What do we understand by holiness of God?

The Book of Amos is being read this week, and until next Thursday, at Morning Prayer.  It is a work that strikingly portrays the prophet’s knowledge of the affairs of the world in his day.  He was well informed about the current affairs that tore the nations apart, without the advantage of our information media.  That is quite a thought to hold, before we begin to read this book of condensed facts, and exposure of the lifestyle of the affluent and the exploitation of the poor.

Today we reach chapter 4 and an angry dismissal of those who care for no one but themselves, but let us pick out one phrase that is referring directly to the nature of God in these verses (in verse 2): “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness.”  Now, this raises the interesting question as to its underlying meaning.  We describe God as “holy.”  In fact, we do it quite frequently in the liturgy of the Church.  The theologian will dive straight in there with the meaning of ‘holy’ as she/he sees it, i.e. “set apart", “different”, but the dictionary will give us, “dedicated to God or a religious purpose”, “morally and spiritually excellent.”  

One can see immediately how the theologian’s interpretation will fit here, but the Oxford English Dictionary is inadequate.  However, there is more to be said about it than that.  In Amos 4 verse 2, where we read, “The Lord God has sworn by his holiness”, the format of underlining a statement with the declaration that the vow has the added assurance of God’s holiness, cannot be fully understood by thinking of the Lord’s moral and spiritual separation - his height and perfection compared to his people - though that may be the natural interpretation that we could place upon it.  The reason why this thought is inadequate is that we are using the word ‘holy’ as a comparative word, along the lines of, “God is like us, but this is how he is different…..”

So, how do we get around this conundrum, and consider the absolute holiness of God?  Let us lay aside for a moment the working definitions of holiness from both the standard theological definition and the dictionary.  In fact, let us approach the matter from a different angle.  Shall we consider that in this passage the meaning of ‘holiness’ is not comparative, or designating separation, but simply means, “of the nature of God.”  But, the nature of God, we may say, defies definition.  We simply do not have the words to describe God, except in our way of using the language of comparison. But that, surely, is exactly how Isaiah arrived at the point that he did.  Remember that in Isaiah chapter 40 verse 25, we see this very thought being examined, as the prophet speaks the words of God, ‘“To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?”, says the Holy One.”’ 

It is later in Isaiah that the illustrative words appear.  In Isaiah 55 verse 8, we read, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways, my ways, says the Lord.”   

So, what is this saying?  I think that how we should try to truly ponder this striving for understanding is first of all to clear one’s mind of comparative tools, and take to heart the fact that we cannot ultimately ‘know’ the nature of God, all we can do is see that the being of God is constantly creating and transforming, and all around us there are reflections of it.  In the case of Amos, the righteous anger with which the book engages us helps us think deeply on matters of justice and equity, but the prophet also takes us back into the unreachable mystery of one who, “forms the mountains and creates the wind” (Amos 4:13).  

I believe that the most helpful way of thinking of ‘holiness’ in relation to God is to think of the word differently compared with how with use the word holiness in other ways, when the theologian’s definition of “setting apart” and the dictionary description of “morally and spiritually excellent” may be adequate.  When we think of the holiness of God, we are thinking of the very nature of God, so it is reflected in the Book of Amos in one way, but in Isaiah in another, or in yet another way in the person of Christ in the Gospels.  God’s holiness is declared as much by Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well, or broken upon the Cross, as it is through the challenge of how God looks upon how we treat one another in Amos and in many other places.

Let me conclude this over-long blog by steering you to the second reading at Morning Prayer today, that from 1st Corinthians chapter 3.  In this passage, Paul is demonstrating how division worms its way into the Church, but in verse 17 he uses the word ‘holy’ of us, describing us in terms of God’s temple.  Now, on my reasoning above, this indicates, not just that we are set apart and should be morally and spiritual striving for perfection, but more intentionally we are striving for what Christ was and is for us in this life.  We seek to imitate the nature of God as revealed in the person of Jesus.  That encompasses many things, but our intentions are framed in prayer, and our seeking is not for ourselves, but in recognition that to embrace the life of God, means in humility not relying on the wisdom of the world, but on a lifelong devotion to understanding the nature of God; understanding what the holiness of God truly means.  So, every day is a new creation; everyday is another chance to look and listen and ponder, in humility, the living Lord who invites us to walk his way.

John Mann