by Matthew Raley
Americans, pragmatic as they are about everything, tend to evaluate God the same way they evaluate their congressman: What have you done for me lately?
There shouldn’t be any question on God’s part about whether to keep our blessings coming: the financial windfall, the narrow escape from an accident, robust health, and above all, fun. He knows we’re not perfect. He knows we try — at least when we feel like it. And he ought to know that, despite our limitations, we’re doing a pretty darn good job with life.
So, when we put a prayer in the heavenly slot, we have a right to hear some clicking, a whir, and a final clop as the item we requested appears. Fair is fair.
The biblical word holy intrudes on this fantasy.
When Isaiah sees God enthroned in the temple (Isaiah 6), some of the more threatening aspects of the vision are the seraphim. These creatures have six wings apiece: two pairs to pay deference to the Lord by covering face and feet, and one pair to fly. The verb stem of fly is intensive, meaning not merely that they hover, but that they dart around the high throne.
All the while, they call warnings to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” These calls are loud and deep enough to shake the foundations of the temple.
The root idea of holy is separate, or unmixed. To say that God is holy is to call him Other.
But that is not all the seraphim are saying. The Hebrew language is built on repetition; to repeat a word is to compound its force. “Holy, holy” would be the maximum imaginable Otherness. The seraphim are calling, “Holy, holy, holy”: the Otherness beyond your ability to imagine.
No wonder Isaiah says, “I’m dead!” He and his people are unclean — that is, mixed and corrupt, unable to survive the presence of utter holiness.
America pragmatism doesn’t work well. We resent that the cosmic vending machine won’t deliver on demand, and that heaven is silent when we pound it. If Isaiah’s vision is true, then we are operating on a theory of God that is disastrously wrong.
Pragmatists have no category for holiness. This omission means that we not only can’t understand God’s judgment but, even worse, we can’t understand his grace. The Lord says the same thing to us that he said to Isaiah: “I will make you clean.”
God’s holiness means that every single blessing we receive has crossed the infinite chasm between us and the purity of his being. It means that his extension of cleansing to us is life itself.