How many people would describe God as a “cosmic kill joy”, the purveyor of “hellfire and brimstone”, and the Angry One who is “too judgmental”? Why have Christians sometimes taught that the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament is not the same God as the loving, forgiving One of the New Testament? How many of my patients, especially those from Catholic traditions, endure a guilty, joyless relationship with their Creator? Why does it seem that no one is ever good enough to please Him?
The God described in the Bible possesses non-moral attributes such as His power, His knowledge, and His eternal existence. He also possesses moral attributes such as holiness and moral perfection. Ultimately God is the Holy Other, absolutely unlike anything else in the universe (Isaiah 46:9, Jeremiah 10:6). The angels in Isaiah 6:3 proclaimed “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts. The whole earth is full of His glory.” The Hebrew word “holy” (קדוש qadowsh) describes something completely set apart from anything else, and the use of the word three times provides the greatest possible emphasis. The term also connotes absolute moral purity and freedom from defilement. There is not the slightest hint of wickedness, or even selfishness, in God.
Man, by contrast, is a pitiful moral creature, even the best of us. Despite the fact that we think we are OK, most people only believe that with reference to other people they know. It is easy to convince ourselves that “I may not be perfect, but I’m good enough, and surely better than (Bob, Sally, Enrique, Maria, or whoever). Thus we have a relative scale on which we weigh moral issues; if we have a few more good things than bad things, we are OK. As good as that opinion may sound, it fails to provide any assurance of eternity, since it is just as easy to find someone morally better as it is to find someone morally worse. We also compare ourselves to ourselves and begin to feel guilty about failing to live even what we say we believe. Mankind cannot even reach his own standard of moral behavior. Have any of us ever met a sane man who claimed to be morally perfect, flawless in everything he did and never failing to meet his own ethical expectations, in actions, words and thoughts? No wonder Paul wrote “the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish (Romans 7:19).”
We therefore have a conundrum; God’s moral standard as given in the Bible is absolute purity, unmitigated perfection. Man’s moral standard is relative; as long as you do some things that seem good, and aren’t a serial killer, child molester, or some other hated offense in the early 21st century (each period of time has its own set of worst sins), you are OK. This might be tolerable if God and man could somehow coexist independently of one another, but God is the root of all being. Man, and indeed all of creation, can only exist if God sustains his existence every moment. The Creator is the source of life and breath, providing the very essence of spirit which animates our mortal bodies (Genesis 2:7). Furthermore, the High and Glorious One is the source of love (1 John 4:7-8), beauty (Psalm 19:1, 27:4, Ecclesiastes 3:11), power (Matthew 19:26), other people, and all of creation; everything that makes life worth living (Colossians 1:15-18). God can live without man, He didn’t have to create us, but man cannot live without God.
This separation of God from man is not the way it was intended to be. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked in sweet communion with God because they were morally perfect. After they rebelled and sin therefore entered the world, the terrible chasm appeared.
Mankind cannot live with God because of our sin, but also cannot live without Him, so what is the answer? This problem was poignantly displayed when the children of Israel stood at the foot of the mountain where God manifested His glory (Exodus 20:18-20). The people were terrified by the presence of God and so they asked a mediator, Moses, to stand between them and God. Kings and prophets served as mediators between the Israelites and the Lord throughout the Old Testament, but since they were mere men, possessing the same sinful nature that everyone else had, they could not serve as the final mediator. Only when Jesus, fully man, fully God and wholly without sin, stepped into history, was there a mediator who could truly bridge the gap between God the Father and His creation (Hebrew 5:1-10). Jesus’ moral perfection allowed Him perfect communion with God, and His willing sacrifice to pay the penalty for the sins of men allowed those who believe in Him and are indwelt by His Spirit to enjoy the same perfect communion with God.
The Bible describes the moral imperfection that I have been talking about as sin (ἁμαρτία hamartia – to miss the mark, to violate God’s law). Each of us has sins that we enjoy, perhaps viewing pornography or gossiping about others, and sins that we think are genuinely bad, perhaps murder or cruelty. We generally eschew the sins that we don’t struggle with and don’t enjoy. You could say that in the garden of our lives, we all leave a little place for our favorite weeds. What we don’t realize, or don’t wish to admit, is that every sin ultimately leads to separation from God (Romans 6:23). Furthermore, every sin ultimately destroys us. Sin is its own penalty, and righteousness is its own reward. To return to our garden analogy, the weeds take over the garden, no matter how much effort we have put into it.
How many times have I seen this in my own medical and ministerial experience? More than one young woman, having believed the lie that sex could be casual, has come to me for help with sexually transmitted diseases and cervical cancer. More than one man, addicted to the supposedly harmless pleasures of pornography, has sought assistance with impotence and divorce. Countless men and women, refusing to forgive others for past slights, have presented with depression and anger that is ruining their lives. How much of medicine and ministry is spent picking up the pieces of the lives of people whose actions, words and thoughts have hurt themselves? No one is exempt. We all sin, and we are all harmed by our actions, words and thoughts. There are large physiological and other natural factors in medicine and they must be appropriately addressed. But the spiritual factors, and the effects of sin, cannot be denied, much as the materialists among us wish they could.
If this is the nature of sin, and since the God who created us truly loves us, is there any wonder that He wants to eliminate all of the sin in our lives? God cannot “live and let live” because we cannot live without Him. He has provided a way for all mankind to have their sins forgiven, and daily He works in the lives of those who allow Him to root out sin, little by little, and make these people in His perfect moral image (Philippians 2:12-14). Only in this way can we have life, and have it abundantly, both now and for eternity (John 10:10).
We now return to our question, “Why is God so demanding?” God seems demanding to us because we like sin so much, and He is unwilling, for our own sakes, to allow us to persist in our sins. He has given us a whole world of wonderful, beautiful, fun and exciting things to do that please Him, and yet we want to do things that displease Him, and destroy ourselves. God is holy, that cannot change. He also loves us, that will not change. We are sinful, that can change. And that must change if we are to have life, now and for eternity.