One of the most obnoxious things about the culture wars is the way that they have bastardized the concept of “holiness.” The most typical way this happens is for someone to say something like “God may be love but He is also holy” as though love by itself has no backbone and makes God into a pathetic doormat, while God’s holiness is what gives Him the fortitude to be mean to people. Or “Because God is holy, He cannot tolerate sin.” When we talk this way, we turn one of the most beautiful attributes of God’s character into an ugly caricature as though God’s holiness makes him a frowning middle school assistant principal eagerly passing out detention slips. Holiness is so much richer than that.
When Moses goes to see God in the burning bush, God says to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). In our day, we have lost the concept of holy ground, particularly among Protestant Christians. Every time Roman Catholics step into a sanctuary, they kneel and cross themselves facing the altar. The priests bow to the altar multiple times during a mass. The Orthodox are much more extreme. They prostrate themselves completely with their face touching the ground multiple times in each worship service. The rest of the time they are standing, sometimes for multiple hours.
I don’t think any Orthodox or Catholics would tell you that the reason they bow before God is because they’re afraid He’ll be angry with them if they don’t. I think that the way Protestants equate God’s holiness with anger is a product of our secularism. When you worship God in what Brian Zahnd calls a “nondescript utilitarian large metal building,” it’s hard to have any aesthetic sense of the God you’re worshiping. Lower-church Protestants aren’t just content to worship God in a rented high school cafeteria; we take pride in our lack of attachment to “the building,” because as every five year old Baptist can tell you, “the church is not the building; it’s the people.”
One way to define secularism is the lack of any sense that one physical space or event in time is holier than any other. In this sense, it seems that much of Protestant Christianity is a theistic form of secularism. When you aren’t stepping into a wholly other world in your worship space, then worship becomes the emphatic recital of correct ideas about God rather than an encounter with God’s beauty. When there is no sense of holy space or time, then “holiness” becomes an abstraction defined according to how the terms in your theological system relate, rather than a divine mystery you learn about through encounters with God which are hard to put into words.
Psalm 96:9 says, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth.” It doesn’t say to “tremble” because God is mean or fierce, but because God is beautiful. We “tremble” when we encounter something that we can’t explain and it causes us to experience the complete loss of control of our world. This trembling is not something to be avoided. It is the pinnacle of human existence to be overwhelmed by God’s beauty.
Sin doesn’t make us tremble more before God. It makes us unable to tremble. And that is its tragedy. Sin makes us into cynical, jaded people who are aloof to God’s holiness and to beauty itself. When people worship the Lord, the beauty of God’s creation makes them weep and tremble. Without worship, beauty cannot move us; it can only be accumulated or consumed, as it is by the mega-rich people I recently wrote about who buy famous art pieces and stack them in warehouses as a new form of currency.The prophet Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord in the Jerusalem temple in Isaiah 6 seems like the best Biblical illustration of a human trembling before God’s holiness:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
It would make us feel unbearably unclean to stand before the perfect beauty of God’s holiness. That’s why we need atonement. Jesus’ blood provides the same thing for us that the seraph’s coal provides for Isaiah. Our sin is an ugly, scandalous blight in contrast to God’s beauty. It would be like if Miss America had a big zit on the middle of her forehead or rotten yellow teeth. Or like ripping a fart in a room full of aromatic flowers. The shame of this contrast is what prevents us from even facing God when we’re covered in sin. To be able to say “Woe is me! I am lost” means that at least we can still see the beautiful God who makes us feel ugly.
When we receive the cleansing of Jesus’ blood like Isaiah received the coal on his lips, we can stand before God’s beauty without shriveling up and disappearing into the ground. But God invites us to be more than just forgiven and atoned for. He wants us to dance with Him and be infected by His beauty. Holiness is rising into the beauty of God like a bulb that hesitantly nudges its way out of the ground in February and keeps pushing upward until May when it bursts open into full blossom. Something is lost when we think of holiness as being perfectly correct because we can find perfectly hideous ways of being correct. Holiness is rather being perfectly beautiful the way that God is beautiful.