By Debbie Gin
I remember trying to grasp the fullness of God’s holiness when I was an MDiv student. I had grown up in the Holiness tradition, where personal piety and righteous living were highly valued. Being a pastor’s kid, no less, I wasn’t allowed to smoke, drink, do drugs, use “cuss” words (though, elementary-school-aged, I knew plenty — even wrote one on the wall of our apartment once because my sister made me SO MAD!). Those symbols of personal piety were the “normal” ones. As Nazarenes, however, we were also not allowed to dance or watch movies. (We, as a family, had to sneak into a showing of the original Star Wars, a year after it came on the scene, so that no one in our church would see us.)
In seminary, we studied the book of Hosea, which is usually seen as a book of love — God’s and Hosea’s sacrificial, unconditional love. But it was in this book that I caught a glimpse of God’s holiness. In Hosea 11, we’re told of an Israel that does not acknowledge God’s compassionate and healing hand (as a parent). Verse 7 (the Message version) describes God’s report, “My people are hell-bent on leaving me. They pray to god Baal for help. He doesn’t lift a finger to help them. But how can I give up on you, Ephraim? How can I turn you loose, Israel? How can I leave you to be ruined like Admah, devastated like luckless Zeboim? I can’t bear to even think such thoughts. My insides churn in protest.”
Then here’s the clincher: “And so, I’m not going to act on my anger. I’m not going to destroy Ephraim. And why? Because I am God and not a human. I’m the Holy One and I’m here – in your very midst.”
I have two reflections on this. First, God is holy means God is not human, and in the book of Hosea, we see that God’s holiness is linked to not acting on anger, to not destroying. Second, I’m floored that this understanding of God’s holiness is couched in a book of love! In this season of Advent, I’m drawn to think of God’s holiness as embodied in the Christ-child. Yes, Christ came in a context that is humble, lowly, seemingly inglorious. But, this Advent, I’ve been reflecting on God’s holiness, that God’s coming to us as a child was intentionally not acting on anger, not opting for destruction. The Christ-child, while humble and lowly, also embodies these aspects of God’s holiness, God’s love.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, address many theological educators and scholars gathered at this year’s annual meeting of the AAR/SBL. If you’re familiar with his work and ministry, you will know that he has been calling for a moral awakening among Democrats and Republicans alike. A revolution of love. At that gathering, he called us to walk above the “snake line.” According to his scientist son, this is the line all biologists know to walk above when traversing hilly terrain. It’s the line above which snakes cannot survive. Rev. Dr. Barber was calling us to walk higher up the mountain, above the line of fear, anxiety, and hatred. He was calling us to holiness. He was calling us to revolutionary love.
I have been wrought with anxiousness and fear this past year, particularly with the violence against Black lives and race-based fear-mongering in the presidential election season. I was angry with the results and ashamed by how un-Evangelical many Evangelicals voted. But the way I now want to face this anger and fear is with holiness. With walking above the snake line. I pray God graces all of us with the courage to do the same.
Dr. Debbie Gin is Director of Faculty Development and Research at The Association of Theological Schools/Commission on Accrediting, the support and accrediting organization of most seminaries in the US and Canada. She was formerly Associate Professor of Ministry at Azusa Pacific Seminary and Fellow for Faculty Development and Evaluation in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Azusa Pacific University. She and her husband currently live in Pennsylvania.