In this chapter I want to examine a common but incorrect idea about God's character that hinders us from knowing Him more perfectly.
God Wants Me to be Afraid of Him
It is unfortunate that so many people believe that God wants us to be afraid of Him. The confusion here is that we have a misunderstanding of God's position and how He uses His position. In every instance where we read in the Bible that a person comes into direct contact with God, that person is afraid. We see an example of this when Job, after seeing God, writes:
Behold I am insignificant; what can I reply to you? I lay my hand on my mouth.
- Job 40:4
5I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; But now my eye sees You; 6Therefore I retract, And I repent in dust and ashes.
- Job 42:5-6
The Apostle John writes:
When I saw Him I fell at His feet like a dead man. And He placed His right hand on me saying. 'Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last.'
- Revelation 1:17
These men were afraid and overwhelmed at their meeting with God, but it wasn't a fear of violence or injustice that one feels when confronted by something evil and more powerful than we are. Direct contact with God for these men produced an awe generated by being in the presence of one so great and majestic that human composure was not possible. In actually seeing God they realized the difference between themselves and their creator. They could actually measure, to an extent, His greatness against their smallness and were humbled into reverence by the experience.
There are many words that are used to describe this greatness or majesty of God:
- the otherness of God
- the transcendence of God
- awe inspiring presence of God
The term that the Bible uses most often to describe God's essence, however, is the word "holy." In the Old Testament, God is often referred to as the "Holy One of Isreal" (this term repeated 25 times in the book of Isaiah alone). Isaiah could say this with accuracy because he came face to face with God and described the experience of his vision: a vision where he caught a glimpse of God's holiness.
The prophet Isaiah served as counselor to several Jewish kings, but in 742 BC, after the death of King Uzziah, he entered into the temple to pray. While there he had a vision of another King, one who sat on a heavenly throne. In his description of the scene he said the following:
...I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple.
- Isaiah 6:1
Isaiah writes that above the King hover angelic beings called Seraphs. In Isaiah's vision the angels have to use four of their six wings to protect themselves because God does not need protection. The prophet says that he hears them calling out to one another saying, "Holy, holy, holy." This is repeated three times to honor the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They proclaim, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory." (Isaiah 6:3)
The experience also revealed to Isaiah his true condition as an impure and weak man when compared to the majestic beings in his vision. Only when a coal is taken from the altar and used to purify his lips is Isaiah able to stand before God and respond to His call for service.
This same image is repeated in the vision that John the Apostle had in describing his own presence in God's throne room.
6and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind. 7The first creature was like a lion, and the second creature like a calf, and the third creature had a face like that of a man, and the fourth creature was like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each one of them having six wings, are full of eyes around and within; and day and night they do not cease to say, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come."
- Revelation 4:6-8
In these and other heavenly scenes God is described as holy, and man's natural reaction is fear, reverence and awe (respect) in the presence of such majesty. This fear, however, was not terror, worry or panic. It was a healthy and respectful reverence for a being who was in every way greater than the people privileged to be before Him. Not greater for the purpose of harm (which is often the case with human sinful power), but greater for the purpose of encouraging reverence, obedience and love.
God's greatness should not inspire fear in us (unless we are called to judgment for sinful rebellion and disbelief). For those who seek God, His greatness should provoke a desire to serve and be like Him.
You shall be holy, for I am holy.
- I Peter 1:16
His holiness should motivate us to pursue holiness in our own lives.
Imitating God is the Best Way to Know Him
The reason God wants us to be holy is that being like Him (by cultivating personal holiness) is the best way to really know Him. To view His holiness should not result in frightening us but rather encourage us to imitate Him. Of course, if we are to imitate Him in His holiness, we need to understand what His holiness is:
When the Bible talks about a "holy" day, for example, it means that this day has been set apart or designated for a special purpose. In a similar way, God's holiness implies that He is separate and special. He is separate from the creation in that He is not part of the creation but exists in another dimension. He is not human in nature (although man has similarities to God). In other words, He is not like us, we are in some ways like Him. God is not who or where we are.
