How could a loving God allow this to happen? How is it that the God of love that you Christians believe in allowed this tragedy?

But no one ever asks it this way: How could a holy God allow tragedy to befall sinful people? Because the answer is immediately evident. None of us deserves long life, or heaven, or happiness, or any one of God’s blessings. Whatever we have received that isn’t eternal separation from God is far beyond what we deserve. We all deserve hell. Anything above that is grace upon grace for which we should be eternally thankful.

We have not the least understanding of the holiness of God. But we are called to respond to the holiness of God: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (I Pet 1:16) How do we do this?

In the next few posts I’d like to explore this idea of holiness. What is God’s holiness and what does that mean for me? How does holiness differ from legalism or asceticism, both of which Scripture condemns? How can I be holy in an unholy world?

Like Isaiah, we could be transformed by beginning to better understand and respond to the holiness of God.

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About Neil Burleson

I serve as a missionary in the country of Papua New Guinea.
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