Love versus Holiness?

In many Protestant/Evangelical traditions there are many people who try to hold God’s holiness in contrast to God’s love.  When they are talking about holiness they are talking about God’s perfection relative to our depravity.  They believe that God’s holy nature compels him to harshly punish those who do not meet his standard of perfection.  I have a different view on this.  I believe that God is perfect and that I am not.  I believe God desires that I move towards perfection.  What I don’t believe is that God is so repulsed by me that he can’t endure my sinfulness.  I believe that my sinful nature is hostile towards God in his perfection (Rom 8:7).  Without the grace of Jesus Christ to transform my heart I would reject God even though his attitude towards me is unfailing and unwavering love.  Why do I believe this?  Isaiah had an experience in God’s presence and it was Isaiah that couldn’t handle God, not the other way around.  I’m not implying that God doesn’t get upset about injustice, nor am I implying that God wouldn’t correct his children with an aim to help them learn and grow.  I’m a parent and I deeply love my children and sometimes I am sad and frustrated with them.  Sometimes I have to correct them but I never do just because they deserve to feel pain for what they did.

The root meanings of the old testament word we translate holiness mean separation and brightness.  [1]Knowing the original roots of words isn’t necessarily significant. It is very common for people to use words according to the meaning that evolved over time rather than its literal original meaning.  As a kid I always wondered why the Flintstones closing theme music announced the family had a “gay old time”.  Even in the 20 years from when the Flintstones aired to when I was a child watching Fred and Barney over lunch the meaning of the word shifted.  If someone was reading about “gay” people 500 years from now, should they be using the original meaning of the word or how it came to be used to get the best interpretation?

However these two concepts found that the word holiness can be traced through how the word is used over time.  They don’t however flesh out all aspects of what holiness is.  Neither of them conflict with God’s essential loving nature.  One can even argue that love is just a manifestation of God’s holiness.

Sometimes we try to separate God from himself when we see the grace and mercy of Jesus and anger and wrath that the prophets perceived in Israel’s history.  Is there a conflict with a loving God and the severity of God’s anger with Israel?

Is there a conflict with loving my children and getting angry at them?  No, I certainly hope not.  I’ve never known the kind of love I have for my daughter but it certainly doesn’t mean I don’t get angry with her.  I’ve also become the step-father to two boys.  The oldest has a number of diagnosed mental health problems.  There has been nothing in my life that has caused me more pain and despair than trying to raise my oldest step-son.  There were times I felt such intense anger and hurt because of the way my younger step-son was being mistreated by the older one. Looking through prophets we see a similar theme.  God was angered the most by injustice, exploitation and idolatry.

I never hurt this boy physically.  I don’t believe you can solve violence with violence but I rarely sought to soften the blow of the natural consequences for his actions.  I did that because I love him and I wanted the reality of what he was doing to sink in.  We sent him to live with his grandmother after one particularly bad incident.  At that point we weren’t punishing him for breaking rules, we were just keeping our family safe.  Even in the midst of it we continually expressed to our oldest that he was welcome in our home as long as everyone is safe.  At the end of that summer he came home and he has been much, much better.

Was it love or holiness that led me to send our boy away for a season?  It was both.  It was my love for my other children.  It was my love for a boy that needed to see the reality of his actions before he could change and nothing else we tried was working.  It was the piercing brightness of God’s holiness in my heart that kept me speaking the truth and reality in to this situation.  Brightness is similar to the illumination of truth.  That is what humanity finds so threatening.  We like to hide in the darkness with all our faults, mistakes, and abject selfishness.

There is no conflict between light and love, and as realities they overlap.  If someone prefers the darkness they often won’t even accept love because they can sense there is something terribly threatening in it.  They are afraid of feeling like they are truly worth something.  If they can acknowledge that they are worthy then it puts their own self-mistreatment in a critical light.  Then other people are worthy as well.  Light, holiness and love are all interconnected aspects of God.  We fool ourselves when we separate them in our concept of God, and we fool ourselves when we think we can be truly comfortable with one and not the other.

There are some accounts in the law and prophets that are harder to reconcile with our picture of Jesus.  There are better ways to reconcile these things than to divides God nature against itself.  Most of the severely destructive experiences Israel had were at the hands of other people.  Sometimes God’s wrath is merely leaving us to face the consequences of our own broken humanity.  We are all kids in a sandbox and sometimes we hurt each other and the parent doesn’t always intervene. Especially when we know our child is better off learning things the hard way.  It hurts but it is necessary.

Some reconcile this picture by seeing more humanity in the inspired words of scripture.  The prophets were genuinely experiencing God but their personality and perspective frame the events from their vantage point.  The prophet might not see the broader picture.  His personality will flavour his interpretations of divine revelation.  This might feel like a more ‘liberal’ way to those who believe the bible is without error and I imagine some people would immediately reject it.  Fair enough, I’m not writing to change your view of scripture, I’m just trying to hold together how the authors of scripture describe God and while reconciling it with actions we attribute to God.

I’m part of the Anabaptist tradition that views all revelation as inspired and authoritative but we view everything through the lens of Christ.  We view the person, life and teachings of Jesus as the best lens with which to understand God.  That does lead us to some things that are difficult to reconcile but we keep coming back to Jesus because ultimately he is God incarnate whereas every other witness is still only human.  I accept a little bit of mystery in how this all works out.

God is holy and he is love.  While I’m not the kind of deep theologian that can mine the deep mysteries of God’s holy nature there are a few tidbits I can throw out.  God doesn’t have conflicting values.  His holiness isn’t competing with his love.  When John said “God is love” he didn’t add any provisos.  He was happy leaving the statement in its simple form.  We can do the same without feelings as though we are forgetting some aspect of who God is.

[1]    Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (477). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.