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3 Reasons God’s Holiness Terrifies Us

C.S. Lewis once noted that many people talk about “meeting God” as if it would be a warm, cozy experience. “They need to think again,” he says. I’ve recently been reading through scenes in Scripture that depict people meeting God. And Lewis is right: It’s never an experience that creates warm fuzzies. More often than not, it’s a scene of abject terror.

Isaiah illustrates this well. When Isaiah saw God in his holiness, Scripture says,

“And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:4–5)

Isaiah, God’s prophet, catches a glimpse of God in his perfection. But his response isn’t, “How cool!” Rather, it’s “I’m lost!” That’s what seeing God’s holiness does. It terrifies us. The seraphim—whose name literally means “blazing ones” because they are too brilliant to look at—are here covering their faces before God. And the pillars of the temple—God’s holy house—are shaking. They aren’t even people, and they’re quaking in fear.

Why is God’s holiness terrifying? I see three reasons.

1. Just to be in the presence of greatness is terrifying.

When I was a teenager, Michael Jordan was my hero. Like every other kid in North Carolina, I had a poster of him in my room. I imitated (poorly) his trademark shots. So when he came to a nearby golf tournament, I went to see if I could just brush shoulders with him. My friends and I wandered around all day … with no luck. But as the event was shutting down, I saw his purple Porsche round the corner. And in a strange confluence of events, he rolled his window down at the same time my buddy pushed me forward into the now-opened window. For a brief moment, I was inches away from MJ’s face, until he calmly said, “Get outta my car.”

It’s an odd scene, but that typifies what it’s like to be in the presence of human greatness. It was a mixture of fascination and fright. I was—at the same time—attracted to him and afraid to approach him. And that experience is, in an astronomically small measure, what it’s like to approach the greatness of God.

I know that the idea of a frightening God is out of fashion today. It seems backward and un-modern. But in the presence of human greatness, we feel a measure of intimidation and fear. How much more would we feel that in the presence of divine greatness?

2. God’s holiness is terrifying because it reveals our goodness to not be good.

I love the KJV translation of Isaiah’s statement. “Woe is me! For I am undone.” That’s a vivid depiction of what Isaiah was feeling. The “glue” that had held his life together—his sense of goodness—was being torn apart when faced with pure, absolute goodness.

That’s always what it feels like when God’s presence begins to enter your life. It’s disorienting to the point of feeling like a disaster. As Rosaria Butterfield aptly puts it, conversion is like a train wreck. It jumbles you up and leaves you feeling undone before it ever starts putting you back together.

In fact, one of the surest signs that you’ve never met God is that you feel pretty good about yourself. We’re creatures of comparison, so we tend to console ourselves by comparing our moral worth to others. “I’m not as bad as …” But when you see true holiness, all that falls apart. When we see goodness for what it is, we feel without being told that our goodness is, as Isaiah would say, “filthy rags.”

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J.D. Greear, Ph.D., is the President of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastors the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, NC. Tagged by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest growing churches in America, the Summit has grown in the past 8 years from 400 to over 5,000 each weekend. The Summit Church is deeply involved in global church planting, having undertaken the mission to plant 1000 churches in the next 40 years. J.D. has authored Breaking the Islam Code and the upcoming Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary.