What do we mean when we say God is holy?
To be holy is to be set apart, unlike other things in some way worthy of reverence and respect. When we say that God is holy, we are saying that God is set apart, other. God is unlike us in some fundamental way. We share certain characteristics with God, such as creativity, but in essence and expansiveness God is unlike us.
Holiness is mysterious.
We moderns and post-moderns are not very good at holiness. This isn’t a statement about morality or purity, but about our world view: at some point long before any of us were born, the western world lost its respect for mystery. We have inherited an intellectual tradition that believes that all of reality can be sensed, measured, or reasoned out based on sense and measure. By extension, everything worth knowing can be known and quantified through empirical observation. What is, is empirically observable; if it isn’t empirically observable, it doesn’t exist. Such a view suggests that there are no fundamental mysteries; there are only data that are not known yet.
Holiness inspires reverence, even fear.
Holiness, by definition, is otherness. For a thing to be made holy is for it to be set apart from the mundane and treated with particular respect, even reverence. Reverence is not a response we have to something we have thoroughly observed, quantified, and understood. Reverence is the human response to the ineffable. That feeling we get when we cannot name or describe something completely–when our feelings and thoughts and spirits are overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur, power, or terrifying beauty–that feeling of being overpowered by mystery and other-ness is awe. Reject mystery and you lose both awe (a natural human response) and holiness.
When we say that God is holy, we are saying something profound about the nature of God: God is set apart, other. God is unlike us in some fundamental way.God’s holiness does not mean that God is utterly unlike us–that there are no characteristics that we share–but that something about God is different. God is un-sense-able, unmeasurable, and stretches beyond the limits of our ability to reason.
This is why the Bible says that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10, Psalm 111:10, etc.). It is rational and reasonable to fear what can do you great harm and is beyond your control. Gravity is a good example of a fearsome thing. Most of the time we pay little attention to gravity. We go about our daily business under gravity’s power but largely unaware of its influence. But gravity is beyond our control, so it is rational and reasonable to be afraid of gravity if you are dangling off the edge of a cliff. Fear of the Lord is like fear of gravity – you respect its power more or less depending upon where you stand.
God’s holy power inspires fear. God’s holy love brings peace.
Fear is not rational and reasonable when love is present. God is love, so with God love is always present.
The paradox is this. Although God’s power should inspire fear, God’s love inspires trust and peace. (tweet that)
Though all humans have power, and all humans love, no one is like God. God is utterly unlike us, for God is both all-powerful and all-loving. That is God’s holiness, and God’s glory.
This post is part of the God Ideas Series.