How do you picture God? When you first think of God, what characteristics come to mind? As Christians, we know that God is multidimensional. God can not be placed in a box or defined in just one or two words. God is both loving and just, the one who forgives sins while at the same time the one who holds humanity accountable for sins committed. It is not easy to be all things at all times, yet God somehow does it with ease and precision. But while God is able to hold both polls in tension, as believers are we able to do the same? Are we able to think of God both loving companion and one whose power should be feared at the same time?
The more popular notion today is of a God who is loving and caring. We picture God as our best friend who longs to be with us. We thankfully have discovered grace and have learned to appreciate God’s forgiveness and mercy. We gravitate to passages in scripture of Jesus accepting sinners while confronting the hypocrisy of the religious elite. However, could it be that in embracing God’s love and mercy to such an extreme that we struggle with God’s holiness and demand for purity.
For instance, consider this passages from Leviticus.
Tell them, From now on, if any of your descendants approaches in a state of ritual uncleanness the holy offerings that the Israelites consecrate to God, he will be cut off from my presence. I am God. Each and every one of Aaron’s descendants who has an infectious skin disease or a discharge may not eat any of the holy offerings until he is clean. Also, if he touches anything defiled by a corpse, or has an emission of semen, or is contaminated by touching a crawling creature, or touches a person who is contaminated for whatever reason—a person who touches any such thing will be ritually unclean until evening and may not eat any of the holy offerings unless he has washed well with water. – Leviticus 22:3-6 (The Message)
Obviously, it’s not always easy to take passages outside of context and try to make sense of them, however, we must admit that this passage raises some questions. The passage is directed toward the priests and Levites who eat from the sacred offerings, but still that doesn’t take away the shock of the passage. If you are unclean, says God, and try to come into my presence I will cut you off. If you have a disease, or have been around a dead body, or even if you have had marital relations with your spouse, you are unclean and not allowed to come and eat of the holy offerings. For a God who is identified as loving and gracious, these seem like harsh demands. Realistically, we are all unclean, we have all sinned. If we are unclean, is God then threatening to remove us from God’s presence? Are we in danger of being cast off until we can make ourselves clean?
These commands from Leviticus, as well as others, are a reminder of God’s holiness. God is a holy God who hates sin and what it has destroyed. God is a just God who can not just allow sin to go unchecked and unpunished. God’s justice demands that sin be atoned for. God’s holiness demands that the clean can not mix with the unclean. God will not allow humanity to view sin casually as “really no big deal.” The people of Israel were not allowed to approach God with no thought of their own sinfulness or brokenness. To come into the presence of God was, and is, a special blessing. It should not be taken lightly.
For those of us who picture God more often as loving friend than anything else, it is hard to hear passages that speak of God’s desire for perfection or purity. We often avoid passages of God’s judgement because they don’t sound as nice on bumper stickers or Instagram photos. But there is an aspect of God’s character that demands obedience and purity. We are called to be holy as God is holy, and perfect as God is perfect. When we focus solely on God’s grace and forgiveness we are in danger of accepting an attitude that views sin ideally as something to be avoided, but in reality not a major problem. God is loving and forgiving, but God also demands allegiance and holiness. Somehow these two aspects of God must be kept in tension, encouraging us to live holy lives while forgiving us when we inevitably fall short.