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The Psychology of the Holy

A dear friend recommended to me a list of psychology/theology themes to focus on---and so, I will!

This first one, the psychology of the holy, is a good case in point to explain the lens I'm taking here.

Growing up, as I weighed my career possibilities, I rationalized that if theological studies were the highest calling, then the study of people would be the second highest. I don't know that I engage in this level of dualism anymore (at least, I hope not!). My favorite Psalm, Psalm 8, lays out a right understanding so perfectly. It's not that one area of study is better than another--it's the subject matter itself that follows a clearly defined order.

God is sovereign and the glory of the Lord is above the heavens (Psalm 8:1). And yet, human beings are made "a little lower than God, and crowned" with "glory and honor" (verse 5).

This is the psychology of the holy. We can study the holiness of God--and the Lord's holiness is above all others. God is in His own category. A.W. Tozer has a fabulous book, The Knowledge of the Holy, which encourages us to meditate on aspects and attributes of God in His holiness.

But God's people are also called to be holy. Let's discard our modern-day misconceptions of us growing wings and playing harps in some ethereal way; rather, this holiness is lived and embodied, both on this side of heaven and after.

Psychology focuses on human thinking, emotions, and behavior. And so our lived-out holiness will encompass all three.

But first, a moment on holiness. I think this is one of those terms--like most!!--that we really don't understand. And, I've noticed drastic differences in how holiness is talked about across denominations.

Most Christians use the definition of holiness as being set apart. describes a Biblical understanding of human holiness quite well in its article, "Is being holy even possible, since God is holy?" ( Here's the opening paragraph:

Holiness is not only a possibility for the Christian; holiness is a requirement. “Without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). The difference between God and us is that He is inherently holy while we, on the other hand, only become holy in relationship to Christ and we only increase in practical holiness as we mature spiritually. The New Testament emphasizes the pursuit of holiness in this world and the final attainment of holiness in the world to come.
To be “holy” means that we are, first of all, “set apart for honorable use.

And yet, I wonder whether modern Protestants trivialize this idea of being "set apart." When we say that phrase, what do we picture? What do we think it means?

As Tozer reminds us in his book, we perhaps have lost the idea of holiness altogether. Ours is a casual society, an informal one--and these tendencies increase with each passing generation.

I, like others of my generation, like being relaxed. We enjoy being...well...chill.

Yet we are called to be holy. What does that actually mean? We can see what it looks like for God to be set apart--God is wholly Other, beyond full comprehension and understanding, full of infinite goodness and righteousness and love.

What about us?

I like to go back to the old writings of the faith, to try to discern what once was said. But let's go waaaaay back, to the Old Testament.

The Life, Hope, and Truth site says,

The root of the Hebrew words translated “holy” and “holiness” is qadas. “The verb means ‘to be consecrated,’ ‘to be dedicated,’ ‘to be holy.’ Anything that is ‘holy’ is set apart. It is removed from the realm of the common and moved to the sphere of the sacred” (Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, 1991, “Holy/Holiness”).

The Blue Letter Bible's outline of Biblical usage for this word is in complete agreement with the above. Some additional phrases in this outline include: to be hallowed, to keep sacred, devote, to keep oneself apart or separate, to consecrate oneself.

This fills out the picture a little more. When I worked at a Catholic college, I enjoyed visiting the various mini garden spaces on our urban campus. Partway through my time there, signs were put up to reflect our Core Values, which included Sacredness of Creation, which "leads us to a respect for each person and for all of creation" ( My Protestant self was at first a little thrown by calling creation "sacred." Doesn't that sound a little pantheistic? But the way that it was being used was absolutely in-keeping with qadas. God made the earth and called it good. It is the Lord's, set apart to be His, as my second-favorite Psalm says: "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world, and those who live in it" (Psalm 24:1).

Even more, we see qadas used in the description of the opening week of creation, regarding the Sabbath:

And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified (qadas) it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made. (Genesis 2:3).

Where else do we see this word in the Old Testament, to help our understanding of the New Testament's teaching that we are to be consecrated, sacred, holy?

Here are some examples:

  • When God gives the law to Moses, He sets the principle of consecrating (qadas) all firstborn children to Him (Exodus 13:1-2). Of the firstborn child, God says he "is mine."

