The prevailing piety of much of today’s evangelicalism says that one knows one is meeting God when one “feels” His presence. Now, leaving to one side the highly problematic assumption that feelings are the principal mode by which God communicates His presence, it is worth noting the curious fact that the feeling expected is always wholly positive and eagerly to be desired.
But when people met God in Scripture, the experience often was not at first a happy one. When Jacob saw his vision at Bethel, he was not filled with ecstasy. He “was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ ” (Gen. 28:17). When Moses saw the Lord in the burning bush, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:6). When Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple, “high and lifted up,” he was sure he had met his end. “Woe is me! For I am lost,” he declared (Isa. 6:1, 5). When Jesus directed every fish in the Sea of Galilee into Simon Peter’s nets, Peter fell down and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). When John saw the exalted Christ “like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest,” he “fell at his feet as though dead” (Rev. 1:13, 17). What is it about God, even God as He comes to us in Christ, that is so overwhelming, so defeating, so terrifying?
It’s the dawning awareness that God is God and we are not. It is the realization that He is Other. This is what the Bible means when it describes God as holy. It’s not first a moral category so much as it is a summary of all the other attributes of God. It is a way to insist that God isn’t like us. The word holy in Scripture simply means “separate,” and this is true of God in His moral purity and in every other way in which He has made Himself known to us. The sudden, overwhelming sense of creatureliness and sinfulness is the consistent experience of those who are brought into the divine presence.
Of course, God no longer reveals Himself to us directly. Instead, He is known today in His holy Word. But this needn’t lead to arid intellectualism. In fact, it should help us feel more keenly than our fathers ever could the awesome reality of the holiness of God. After all, we now possess a much fuller revelation of divine holiness than Abraham or Moses or Isaiah had. Surely our quest for warm, happy spiritual experiences and our general lack of trembling before God in His holiness are a revealing index of our neglect of the Word of God. Perhaps the greatest need of the church today is to recover again the scriptural teaching of the doctrine of the holiness of God. Nothing will buckle our knees or make us cling to Christ like the biblical presentation of the holiness of God. Only in Christ can the creature commune in confidence with the Creator and the sinner revel in, rather than recoil from, the presence of the holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty. For in Christ, the God-man, Creator and creature are joined and sinners are made saints.