A Rational Faith Section 3.9 The Nature of Holiness
Though we briefly examined the nature of holiness when we considered the nature of
God it is important enough to consider as a separate issue. As we saw earlier, God uses
the word “holy” to emphasize his unique goodness. This definition of holiness may
surprise other people as much as it surprised me. When I first learned the Hebrew
definition of the word translated as “holy” in our Bibles, I was extremely perplexed. To
be holy is to be set apart, to be different than, to be separated from. What does this
mean? What do we mean when we say that God is holy? What is God apart from? Who
is God different than? In what way is God separate?
The definition of holiness that I expected to find was the one I picked up in church on
Sundays: “Characterized by an uncompromising obsession with purity. A perfectionist.”
Though there is an extent to which I think this definition of the word is appropriate, it is
not the meaning of the word in Hebrew. The word has come to mean this among
Christians largely, I think, because God’s holiness has become a catchall for everything
we don’t understand about God. Why did God order the Hebrews to commit genocide?
Because of God’s holiness. Why does God burn sinners in eternal fire? Because of
God’s holiness. In order to have a rational faith, we need a better understanding of God’s
The flaw in the traditional conception of God’s holiness comes in the phrase
“uncompromising obsession” in the definition that I used above. The connotation of
these words is that there is something inherently unreasonable or immature about God’s
perspective. We believe that God is “obsessed” with purity because we do not
understand that the Mosaic law is a minimum standard. We think that we are perfect
before God when we are minding our own business and not stealing, fornicating, lying or
coveting. If, every once in a while, we drop the ball and steal, fornicate lie or covet,
what is the big deal? We had a spotless record with one tiny little blemish. Why can’t
God have a sense of perspective?
God’s true standard, however, is far more difficult and unattainable then the mere Law of
Moses. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and
with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the
law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40) When we are “minding our own business”
we are not pleasing God. We are exclusively and relentlessly focused on ourselves all
day long without any consideration for others whatsoever except insofar as it is
convenient or beneficial for us. If, on top of completely ignoring God’s true standard, we
actually get to the point where we violate God’s minimum standard and injure others for
our own convenience, then God gets angry with our behavior. Why is this unreasonable
Our conception of holiness, then, is not unlike an unruly teenager’s perception of his
father’s concern for his behavior. “My dad is such an ogre! All I did was go to a party,
drink a little alcohol, have a little sex and then drive home! And he flies off the handle
like it is some big deal!” This teenager thinks his father is being “nitpicky” because he
violated a couple of rules for a few minutes. What this teenager fails to notice is that he
lives an entirely self-centered life and is progressively becoming worse. When he finally
reaches the point that he recklessly endangers the lives of others through drunk driving
and the fabric of our society through casual sex, his father becomes angry with him.
What is unreasonable about the father’s concern? Is the father really angry because the
teenager broke a couple of minor and insignificant rules? Or is he angry with the
teenagers consistent attitude of putting himself first that finally culminates in behavior
that is actually damaging to others?
The above parable exactly parallels God’s attitude towards human beings. We human
beings think about ourselves all day long and we progressively become worse. We
finally get to the point where other people are just objects that we use for our sexual
pleasure or obstacles to material happiness that we abort for our convenience. Why is it
unreasonable of God to get angry about this? Why is it unreasonable for the one who
works selflessly for each of us all day long to get upset that our concern for others is
limited to paying lip service to the ideals of a welfare state? Is God really obsessed with
purity to an unreasonable degree and “flying off the handle” when we break minor and
insignificant rules? Or is God finally reaching the breaking point with human beings
who cannot be bothered to care about anyone but themselves?
As we have seen, human beings are self-centered and evil by nature. When God says
that He is holy, He is saying that He is apart from us, different from us, separate from us.
He does not think in the self-centered and selfish ways that we think. What human being
is capable of living a selfless life of service and sacrifice like Jesus Christ? What human
being could do the endless amount of work for others that the Father does to create and
sustain us every day? God is selfless and completely different than selfish and self-
centered humanity. He wants us to think like He thinks and be separate from human
nature as He is separate.
If the above definition is correct, then what does it mean when God says that a place is
holy? How can a location be selfless? When God makes a place holy, He is essentially saying, “I have set apart this mountain for things pertaining to your relationship with Me.
When you serve Me in return for the service that I provide you, when you honor Me in
return for the mercy that I have shown you, you are not focusing on yourself. You are
being like Me and I want you to do that in a careful and thoughtful way because it is the
most important thing that you do on a daily basis.” Holiness, therefore, is the natural
product of following God’s two primary commandments. “Love the Lord thy God” and
“Love thy neighbor as thyself”. When we love God or our neighbor, we are putting aside
our selfish and self-centered nature and being different like God is different. This is what
it means to be holy.