The song I remember singing in high school youth group went something like this:
‘Holiness, holiness, is what I long for
Holiness, is what I need
Holiness, holiness, is what you want from me.”
But what was I singing about?
Holiness is another one of the attributes of God. His attributes are things that are true of Him and about Him, in every way and at all times. God is always Holy, has always been holy, and always will be holy. And not just God the ‘Holy’ Spirit— God the Father and God the Son are equally holy as well. God is holy when He expresses his wrath, and He is holy when He expresses His love. He is holy when he allows pain to enter our lives and holy when He allows us to experience times of prosperity. He cannot become less holy and He cannot become more Holy. God is either perfectly Holy or He is not Holy at all. Holiness defines all of God, all the time.
Holiness may define God, but I’m not sure I know how to define what holiness is in a helpful way. I might, however, be able to describe how I react to it. I believe I can describe the emotions I feel when I think about holiness, when I sing about holiness on Sundays or belt out the K-Love tunes in the car when nobody’s listening. And maybe somewhere in my response to God’s holiness, we can catch a glimpse of what it is I’m actually responding to…
My response to God’s holiness is like watching the underdog sports team you love, somehow make it to the pinnacle of competition for their sport and then fall behind without a chance of recovery. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach, the ‘knowing’ that it’s all over, it’s you getting out of your chair to leave the stadium before the game has ended, only to hear an unbelievable roar from the crowd that remains, just as you reach your car. That feeling of elation mixed with disbelief mixed with joy you get when you stumble back into the stadium and witness an impossible comeback victory-- that is what I feel when I’m responding to the holiness of God.
My response to God’s holiness is like watching the life of a child about to end, and feeling completely heart-wrenched about it because you can’t do anything to reach the child as he struggles to hold onto a branch while a raging river tries to tear him free. And then you see someone else come, and they’re a stronger swimmer than you, or they’re better equipped to help than you, or more skilled, and somehow they’re able to save that child you were sure was doomed. That feeling of gratitude, humility, wonder and relief that you have towards that rescuer at that moment— that is what I feel when I’m responding to the holiness of God.
My response to God’s holiness is a lot like the scenario Pastor Bill lays out in one of our prayer seminars. It’s like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, and as you gaze out it’s a looong way down, scary far, and the feeling you have is one of awe. Sometimes this awe hits me like a wave during a sermon as I'm reminded of the glory of God. Other times it catches me off guard as I read a simple Scripture verse that unexpectedly expands my understanding of God so that, like Lucy from the Chronicles of Narnia, my Aslan suddenly seems SO MUCH BIGGER!-- Has He always been this big?
And its you, looking down with a start to realize there’s one end of a rope tied around your ankle and the other end leading off over the edge of that grandly deep canyon. My response to God’s holiness is like the chill of fear that runs down your spine as the slack suddenly goes out of the rope and you feel yourself being tugged, then dragged by someone or something heavy on the other end, closer and closer to the abyss. In desperation, you risk a brief look over the edge in order to catch a glimpse of what crazy man is doing this to you, only to see… no one there! My response to God’s holiness is like the sense of dread that floods into you at that moment when you realize you’re being dragged towards a certain fall by some mysterious, unseen, unknown force... Have you been there? Suddenly confronted with the fearful, raw Truth of who God is and you are not, what God requires and you can't hope to live up to? Have you felt with Isaiah the impossible dread of guilt in the presence of this holiness, knowing you deserve a sea of awfulness for daring to bring your sin into HIS presence?
But then, just as you are drowning in this sea of awe and fear and dread, you’re suddenly overwhelmed by an indescribable beauty and kindness and love that begins emanating out towards you from that unseen force... It is the holiness of God, tempered by His GRACE. You have experienced Isaiah's dread-- have you shared in his relief? "...your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."
All of those startling, fearful, dreadful, beautiful feelings— all of them added to the elation, gratitude, humility, wonder, awe and joyful disbelief— that is what I feel when I am responding to the holiness of God. He is foreign but familiar, fearful— but beautifully so, far away, and yet, within me…! And when you combine the sum of those ingredient responses and mix them, they produce a healthy dish of… worship.
My response to God’s holiness can be worship— being grateful for what He is, though I am not. Delighted that He can, when I cannot. Hope-filled that He will again, when I will not. Awed with what He gives though I give not. Humbled that He cares when I do not. He is greater than and separate from and beyond all of my limitations in every way at all times, and I’m thrilled to worship Him for it! I’m thrilled to worship God for His holiness that qualifies Him to save me, thrilled to worship God for His holiness that is summoned to sustain me, and thrilled to worship God for His holiness that is promised to live through me.
“I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44)
“Holiness, holiness, is what you want from me…”
More than anything, I am encouraged by the promise that the ‘holiness [God] wants from me’ is produced by GOD, in me. HE makes me holy! And I’m thrilled to worship Him for it.