God's holiness then is seen in His uniqueness and state apart from us and the world that we live in. To be holy, therefore, means that we are to be unique and separate from what is around us.
In our effort to be holy like God, therefore, we must also be unique and separate (separate in the sense that we are where He is). Many have tried to achieve this unique/separate goal by going off to a secret or quiet place and living a reclusive life devoted to contemplation and self-denial. Others have attempted to establish a state of holiness (separateness/uniqueness) by creating a manufactured environment of some kind, thinking that maintaining this "lifestyle" (whether it be an eighteenth century agrarian community or a closed commune overseen by a modern day prophet) is the key to developing the holiness pleasing to God.
The way to be separate or holy, however, is to go to the place where God is, not create some sort of holy environment for ourselves. For example, if we want to go where God is:
- We must go to His Word – for He is there (John 1:1).
- We must go to our knees in prayer – because He listens to us there (I John 5:14).
- We must go to worship Him – because God is searching for those who will worship Him in sincerity (John 4:23).
- We must go into the battle against our own sins and the sins of the world – and when we do, we will find the Spirit of God waging war there (Romans 8:13).
- We must go into all the world and preach the gospel – because He promises that He will always be with us in this effort (Matthew 28:20).
A holy God is in these places and we find Him (imitate Him) when we separate ourselves from this world and go where He is and where He calls us to be.
A second distinct feature of God's holiness:
2. Absolute Purity
God is completely pure. This means that He does not and cannot sin. Sin is a problem that infects humans, not God.
Every thought, every intention, every action of God is pure from beginning to end. This purity is at times described in terms of "moral" perfection, but this is done in order to show how different God is from man. Even if there was no sin in existence, however, God's holiness would still be described in terms of purity.
A more accurate image is that of light. Isaiah referred to God as the "Light of Israel," in speaking of God's holiness (Isaiah 10:17). Jesus said, "I am the Light of the world" (John 8:12). Paul says that the Lord dwells in "unapproachable light" (I Timothy 6:16). It is not that God reflects light or needs light to be seen. Rather, He is the source of light, He gives off light, and not the dim kind of light created by a mixture of physical elements doomed to eventually burn itself out here in this world. His is the light of absolute reality, absolute truth and absolute power, and purity is what generates these.
Paul tells us to walk as "children of light" (Ephesians 5:8) and when we do, we tap into that reality, truth and power. It is the glimpse of that light/purity that fills our dark minds and hearts with hope, and reveals the true darkness of this world.
If our quest is to be like God, then this quest must include an effort at purity.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
- Matthew 5:8
Those who want to know God (especially in the context of His purity) never take sin lightly. Every sin is an affront to God and threatens our relationship with Him. Purity in our lives, therefore, means that we do not make excuses for our sins nor do we tolerate it within ourselves. Purity requires us to be at war with sin so that the blood of Jesus can continually purify us and allow us to stand in the presence of a holy God, a God of light (I John 1:7-9).
When God seems far away or when our relationship with Him seems dry and dark, the reason may be that we are not where He is or acting how He acts.
It is unfortunate that people are afraid of God. That kind of fear is a sign that they may know that God is there, but they don't really know the God that is there. God does not want us to be afraid of Him. He wants us to know Him and be like Him which means that we are to be..
- set apart where He is
- pure and full of light as He is
With the gospel, it is possible to go from where we are to where He is, to put aside what we are and become what He is. In the heavenly vision, Isaiah was purified by a hot coal from the altar. In the New Testament, another image is used to signify the purification of the heart and life of the one who wants to remain in the presence and service of a holy and pure God. That imagery is the cleansing water of baptism (Acts 22:16).
Those who wish to know God and be like God begin by confessing their faith in Christ, repenting of their sins and are immersed in the water of baptism to wash away all the impurities of the soul. At this moment the purified sinner receives the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit who becomes the inward source of divine light that will not only create the holy life Christians are called on to live (no matter where one lives or what lifestyle one has) but will ultimately transport the believer into the dimension of heaven where God truly dwells (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:11; I Thessalonians 4:17).