“Humans explaining the nature of God is like an ant trying to explain who dropped the sugar.” Trish O’Connor
When Isaiah saw the angels around the throne of God (Isaiah 6:3), they were not crying, “Love, love, love.” Yet when John identifies God in his first letter, he says nothing about God being holy. Some have misconstrued this dichotomy to suggest that the God of the Old Testament was a meany who wanted to kill anyone who got out of line, and the God of the New Testament is a nice guy who just wants everyone to go to Heaven.
But God is a Unity. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 is clear: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The New Testament reaffirms this Unity both in the author of Hebrews description of Jesus, “the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8) and by His half-brother, James, describing God: “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows“ (James 1:17).
Do a simple word search on love or forgiveness in the Old Testament and you will find many references to God’s great love, for example Numbers 14:18-19: ” ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love.” Then John, one of Jesus’ closest friends and disciples said, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Yet when you get to John the Beloved’s apocalyptic Revelation, the angels are still there, crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Revelation 4:8).
How many people would want to see a merciless murderer like Adolph Hitler or Charles Manson getting a welcome and a mansion in Heaven along side of Mother Theresa or Billy Graham? Something inside us cries out for justice, the human expression of God’s holiness. Rarely do you find an opponent to the death penalty among a victim’s surviving family. However, what kind of loving God would we serve if He meted out justice even to the penitent? Again, our human instinct for mercy, one of our expressions of God’s love, is repelled by punishment of one who is truly sorry for his actions that have caused others pain.
Moses declaration in Numbers sums it up very well: “steadfast love, forgiving . . . but by no means clear[ing] the guilty.” Humans cannot seem to have it both ways. We must either be loving and forgiving, or we demand holiness and justice. Fortunately, we are not God. As the Creator of all, holiness and justice line up with the way the universe is supposed to be. And as the Creator of all life, His holiness is reflected in His love, which is able to forgive when things do not line up as they are supposed to be.
That forgiveness is not unconditional, however. It is based on sincere repentance that results in a changed life, realigning itself with the holiness of God. But even our efforts at repentance often fall short of what we are supposed to be (Romans 3:23), yet God is merciful as long as the direction of our life is towards Him and not continuing or indulging in our sin (1 John 1:5-10).
If you wish to understand the holiness and love of God, you have no further to look than the Cross on which Jesus died. His death was not some kind of victory by the devil, as though that liar was owed any debt, and won his dues by killing Jesus. Rather Jesus’ death was to pay for the offense against God’s holiness. It was The God Who Is There who was separated from us by our sin, and His holiness demanded justice, but His love allowed Him to take the punishment we . . . I . . . deserved. So before one gets the notion that God is somehow a softy on sin in the New Testament, look at what He did to His own Son! (Isaiah 63:14)
The reason for the confusion over some of God’s actions in the Old Testament is the result of cultural and societal differences in modern times from the practices in ancient times, including not understanding God’s purposes for His revelation of Himself through a chosen people (Deuteronomy 7:7-10). The most important issue in understanding the God of the Bible is to come to Him in faith (see April 19, 2015 and July 17, 2016), trusting that He is both holy and loving, and searching the Scriptures to understand why He acted as He did in circumstances far removed from our modern “sensibilities.”
Holiness is not natural to man, nor is loving in God’s sense of it. Holiness can only be imputed to humans when we are touched by the divine Presence and experience His holiness being lived through us. In the same way, loving with God’s love is not possible for us alone, but only as we come into communion with Him, so that He can love others through us. At best we will botch both up at times, but as we continue to walk with Him and allow the Holy Spirit to change us, we will begin to experience how to love as He loves, and to be holy as He is holy.