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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

God is Not Holy

A drawing of two cliffs, with one cliff labelled "People" and the other "God", with a huge chasm between them. Image source.
Here's a fantastic post from Fred Clark, the Slacktivist: ‘To keep oneself unstained by the world’. It's about the Christians who see a contradiction in James 1:27. ("Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.") How can we keep ourselves pure and unstained by the world, Clark asks, if we are interacting with worldly orphans and widows, who could be dirty or dangerous?

(Skittles are mentioned later in the post. Really you should go read the whole thing.)

Here's the part that struck me:
Look, we’re called to be holy as God is holy. And how does God maintain God’s divine holiness? By avoiding the world — staying apart from it up there in Heaven and not rushing down here to risk getting stained and defiled by us filthy humans.
And that's when I realized, the God I believe in is not holy. Actually, maybe the biggest reason I am a Christian is that God is not holy.

Because, as I see it, the entire point of Christianity is that we have a God who does NOT stay "up there in Heaven and not rushing down here to risk getting stained and defiled by us filthy humans" [as described in Clark's satirical post]. God became a person. And when God did that, when God came to earth and lived among us, God got in so much trouble for associating with "sinners."

No, Jesus did NOT "keep himself unstained by the world." No, he did the exact opposite. Over and over, he reached out to people that society viewed as "dirty" or "sinful."

And more than that, when God came to earth, God suffered. Jesus experienced sadness, rejection, betrayal. He was beaten and killed. The world left scars on him. He was not "unstained by the world." He was not "holy."

That's why I am a Christian. Because the only kind of God that's worthy of worship is one who cares about people, cares about the suffering in the world. And not just caring in an abstract sense, from a distance, but a God who actually lived it, who felt pain, who continues to feel our pain all the time.

Now would be a good time to stop and ask, "wait, what does 'holy' even mean anyway?"

I talked about the word "holy" in a post from 2012 called Are other things awesome besides God?:
We already HAVE a word like that. Holy. What is the definition of "holy"? The standard Christian answer for this is "set apart." Well what does that mean? I guess "set apart" as in "special." Not "set apart" as in "the bags of dog poop have been set apart from the other trash so they don't stink up the trash can."

God is "set apart"? What does that mean? Err wait, does the "set apart" definition only apply to a context like "God wants his people to be holy", and not "God is holy"?

Okay Perfectnumber, you don't like the "set apart" definition, so how do you define "holy"?

Well, it's like... God is bigger than anything else, orders of magnitude more powerful... something like that...?

Or, it's like, God is perfect, he never does anything wrong, although, how do you really define right and wrong when you're talking about God... er... he's pure (what does that mean? homogeneous?), he can't tolerate sin, he can't look at sin... he's going to someday bring justice for everyone... is that what "holy" means?

Or maybe, for me it kind of has this majestic feel to it, like God is the king of everything, sovereign over everything, complete authority, no worries- is that what "holy" means?

I really don't know what "holy" means.
The "Sunday School answer" for the definition of "holy" is "set apart." But what the hell does that even mean? Reading Clark's post made me realize that one of God's most important qualities is that God is NOT "set apart." God is NOT far away from us. God does NOT avoid the bad or dirty things in the world.

God is NOT "too pure to look at sin." God is NOT "unable to be in the presence of sinners." God does NOT need Jesus to cover you up so God can be near you without realizing how dirty you are. God does NOT want to look at you and only see Jesus.

God does NOT think "every sin is an infinite offense against a holy God." Sin does NOT separate us from God- no, the bible is clear that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Basically, the God I believe in now does not have any of those traits which I've heard Christians describe in connection to "holiness." God is not holy.

In the gospel I was taught, God's holiness was in conflict with God's love. Holiness meant God can't let anybody into heaven, because we've all sinned at least once and therefore God can't stand to be near us. Love meant God didn't want to be separated from us like that. So God sent Jesus to take the punishment for all the sins of the world. And those of us who accept Jesus will be covered with him, he will hide how awful and dirty and sinful we are, so we can sneak through heaven's door without setting off the sin alarms.

If this is really what's going on between God's holiness and God's love, then holiness still has the upper hand. Holiness set the rule: only perfect people who have never sinned can be in God's presence. Love didn't actually challenge that rule. Love didn't defeat holiness. No, love never even tried to fight against the parameters that holiness set up. Instead, love tries to change us so that we pass the standard. Love agreed, yes, only perfect, sinless people can go to heaven- and then worked to make us perfect and sinless.

That's not the kind of love I believe in. And that's not the gospel I believe in.

I don't believe in a holy God. But I do believe in a just God, and a loving God. I don't believe in a God who thinks they're too perfect, too good for us; I believe in a God who is with us, who cares, who feels empathy, who works to help us, who will one day right all the wrongs and bring resurrection and justice to the world. (And when I say "justice" I mean the biblical definition of justice: "he has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble, he has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." Not the kind of "justice" as defined by the "gospel" I learned in church- when they said "justice," they meant "everyone goes to hell." And God's love fought against God's justice pretty much the same way love fights holiness.)

God is not holy. The reason I am a Christian is that God is not holy.

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