Words: We hear a lot of them. We use a lot of them.
And so many of them we take for granted. There are some words which we confidently assume the meaning of, and some words that we never question a meaning for at all. And a lot of these sorts of words continue in heavy usage as religious terminology, and are even given great importance despite their relative vacancy in our hearts and minds. Ask your average Christian what "righteousness" means, for instance, and you might just get a blank stare. In reality, it’s the kind of word many of us have a hard time defining without using the word itself... Which won't get you a passing grade in high school English, but somehow seems to work just fine for Christianese.
The thing is, a lot of these sorts of words can deal damage and destruction when wielded by the traditions and assumptions of a religious culture which does not seek to understand what it is communicating, but still insists on maintaining this dizzying flurry of religious words.
"Holy" is one such word.
It's mostly used in Christian speech by people who rarely unwrap its meaning. We hear it in many songs as well, and similarly, few of those songs really delve into it - or allow it to inform the lyrical ideas surrounding it - even though they might use the term itself relentlessly. And in Christian sermons and teaching? ...Let's just say we might spend a lot of time talking about how holiness is expected of us even when we've spent no time at all talking about what holiness is, or where we might look to see it defined. And this is a pretty strange way to approach something that everyone seems to think is so important. When it comes to holiness, it's just assumed that we all know what we're talking about. But why? Do we really? And is our current understanding of holiness serving us (or anyone else) well?
...These are questions worth asking.
"Holy" (from the Hebrew quodesh or the Greek hagio) means "set apart" and "different." Or we might say "transcendent in purpose," or "sacred in use," or even just "other." I actually think the term "otherness" might be the best way to cast "holiness" meaningfully in modern language. So, when we say that God is holy, we are saying that something about God is particularly other. We're saying that God's way of being is different, and that it's different to a degree which draws attention to some purpose or quality we would not have known otherwise... This, of course, is all rooted in the Old Testament... And by the New Testament, the concept has blossomed fully into this idea of being “sanctified.” It's what happens when someone is transformed - made “holy.” And as any preacher you’ve heard has probably told you, we’re called to pursue holiness, reflect holiness, or walk in holiness once we've experienced it. There’s this whole "Be holy, because I am holy” motif repeating in the scriptures — God whispering something distinct over people, calling them to reflect God's own otherness, so that there's something "other" about them, too.
It’s kind of like the options on the top of a soda cup lid: If your cup contains a beverage for which the typical labels and designations do not apply, there’s an “Other” button for that. Kind of a cheap example, but still... You could say some soft drinks are holier than others.
I’m guessing some of us have heard a lot of these ideas before… But I lay them out again because, as I said, there's plenty to this subject we don't hear much about, and don't hear brought up so often. How do we define this holiness, this quality of otherness? Where are we looking to see it defined?
Consider this question: What is it about God that makes God so other, so holy?
I would think the best and most simple answer would be, "God’s self-giving LOVE." So far so good, right? ...Well, maybe not… because typically, most modern Christians have been led to believe that holiness has more to do with “God's righteous standard and our failure to meet it,' and thus — for so many of us — when we talk about God’s holiness, what we are immediately forced to dwell on is the idea of a great distance created between us and God. Holiness in this model is not an expression of God's nearness to us no matter who we are and what we've done... We've been taught another holiness instead, which has effectively meant that God is removed as a result of holiness.
SO, TO MANY OF US, THE VERY IDEA OF HOLINESS IMMEDIATELY DRUMS UP AN UNDERSTANDING THAT GOD DEFAULTS TO BEING FAR AWAY FROM US.
So rather than being told something like this:
God is holy, and so God is not bound by our insecurities and our fears, which means that God draws near to us even in our mess and whatever the cost without condition...
We have more likely been told this:
God is holy, and thus God cannot look upon sin or be near us in our imperfection.
So either God is holy, and that means God is near, or God is holy, and that means God is distant.
You have two options there, but only one of them is like Jesus. Choose carefully.
See, you may have heard the second idea your entire life, and you may have been taught to see all scripture through the lens of it... But I would submit to you that, however popular and pervasive this idea might be, we shouldn't automatically assume that it's a good one. What many of us don't realize is that the way we view the concept of holiness is more founded in Reformation-era thinking (and even Dark Age Roman Catholicism) than it is in the actual and contextual scriptures. We don't see this sort of "holiness" in scripture because we must, we see it because we’ve been told to. We see it because it's all many of us have ever known.
