Many years ago I heard John Piper lament that in his experience, many Christians could not speak intelligibly about the holiness of God for longer than a few minutes. I was “young, restless, and reformed” at that point in my life, and so I took his words to heart.
I realized that if someone were to ask me at the time what I believed about the holiness of God I would have stumbled over my words. So I read everything I could about the holiness of God in an effort to remedy the situation. But now I realize a couple things about Piper’s statement:
- There’s not much I necessarily disagree with in and of itself, but
- His definition of God in terms of “holiness” doesn’t require Jesus in any way.
This vision of God is full of lofty and exuberant abstract statements about God that caught my attention at the time: infinite value, moral perfection, etc. I was in awe! But Jesus was only there to make this (holy, infinite, powerful, etc.) God accessible.
Today I find this to be an odd (impossible, even) way to to talk about God. As Christians, how can we talk about what God is like without talking about Jesus? Without letting Jesus put some skin on the words?
What image comes to mind?
How do you imagine who God is and what God is like?
I used to start with assuming who God “must be” (immutable, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, etc) and going from there. For example, I’ve heard people suggest that if God is not in control of absolutely everything, he is not God. But who says? That’s just an assumption; an assumption rooted in Greek metaphysics, an assumption that doesn’t require us to bring Jesus into the equation, an assumption that Muslim friends would likely share.
To paraphrase Chris Green (from Gravity’s podcast interview with him), “We often think God is whatever it is that happens to us that can’t be explained by anything else.” If you get into a car accident and someone dies in it but you come away unscratched, that was God. Or if you recently finished a job interview and it went pretty well, it’s because God showed up and made it happen. God is the narrative we tell to make sense of the interesting coincidences of our lives.
Going further, some of would echo narratives like, “God hates me”, “God is using evil to teach me a lesson”, “God is in control”, “God just wants me to be happy”. All of these are abstract statements filled with assumptions that anyone could believe without needing to encounter the God revealed in Jesus.
What assumptions do you have about who God “must be”? We all have them. We can’t wish them away or pretend we don’t have them. Even Christians who hold to sola scriptura can’t escape that they are always doing theology from a specific social location with a specific set of frames and categories that shape how they read the Bible, which shapes what they’re able to see and hear in it.
So where should we start?
Keeping my own social location and experiences in mind, I hold that in tension with the reality that we are to start with what we see in Jesus. Yes, my social location will shape how I see and perceive Jesus. I must always be ready and willing to allow Jesus to challenge my assumptions of him as I read Scripture and experience him in my everyday life. And yet, we all must behold who God has revealed Godself to be in the face of Jesus of Nazareth.
Where did I learn this? Various traditions within the Church (e.g. Anabaptist, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, etc.) have taught me that the locus for understanding what God is like, who God essentially is, is found in the teaching and actions in Jesus, especially and particularly as we see him hanging defenselessly on the cross. I don’t get to make this stuff up so it’s vitally important that I heed wise guides and partners like this as I personally read, study, contemplate, and follow Jesus in my own life and community.
Former Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “God is Christlike, and in him is no unChristlikeness at all.” Paul himself says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus proclaimed that he only did what he saw the Father doing. As I read Scripture, Jesus’ statement is also embodied on the cross. God has always been the kind of God who for the joy set before him bears the sins of his people in radical solidarity.
This is what’s behind one of our core axioms at Gravity Leadership: God is just like Jesus.
What Jesus teaches us about holiness
Returning to John Piper’s lament. How do we speak intelligibly about God’s holiness? Not first through abstract statements about who God “must be,” but through the actions of Jesus, indeed through the cross of Jesus.
God’s holiness looks like Jesus’ willingness to touch lepers and heal them. God’s holiness looks like Jesus leveraging his social honor and status on Zacchaeus’ behalf by coming over his house to eat a meal. God’s holiness looks like the freedom of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners so often that his reputation is tarnished by the religious elite.
God’s holiness looks like Jesus telling Peter he doesn’t have to be afraid of him. God’s holiness is described in Jesus’ teachings about enemy love. God’s holiness looks like Jesus being born in a manger in a poor family, living in obscurity, confounding the wise, embracing the simple and meek, welcoming the outcast, flipping over tables in unjust systems, and in his passion to die for his enemies instead of killing them.
This has powerful, even unsettling implications for how we read Scripture, both Old Testament and New. All of Scripture finds its fulfillment in Jesus and yet, his life shapes how those Scriptures were fulfilled. He does what the authors foretold and longed for in ways that no one could have expected. He was the climax and focal point for the aches, longings, and deepest impulses of the prophets before him but he is not bound to do exactly what they expected. He both subverts and exceeds expectations and says, “Blessed are those who not offended by me.”
Ralph Starling says
David E Stravers says
I like this very much. Christ is the center. However, the essence of “holiness” in the Old Testament and even in many contemporary world views (Hinduism, for instance), is “separate” — that is, set apart from anything that pollutes. Set apart from sin. Set apart from the wicked. God separated himself from Israel when Israel fell into idolatry. The same “separated” character of holiness is applied to the lives of believers. I’m looking for this in what I know about Jesus. I don’t see it. Can you help me find it?
Michael Gonzalez says
As I read of holiness in scripture, it would seem to me that holiness is more about being set apart for a specific purpose rather than simply being separate, right? Also, if we’re centering our definitions on Jesus, I believe scripture is calling us to allow his life to shape how we understand holiness now, so yes he was the true human, which distinguishes him from us, but he also lived in radical solidarity with us, becoming poor, becoming sin, becoming a curse, to make us like him, renewing our humanity through his. His holiness is seen in that light. That’s how I’m reading it. Thoughts?