  • When the Israelites arrive at Mount Sinai, God has Moses consecrate (qadas) the people, before the ten commandments are given. This involved them washing their clothes, refraining from sexual activity, and preparing for their encounter with God, which was marked with thunder and lightening on the third day (Exodus 19).

  • Priests and vessels in the tabernacle were hallowed and consecrated (qadas), through sacrifices and the sprinkling of blood.

  • Jumping ahead to the temple, God tells David that He has hallowed the temple: "I have hallowed (qadas) this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually."

  • When King Hezekiah embarked on his great reforms, he restored temple worship. Part of this involved the reorganization of priests and Levites. 2 Chronicles 31:18 tells us that entire families of priests and Levites were consecrated (qadas) to the Lord: "And to the genealogy of all their little ones, their wives, and their sons, and their daughters, through all the congregation: for in their set office they sanctified (qadas) themselves in holiness."

These examples are spiritual, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral. The preparation involved for people to be sanctified and consecrated impacts their thoughts as they consider and think about encountering God or serving before God. It requires them, if they're preparing correctly, to consider God's holiness and their being set apart as holy to serve this holy God.

The ancient Jewish concept of a person didn't divorce thoughts and feelings like we often do today. The whole person was consecrated, and this includes one's emotions. If we take the examples of Hezekiah and Moses, above, an entire community was being consecrated. Consequently, likely emotions would include awe over what they were being called to do and Who they were doing it for, and joy over the possibility of what this new consecration would bring.

Finally, if I'm looking at the examples above and the rest of the tabernacle/temple/prophetic consecration examples in the Old Testament, consecration is first and foremost behavioral. It involves doing specific things. In the Old Testament, the Mosaic law invited and required the Israelites to live differently than did the surrounding nations. This was for their benefit--to provide health and justice to the community. In the New Testament, Christians are quite frankly called to be a "peculiar people," as the King James Bible puts it:

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light (I Peter 2:9).

Peter is drawing upon these priestly descriptions of sanctification. Christians are to be set apart from the world and are called to act differently. Right after Peter says this, he tells believers to live as servants of God. These are behavioral examples of what it means to be set apart:

  • Abstain from sinful desires

  • Live good lives among the pagans

  • Good deeds

  • Submit to human authority

  • Live as free people, but don't use freedom as a cover for sin

  • Live as God's slaves

  • Show respect to others

This list is a little discouraging, since I do not think it at all characterizes Christians, by-and-large today. But this is what it means to be set apart. When the world is saying to follow your heart and do what it wants, Christians are called to not serve either their stomachs or their sexual impulses. Christians are called to be faithful and to engage in good acts of service and deeds and if they are criticized and maligned, to just keep serving. Christians are told to submit to authority, even authority as bad as the Caesars, who Peter specifically mentions in this section. They are to live respectfully with others. Above all, they are to submit to God and to live not just as God's servant, but as a slave of the Lord. Your life is not your own.

I bought a fabulous book (Work and Worship: Reconnecting our Labor and Liturgy) at a worship conference, and the authors Matthew Kaemingk and Cory B. Willson also talk about an embodied, physical holiness when it comes to connecting work and worship:

The people were commanded, "Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). Wright [Christopher Wright, in Old Testament Ethics] asserts that this holiness command is not theoretical but rather "thoroughly practical." This earthly, gritty holiness of God "includes generosity to the poor at harvest time, justice for workers, integrity in judicial processes, considerate behavior to other people (especially the disabled), equality before the law for immigrants, honest trading...A favourite metaphor used in the Old Testament to describe this feature of Israel's ethics is that of walking in the way of the Lord."

Wright (and Kaemingk and Willson) are totally right! We see the sanctification and consecration behaviors for the tabernacle and somehow miss that there are practical rules and guidelines interspersed with all the more "spiritual" stuff. Right after God tells the people to be holy because God is holy, the first descriptions of what it entails to be holy sound "spiritual," like honoring parents and not being idolatrous. Then it seamlessly enters into having good business practices and not capturing the full profit for everything, but leaving some behind (specifically, grain, in this agrarian society) for charity. The reminder to not sear falsely is followed immediately by being told to not defraud anyone.

Our sacred/secular divisions, even as they pertain to our view of what holiness even is, is incorrect Biblically. All of life was to be lived as sacred and consecrated to the Lord, inside a worship service and outside of it. How much more so under the new covenant under Christ! We'll have to explore that more at a future point...

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