And maybe that's why we might fail to notice that, at its most basic level, this concept of holiness is simply not holy. And how can it be if it's not different from the way we already are by default? In that first example I gave before, God is holy in a way that means God is near. And if that’s the case then God isn’t like us in how we fragment and fracture and separate from one another, because God is the great healer and unifier, restoring everything… But in the second example, God is very much like us: God has been offended, and so God is off alone somewhere, defiantly standing on principle until we grovel. Some might say that's God's right because God is perfect, but that doesn't make it holy. It's still just a glorified version of how people already treat one another.
You will find that when some people passionately talk about how “holy” God is, what they mean is this: “God is so perfect that you are basically disgusting to God. Revolting even. God can’t even bear to look at you. But thank goodness! God soothes himself with blood in order to be able to stomach your presence.” However, when other people talk about how God is “holy,” what they mean is, “God is mysteriously and wonderfully and essentially connected to us in radical love. God is always present and delights in being with us and near to us. And Jesus died to change our minds about God, not to change God’s mind about us.”
Again… two very different choices there. Choose carefully.
Do we see God as a glorified version of ourselves?
Or do we allow this view to be dismantled in favor of something that can actually prove to be holy?
As I began to say before, it seems to me that the chief, preeminent expression of God's holiness is God's radical, reckless love. Love for the entire universe and every being it might contain.
That is how God is so different and other than the brokenness we have known. Nothing has to prove its beauty or worth to God.
Jesus models this second kind of holiness, the sort of holiness which proclaims forgiveness toward those murdering him, and which tells James and John they do not know what spirit they are of when they wish for violent retribution. Jesus' holiness has him making intimate friends with sinners, not separating himself from outcasts, declaring the great faith of Roman centurions and gentile women, and - in so many other ways - modeling closeness and oneness with all manner of people the religious establishment thought of as "far from God." Jesus was born to people of no real consequence, and celebrated by unclean shepherds and pagan astrologers. He was to be called “Emmanuel,” "God With Us” - and yet, he entered straight into the beautiful chaos of humanity.
But if Jesus had modeled the kind of “holiness” we often ascribe to God, he would have been born glowing in a bubble in some temple somewhere, and he would have avoided getting too close to any of us until the proper rituals had been performed. But Jesus - the Word who was with God and who was God - didn’t do any of that.
And if you claim to believe Jesus, that really should change how you view God in proximity to people... Because it's clear that Jesus' holiness is not the kind the Pharisees (and now Christianity) would prefer to be selling. And shouldn’t that bother us? Shouldn't it bother us that Christians are more likely to teach holiness the way Jesus’ most vocal opponents did? Shouldn’t it bother us that Jesus isn’t the primary way we define God’s holiness? Shouldn't it bother us that we aren't told to look to Jesus to see how God is other?
I know some might disagree with me there, but I'm not exaggerating. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. And, while I’m not really sure why that's a saying, I am pretty sure that our view of God’s holiness looms over Jesus to the degree that it makes him a slave of our assumptions rather than their master. He is meant to be the Light, but we have relegated him to the shadows, because there are things we believe about God that we consider too important to let Jesus mess with. And when you’re honest about what that means, then you have to admit… There must be something wrong with Jesus, because he cannot measure up to our view of God.
Perhaps that statement might offend some Christians, but it is what it is. At some point we have to confront the reality of our ideas and explore their logical conclusions. And we need to do that on this subject because, if holiness is what we’ve made it out to be, we don’t need Jesus to weigh in on the subject at all. We don’t need him to inform the sort of "holiness" that so many of our popular authors and pastors preach - like it's some sort of contrary value that is required in order to balance love out.
Love does not need balancing out.
Love requires no equal opposite to keep it "sensible."
Love is not the yin to some equally important yang.
We have built up all these ideas hoping to make sense of our own thinking, but all that they achieve is to diminish love and make it powerless. And we all know plenty of people who naturally act like that false holiness - measuring their love and dispensing it only when they feel it is deserved - so it simply can’t be holy. It’s literally not different compared to what we already know in our brokenness. It’s not other. It’s not other compared to the lacking understanding of holiness we were clinging to before Jesus came to make God known.
So the real question to ask yourself is this: Why can’t love be enough? And why do we assume it to be so weak that it needs help from contrary values?
YOU WILL OFTEN HEAR CHRISTIANS SAY,
“God is love, but God is also holy.”
