Your preferred adjective when thinking about God is the single most important word in your theological vocabulary; and you have a theological vocabulary whether you know it or not. This adjective will either lead you to new heights of understanding God or it will lead you away from Him. This is an instance where grammar is an insanely important personal matter. Every English teacher you’ve ever had now feels vindicated.
I first encountered this idea in Christian Theology by Millard J. Erickson. Erickson believed that each theologian “must decide on a particular theme which, for him, is the most significant and helpful in approaching theology as a whole” (p. 77). This “central motif,” as Erickson called it, unifies our thinking about God and is determinative in our reading and comprehension of the bible itself. As such, great care must be exercised in selecting this motif (or adjective as I’ve called it). A bad adjective will result in a distorted theology.
In my high school and college years, I labored under the burden of a bad adjective. My preferred adjective when thinking about God was “stern,” though I would have never admitted it at the time. This distorted my understanding of God in ways that kept me from ever feeling very certain of my salvation. I was constantly worrying if I had done the “right” thing the “right” way in order for me to be accepted by a stern God who was tight-fisted with salvation and anxious to disqualify me. God essentially became a list-checking tyrant in heaven who only reluctantly and in Scrooge-like fashion granted salvation to seekers. When it came to choosing my adjective for God, I had chosen poorly.
The first cousin to “stern” as an adjective for God is “angry.” I’ve known my share of people whose theology was distorted by thinking of God primarily as “angry.” This thinking produces different outcomes in different people, but the general result is a vision of a God who is mean-spirited, vindictive, irrational, selfish, and unloving. And such a vision of God produces people who are the same way.
Of course, some people react to “angry” as an adjective for God by replacing it with its opposite: loving. And, strange as it may sound, I’ve known my share of people whose theology was distorted by thinking of God primarily as loving. Thinking of Him as loving above all else can result in a vision of God whose very existence is for the purpose of serving our needs, overlooking our sin, and fulfilling our every desire. In other words, it can make US the object of God’s worship!
I hope that you’ve noticed something about each of the adjectives I’ve selected; each and every one of them can be supported and substantiated by scripture. It doesn’t take much effort at all to find “life verses” that support each of the adjectives of God I have given. That’s why Erickson warned that our thinking about God should be informed by “the broadest possible range of biblical materials rather than upon selected passages” (p. 78). So the trick with this whole deal is finding an adjective that ties all of the many “God adjectives” in the bible together. Personally I think that there is only one that can fit the bill.
Both testaments give us a glimpse of the proceedings in eternity and show us that the dominant adjective ascribed to God is “holy.” He is the thrice-holy God of Isaiah 6 and the thrice-holy God of Revelation 4. When we broaden our view to take in the rest of scripture, the picture of God that is given is that of a God who is holy.
Concerning the word “holy,” I think we could borrow Inigo Montoya’s criticism of Vizzini’s use of the word “inconceivable” in The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
For many, to speak of God as holy is to speak of God purely in the sense of morality. We think that to speak of God as holy means to speak of him as being unstained by sin. Certainly that is part of what the word communicates. But it means so much more.
To see this “more” requires us asking a basic question: why is “good,” good? In the biblical sense, “good” is good because it is a reflection of the very nature of God. God has not “decided” what is good. He is good. And this “essential goodness” of God is called “holy.” It is his very essence. It is what makes him God. That’s why it is the song of the heavenly hosts.
All of the other things we might say about God flow from his “essential goodness.” God is “stern” in that He is uncompromising in his righteousness. God is “angry” in that he is pouring out His wrath against sin. God is “love” in the sense that he is personal and merciful. God is all of these things and many more. But they are ultimately simply components of His basic essence: He is a holy God.
Disconnected from his holiness, any attribute will distort our theology of God. If we disconnect the idea of an uncompromising God from his holiness, grace withers and his followers become spiritually paranoid. If we disconnect his anger from holiness, God becomes a capricious and arbitrary despot and his followers become legalistic boors. If we disconnect his love from his holiness, love wins and his followers need only worry about buying skinny jeans, drinking non-fat lattes, and attending art shows.
But if we filter all of these things through medium of God’s holiness, not only does our understanding of all of these things become richer, we begin to see how all of these seemingly dichotomous things find perfect harmony in God. In fact, the only way that God can at once be stern, angry, and loving is if all three attributes flow from His “essential goodness.’
So I hope you’ll take time to kick the tires on your theological vocabulary. Doing so might help you avoid a complete breakdown in your thinking about God down the road.