The blessings—and danger—of divine proximity.
(In the October issue of Christianity Today, posted online 10/17/2011)
Last summer, we hired a man with a power washer to clean our deck. As he blasted the dirt that had defied our feeble garden hose, I found myself wishing all the muck in my life could be dealt with so efficiently. Sticky kitchen floor? Messy relationships? Unleash the water pressure!
But not so fast. Two weeks earlier, a neighbor's teenager, Matt, was cleaning the driveway with a rented power washer when he felt an ant crawling on his calf. Instinctively, he turned the nozzle toward his leg, obliterating the insect—and, unfortunately, some layers of muscle and tissue. Matt's injury is not uncommon; an online search produces innumerable accounts of gruesome wounds and even fatalities related to the use of pressure washers.
So I decided to give my handyman and his potentially flesh-stripping machine a wide berth. I had to do some reading for a biblical studies course, so I sat by my kitchen window and kept one eye on my yard and the other on the Pentateuch.
I was making my way through Exodus, feeling a little jealous of my spiritual ancestors. It seemed they never had to wonder if God was there. They had only to follow pillars of cloud and fire, gathering up the manna served fresh daily from God's kitchen. At Sinai, Yahweh made his presence even harder to miss, clearing his throat with thunder, lightning, trumpet blasts, trembling mountains, and billowing smoke.
I wondered why the present-day actions of the immutable God sometimes seem so muted in contrast to the God of Moses. I wouldn't mind a pillar of cloud or fire when I need direction, or some manna on my front lawn when I pray for provision.
But 10 chapters into Leviticus, I sobered up to the dangerous side of God's proximity to the Israelites. They had just set up the tabernacle, and two of Moses' nephews had been recruited for the priesthood. When they failed to follow protocol and offered "unauthorized fire" at the altar, "fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord" (Lev. 10:1-2).
This seems a little harsh. Two guys make one mistake their first day on the job, and they get "fired." But other similar incidents had the same tragic result: Achan's stashed plunder (Josh. 7), Uzzah's casualness with the ark (2 Sam. 6), Ananias and Sapphira lying about their offering (Acts 5). In each case, God was inaugurating a new era in salvation history, and in each case, his holiness was underestimated with dreadful consequences.
These episodes remind me of a strategy employed by one of my schoolteacher friends. On day one, he sends the first unruly student into the hallway, knowing that an early show of authority makes the rest of the year go smoothly. It is tempting to think of the disturbing accounts of God's judgment as cases of extreme classroom management.
But as I struggle to reconcile Yahweh's apparent "zero tolerance" policy in these stories with the inexhaustible mercy we see in Jesus, I wonder if both the wonderful and awful aspects of God's power experienced at close range aren't more like the blasts of a pressure washer than the techniques of an irate teacher. God's holiness is the very thing we need to get wholly clean. But, unmitigated, it's too much for us. We can't survive it.
Maybe Yahweh's holiness (and its sometimes fiery consequences) became more visible at turning points in salvation history less because God wanted to set a stern example, and more because at those moments he'd drawn particularly near to his people in all his power. As envious as I might be of God's visibility to the Israelites, they clearly sensed the danger inherent in his proximity. In Exodus, they ask Moses to speak to God on their behalf, so they can stay at a safe distance.
When I grasp that God's holiness is necessary for my cleansing but is also, by its nature, a vaporizing force, two things come into clearer focus. First, I begin to perceive God's judgment as no more malevolent than the blast of water from a pressure washer. It is simply God's holiness doing what God's holiness does. Second, this reality points to one reason we need a mediator. Jesus is the only human who could vicariously absorb (and ultimately survive) the cleansing we so desperately need. Because of him, we are washed not by a force so intense it annihilates us, but rather by the blood of the Lamb.
Just like I wish I could turn the power washer on all the messes of my life (without the resulting carnage), I still find myself longing for more visible manifestations of God's nearness and power. But in the final analysis, I am grateful that the God who once resided in a cloud on the mountain now lives in us, baptizing us not with an obliterating flood, but with his Spirit.