This might be one of the most poisonous religious statements in heavy usage today. But contrary to the cliché, love is whole all by itself. That’s how the apostle John can say “The one who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God IS love,” and John can make that statement without feeling compelled to immediately water it down or overqualify it into oblivion…
“Beloved, let us love one another. For love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
This distinguishes the kind of otherness of God we are meant to be marked by, doesn’t it? It sounds about as holy as anything possibly could. Love has always been the thing to pursue. Love is our quest. There’s nothing more sacred, more transcendent, more holy. And holiness should be a revolution which gives us new eyes to see a new world with a new heart.
But if God’s holiness is simply being removed from those deemed “bad,” demanding they get what they deserve and are punished… God’s holiness isn’t technically very holy at all. We already do all of those things in every human society on the planet. And millions of gods across thousands of pantheons throughout history in different cultures and religions have already displayed that sort of holiness. Their followers have cried out to it. Sought to appease it. Sought blood... But there's good news. Jesus reveals a God who says, “Let’s stop all that. And even if you take my life, I will proclaim forgiveness from the very instrument of my death.”
Jesus reveals a God who is not separate in the sense of proximity, but in the sense of quality.
The Father Jesus reveals is distinct in character, not location.
And if you believe that God is holy, and Jesus is the son of God… who said he did only what he saw the Father doing, and who said he did always the things which pleased the Father, and who said he and the Father were one… then it must be the case that Jesus is showing us in every moment what holiness looks like. And as he does, he invites us to join him in his other Way.
But what Jesus reveals to us has a lot to say that we aren’t hearing. And none of it includes a God who is revolted by humanity or unable to look upon sin. None of it includes a Father who “turns his face away” from us, or from Jesus on the cross - as though Jesus was suddenly less like God once he was up there… Jesus' idea of God's perfection is not the same as the idea we've been assuming. We’re the ones who’ve pitted Jesus against God while claiming to believe he is God in human flesh. That doesn’t make sense.
Of course, it’s possible that, to some hearing all this, the security of tradition remains enticing. Why leave the known comfort of old ways of thinking? And yet major questions remain, confronting us: If Jesus doesn't meet your standard for God's holiness, doesn't that mean you should take an honest look at your standard?
We have a culture of Christianity which would never say so directly, but thinks in a way which suggests it's Jesus who got God wrong and not us... But it seems we are finally in a time where people are starting to see how weird that is.
If your idea of God's perfection is something Jesus failed to live up to, you really might have a problem.
If your idea of holiness means you have a better grasp of God’s fulness than Jesus was able to show, you really might have a problem.
And if scripture contains the charge to "Be holy, because I am holy” from God, that statement cannot mean "Be set apart and away from people, distant and removed because of how super perfect and religious you are." And if it can't mean that for us, we need to stop assuming that's what it means for the very God whose holiness we are told repeatedly to pursue and reflect. Holiness never made God an island, so it certainly shouldn’t make us one either. And holiness never meant to be set apart for the sake of being set apart and distant. Holiness is to be set apart for a creative and redemptive purpose - a purpose which requires nearness without condition or reservation.
And, SPOILER ALERT: The purpose, and the holiness of God, is LOVE.
Love is what makes God so holy, so other.
In fact, Jesus says that love - even for our enemies - is what makes us like the very children of God. If something defines the character of the children so much as to make it obvious who the parent is, it must also define the character of the parent. God - in all holiness - is love. Love is more sacred and transcendent than anything else. It’s what people search their whole lives for, and it is the very substance and essence of God. Love is the one command of Jesus within the new covenant. It is so holy that it has overshadowed the Law and religiosity itself. It is the purpose that we have been set apart for.
WE ARE NOT CALLED TO LOVE, BUT TO ALSO BE HOLY.
WE ARE CALLED TO BE HOLY, AND THAT MEANS WE ARE CALLED TO LOVE.
Jesus has revealed a holiness which means God is not perfect and thus distant, but perfect and thus near. God’s intimacy is perfection. God’s embrace is perfection. God’s love is perfection. So to us who’ve known so much imperfection in this world, there is absolutely nothing more holy than perfect love. The kind that casts out our fears of an angry, distant God. The kind that can actually stand in contrast to what we would have thought anyway. We already built great monuments of religiosity - temples and sacrifices and all the rest - to our own sort of holiness… But Jesus declared all of that to be over. Because Jesus wasn’t just a glorified version of everything we already thought and believed about God.
Because Jesus was actually and truly different.
Because Jesus - who was the express image of God - showed us what it meant for God to be holy.
Jesus… was other.