“…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise”
– J.R.R. Tolkein
More times than I can count I have flipped through my Bible and landed on the words of Paul in Romans 7, and in those moments was filled with a sense of empathy. “I do not understand my own actions,” Paul writes, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out…Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:15,18,24)
There has been a lot of ink spilled over these words trying to explain what Paul is expressing. Paul is giving us a glimpse of an internal struggle. Faced with the holy, righteous, and good commands of God’s law, he cannot help but see how little his life measures up. In the face of perfection, Paul sees his own imperfection and is undone by it.
Jerry Bridges uses an illustration to help us understand Paul’s angst in Romans 7:
The top line represents the Christian’s growth in his knowledge of the holiness of God. The lower line represents his growth in his own personal holiness. Even when there is genuine growth in our personal obedience, “the truth is,” Bridges writes, “the more we see of the holiness of God and His law revealed to us in the Scripture, the more we recognize how far short we fall. As we grow in the knowledge of God’s holiness, even though we are also growing in the practice of holiness it seems the gap between our knowledge and our practice always gets wider” (The Pursuit of Holiness).
What do we mean when we say the “holiness” of God? When we say God is holy we are not primarily saying that he is simply morally pure. The word holy means “otherness,” separateness, transcendence. For God to be holy means that he is “totally other,” outside the normal order, and when we truly encounter that holiness, human beings paradoxically react with dread and delight. Theologian Rudolph Otto described it this way:
We are dealing with something for which there is only one appropriate expression, ‘mysterium tremendum‘ [awful mystery]. The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its ‘profane,’ non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. It has its wild and demonic forms and can sink to an almost gristly horror and shuddering. It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.
Over the last several months we have been looking at John Owen’s classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Last week we looked at a number of directions Owen gives to his readers to aid us in our slaying of sin. This week we look at another crucial direction, and it has to do with this “mysterium tremendum.” If we are to grow in personal holiness, we need to be captivated by the holiness of God Himself.
Direction #10: Meditate on the greatness of God
One of the reasons why sin thrives in us is because as human beings we tend to become myopic in our vision. We were meant to live our lives captivated by the glory and majesty of God, offering God praise and gratitude for who He is and what He does, but separated from that vision, we make our life about trivial pursuits and petty dreams. As such, we rush headlong into sin, not just by doing “bad things,” but by making good things into ultimate things (to borrow the language of Tim Keller).
What shatters this myopic vision is a constant and deliberate meditation on the greatness of God. Owen writes, “Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and your infinite, inconceivable distance from Him.”
Think of how men of faith in the past reacted to a vision of God’s majesty and holiness. God descended on Mount Sinai with claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, wrapping the mountain in raging fire and dark smoke and the deafening sound of a trumpet blast (Exodus 19:16-20). As the people heard God speak, they begged Moses to speak on behalf of God, because they were afraid if they heard His majestic voice anymore, they would die (Exodus 20:19). God appeared to Job in a whirlwind and Job’s only reaction was to despise himself and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6). The prophet Habakkuk heard of God’s majesty and said, “my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me” (Habakkuk 3:16).
By meditating on the holiness and majesty of God, Owen says we put our hearts into a frame where we are wowed by the contrast between God and ourselves: our creatureliness, His infinitude; our vileness, His perfection; our pride, His rightful claim to glory.
Moreover, we not only should meditate on what we know of His majestic nature, we should also meditate on how little we really know Him. “Labor with this also to take down the pride of your heart,” Owen writes, “What do you know of God? How little a portion is it! How immense is he in his nature! Can you look without terror into the abyss of eternity? You cannot bear the rays of his glorious being.”
Owen carefully unpacks this idea in his book because he does not want to be misunderstood. There is a sense in which we who have the gospel of Jesus Christ have access to a clearer and fuller revelation of who God is than even Moses had (Hebrews 1:2). But even we who now “behold the glory of the Lord” in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6), are still only seeing Him “in a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). God does give us true knowledge of Himself, sufficient knowledge for us to trust and obey Him in a fallen world full of trials and temptations. But our knowledge pales in comparison to what we will know when Christ returns in glory.
Even when Moses asked to see the glory of God, God only permitted him to see “the back parts” of His glory (Exodus 33:23). John Calvin explained it this way: God accommodates Himself to our finite minds by “lisping,” using “baby talk.” He speaks through the mouths and pens of prophets, communicating in human language. Human language can and does convey truth, but it is limited in its ability capture the essence of who God is. No finite language fully describes an infinite subject.
One day we will see God face to face and we will see God as He is (1 Corinthian 13:12). “We may suppose that we have attained great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God,” writes Owen, “but, alas! when he shall bring us into his presence we shall cry out, ‘We never knew him as he is; the thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered into our hearts.’”
The beloved apostle reminds us that one day we will see God as He really is in all His holy majesty, and the very sight of Him will transform us completely: “When he appears we shall be like him.” So the same is true in this life: the more we make the vision of him our hope, anticipation, and meditation, the spell of sin in us will be broken. “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3). Owen writes,
[W]ill not a due apprehension of this inconceivable greatness of God, and that infinite distance wherein we stand from him, fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatsoever?
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Have you ever thought about the limits of human language to fully describe the infinite God?
2. What passages of Scripture are the most helpful for you when thinking about God’s holiness?
3. Can you think of a practical way to meditate daily on the holy majesty of God? What would help you to do this effectively and habitually?
. . . .
Read all the posts in this series:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15