God Is Holy

I was reading something this past week when I had a sudden epiphany. For the first time, I had a sense that I grasped something of what people tend to mean when they use that tricksy word, holy. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the word itself means something set apart particularly for religious purposes, something or someone who is other. And in that sense, God is wholly other from us.

The proper dividing line from a Christian perspective is not between the natural and the supernatural or between the religious and secular. No, the proper division is between the uncreated and the created. On the one side we have God and on the other, we have everything else. Thus God is the thrice Holy, the one who is completely other in essence from all creation. We use the word holy in this context as the linguistic marker for that which beyond our ken. It’s a tautology. We could as readily say that God is God.

That’s part of the beauty and wonder of the Incarnation. The uncreated, the holy (and wholly) other, entered into creation and joined his nature, being, and essence forever with the created. We had no way to truly know God if God had not only come to us, but become one of us. God with us is a name of beautiful mystery.

I realized this week that people were using holy as though they knew what it meant, as though it had a specific set of definable attributes. Thus when they said that God is holy, they had in mind a specific list of attributes and behaviors. God is like this and God acts this way because he is holy. Through the use of the word holy, a word intended to elucidate God’s transcendence, they were actually constraining God. That strikes me as a risky proposition.

Of course, holy in this context is not generally used by itself. And I think the way it is typically paired is illuminating. That was the central aspect of my little epiphany. God is holy and just. Have you perhaps heard that particular phrase before? It implies several things. First, God’s holiness, his apartness, correlates in some sense to some idea of justice. Moreover, I have the sense that people who use that phrase believe they know what it means to be just. I have the feeling that they equate justness with the application of reward and punishment according to some sort of set standard. Those who have wronged others will get their just desserts. (I also have a feeling that few people wish to have that same standard applied to them.)

Within the systems and structures of our world, that’s not even a bad formulation of what it means to be just. After all, we see the injustice that results from tyrants and within the setting of failed states. And we see how structures of order can reduce suffering — particularly among those whom they are designed to favor. However, in fairness, those structures tend to improve life for all.  Even those who tend to get the short end of the justice stick from the systems in the US generally suffer less than those at the mercy of the warlords in a failed state. But even in an unjust, but strong dictatorship, like the former one of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, most people tend to live relatively safe and undisturbed lives.

Certainly our God is a just God. I would not argue with that statement. I do, however, take issue with the idea that God’s justness conforms to our ideas about justness. I love Jonah. And this is one of the reasons why I do. Jonah ran from God and was angry at God not because he didn’t know God, but because he did. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire and it was a long-standing and brutal empire. The Assyrians understood how empires had to work in order to endure. They were feared and hated and with reason. And Jonah wanted God to make them pay. Jonah wanted justice and his definition of it was pretty much like ours.

So why did he run? Why, when he could not escape, did he put minimal effort in his prophecy? “Forty days and Nineveh will be overturned.” That was it. And why, when the city — every man, woman, child, and even animal — repented, was Jonah pissed off at God? Was it because Jonah didn’t understand God? No. Jonah knew God. He knew God to be compassionate and merciful, long-suffering and abundant in mercy, and willing to change your heart concerning evils. God did exactly what Jonah expected him to do and Jonah just wanted to die.

God is a just God, certainly. But when we say that, we have to recognize that we don’t truly know what it means to be just. If we want to understand true justness, we have to look to Jesus. And if the gospels don’t stand everything you thought you knew about reality on its head, then I would suggest you might not have truly read them.

I will also note, for what it’s worth, that the phrase “holy and just” does not appear at all in many English translations of the Holy Scriptures. In the KJV and NKJV translations it does appear once in Romans 7 as a partial description of Torah. Nowhere that I know does that particular combination of words describe God.

As Christians, our Scriptures do tell us what forms the essence of the otherness of God. 1 John 4:8 says, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Of course, we don’t understand the reality of love any more than we grasp true justice. But we have the fullness of the revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And as we grow in our knowledge of Jesus, we perhaps begin to know love.

I’m not sure exactly how it is that so many people envision God. But it is clear to me that they have constructed a framework and placed God within it. I think their holy and just God might be more similar to the Stoic God of perfect order than anything we find in Christ.

I’m also not sure what form God’s justice will take as he ultimately sets all things ‘to rights’ as the English would say. I’m prepared to simultaneously be shocked and surprised even as I say, “Of course. that’s how it had to be.” If I understand anything of Jesus, though, I am certain that justice will flow from the love which is his essence and I know it will be full of compassion and mercy. Until then, I will use the thrice Holy to describe God, but only in the sense that God is the only Uncreated, not as though I have actually described anything of the nature and attributes of God.

This entry was posted in Faith and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
%d bloggers like this: