There’s been a lot of conversation in the Christian blogosphere recently about how God’s holiness and love are related and how our understanding of them shapes our view of God’s judgment. Many people reduce this topic which could be useful to our spiritual growth down to the very narrow question of hell (Does it exist? Who goes there? Are there exceptions? etc). I wonder sometimes if God is smacking himself on the forehead to see how many hours His people have wasted arguing about hell.
The standard argument between people who are “anti-hell” and people who are “pro-hell” often goes something like this. The person who’s “anti-hell” says that eternal damnation seems like an awfully harsh sentence for somebody who’s lived a basically good life other than a few cuss words, self-indulgent trips to Cold Stone Creamery, and other minor vices. And the person who’s “pro-hell” retorts that cuss words and ice cream binges may not seem like a big deal to us, but they’re a big deal to God because He’s infinitely holy and so the most minor offenses against Him are infinitely offensive. So the result is that people get this idea that being holy is like being the middle school gym teacher with really tight shorts who makes you do a hundred push-ups for standing with bad posture.
Theology is often like the game of telephone. We inherit conceptions of God from different contexts in which they made sense, but we’re often confused about which aspects of the way people talked about God before are essential and which are related to their context. So we end up receiving a conception of God that looks nothing like how He was described centuries ago at the beginning of the telephone chain. The way that God became a middle-school gym teacher in our imagination today has its origin in the 11th century feudal discourse of St. Anselm of Canterbury who was trying to explain why Jesus had to die for our sins as both God and man at the same time.
Anselm lived in a time of kings, when everyone accepted that you had to treat the king with a level of honor higher than how you treated your equals or your inferiors. So Anselm reasoned that because God is the King of Kings to whom we owe infinite honor, the only way to make up for all the ways we disrespect God on a daily basis was for an infinitely innocent person (a divine being) to offer His life as a sacrifice on our behalf (as a fellow human) to satisfy our affront of God’s honor. Hence the “God-man” Jesus (cur deus homo if you prefer Anselm’s Latin). Anselm used this feudal analogy to make a theological argument for Jesus’ paradoxical divine-human double nature that made sense in the society in which he lived. The problem is that this argument has been garbled up over time so that we have come to think of God’s holiness as infinite pickiness since we don’t live in a feudal culture of chivalric honor but in a society where people are supposedly equal and there is no chivalry whatsoever.
So I want to push back against the assumption that infinite pickiness is an essential quality of God’s holiness since I think it’s a product of the theological game of telephone and actually a harmful way to understand God. What’s hard for me to grapple with is that the holy people I’ve met and read about aren’t like anal retentive gym teachers at all. It seems like the holier they are, the less picky they are about other peoples’ flaws. The only thing they seem to be picky about is making sure that they treat you with the best hospitality that they can muster. Perhaps you’ve met some Christians like this.
As pastors, we learn about something called the ministry of presence. It means being able to put my entire focus on making other people feel loved and welcomed when they’re with me. This cannot be accomplished if I am filled with “malice, guile, insincerity, envy, or slander,” to use the words from the lectionary epistle reading this week in 1 Peter 2:1. Unfortunately, my heart is often filled with these things if I understand holiness wrongly as the kind of impeccable, uncompromising correctness of a mean gym teacher. It’s better and more Biblically sound to understand holiness as the “purity of heart” that Jesus talks about in the Beatitudes and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Methodist founder John Wesley described the holiness of “Christian perfection” as having your heart filled with nothing but love of God and love of neighbor. He got flak for suggesting that this was possible for humans to attain, but I don’t think it’s far-fetched to consider the goal of Christianity to be the embodiment of Jesus’ two great commandments (even if it’s a goal that remains forever on our horizon).
If you want to have your mind blown by a version of Christianity that is so much more holy than the rude rabble of Jesus fans around today, then check out the desert fathers and mothers, a group of Christian holy men and women who gave their lives to God in the deserts of north Africa in about the 5th and 6th century. There’s a collection of their sayings called The Desert Fathers by Benedicta Ward. Roberta Bondi has written some books also. And Anglican archbishop Rowan Williams recently wrote a book about them called Where God Happens. The entire concern of the desert fathers and mothers was to be Christ to other people and see Christ in them. If people came to visit them bearing food if they were in the middle of a fast, they would eat and silently ask God for forgiveness in order to avoid making their visitors feel bad. They were exceedingly devoted to their spiritual lives but if they detected an ounce of pride behind what they were doing, they felt devastated. I’ll never forget the story of a monk who got robbed of everything except for his tunic so out of guilt for his selfishness, he chased the robber down the road to make sure he offered his tunic also.
So when I meet people today who want to make their lives an imitation of Christ just like the desert fathers and mothers, it makes me think that holiness has more to do with hospitality than pickiness. I have a feeling that God’s house whenever we get there will be less like a meticulously immaculate museum where you walk on eggshells terrified to break anything and more like a redneck bar where the chief concern of the Man behind the counter is to make us feel welcome. It’s an imperfect vision. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Isaiah 6, where Isaiah quakes in his boots in the presence of God’s holiness. For those who have been stomped on by the world, I can understand the attraction of Revelation’s bowls of wrath and trumpets of rage against the seemingly invincible social order. How is God hospitable to those whom we ignore and mistreat? Does he have to smash a bottle on our heads to get us to shut up and let somebody else talk? What does God do about the people who need to be the center of attention when the only way to throw a perfect eternal party is for God to be the center of attention because He can handle the attention?
Still it feels like the awe and hatred of our own ugliness that we feel in the presence of God is something that increases the more we get to know Him, whereas when we don’t know God, we are incapable of climbing out of our cynicism and shallow banter long enough to feel any sense of shame about our mistakes. I don’t know exactly what God’s holiness will be like for those who are either ignorant of or oblivious to the mercy of Jesus’ sacrifice that makes me feel comfortable sitting in the lap of my Maker. I only know that my life is rich beyond description because I have been opened to God’s mercy and I want for everyone I meet to be blessed the way that I have been blessed. And I hate to see God caricatured as some tight-wad gym teacher. The reality is much deeper than we can express. I just want to be holy like God is holy.