Being holy and being solemn: They’re not the same thing.

Years ago when I taught at a Christian school, our principal decided it’d be neat if we teachers went to a revivalist church for our staff retreat.

She was a little surprised at the backlash she got for the idea. Y’see, the school was attached to a Pentecostal church… and not all the teachers were Pentecostal. The non-Pentecostal teachers were barely comfortable visiting our church. Visiting a super-Pentecostal church was way beyond their comfort zone. In the staff room, some of ’em expressed their worry our principal was trying to convert them to Pentecostalism. I figured I knew her well enough to explain no, she really wasn’t. It was just a simple case of being earnest… yet tone-deaf.

“All right,” said one of the more conservative teachers, who attended a Fundamentalist independent Baptist church. In this article I’ll call her Rachel. “I’ll give it a try.”

It’s a fairly well-known church nowadays, but wasn’t yet so known. It was one of their evening services, when they really cut loose. Guitar-driving music, lots of bass, worshipers dancing in the aisles, hands waving, flags flapping, tambourines, wild enthusiasm. I’d been Pentecostal for years, so none of this was new to me. For Rachel, this was all new, and super weird. All her church sang were hymns.

“I dunno,” she told me afterwards. “It’s not what I’m used to. I like my worship to be holy. You understand? Holy.

At first, no I didn’t. Exactly what was unholy about revivalist worship?

But as Rachel described the sort of worship style she was used to—the sort of music and behavior she preferred—it dawned on me. By “holy” she actually meant solemn. Serious. Sincere. Formal. Because, Rachel said, God is a holy God. Meaning he’s serious, sincere, and formal.

I grew up Fundamentalist, so I knew what she meant. I had my youthful exuberance spanked out of me at such churches. Though to be fair, some of that exuberance was based on eating three jelly donuts for breakfast, then being a hyperactive terror the rest of the morning. But to the folks in those churches, worshiping God is serious business. It has to be done with just the right amount of dignity, gravitas, and fear. The same sort of respect you show royalty, ’cause Jesus is king y’know. And might smite you if you displease him, Xerxes-style. Es 4.11

Somehow we never bothered to ask the rather obvious question: What does Jesus think of that sort of solemnity? Is that what he expects of his followers? Does he like any of that?

The distant monarch.

See, such Christians never bother to ask that question. To them, it’s the wrong question! Solemnity is just what we do. It’s how we’re to treat kings. They’re definitely not equals: They’re royalty.

So you never treat them with the sort of familiarity, the sort of closeness, the sort of casualness, as we can with people on our level. You remember your place: Under them. You never speak to them informally; it’s gotta be formal, King James style language, like we use in formal prayers. You never play the music you like; it can only be court music. You never treat God as a buddy. He’s not just your Father: He’s your LORD and Master, who can let you into his kingdom or plunge you into hell. On a whim, if he so chose.

This solemnity—this vast distance between the casual and familiar, this royalty and majesty and glory of the divine—is what a lot of Christians mean by “holy.” After all, holy things aren’t common things. They’re dedicated to special use in the service of God. Holiness means we don’t treat God like a common human being. Doesn’t matter at all that he deliberately became a common human being: Holiness means we treat him special. ’Cause he’s God.

Nor does it matter whether God likes this formality, nor that he became human in order to eliminate this vast distance. Solemn Christians don’t imagine God became human because he wanted to become one of us, hang out with us, and love us. They figure he became human only because there was no better way to save us. It was purely for pragmatic reasons. Once done, he ascended to heaven, where he got all the human stink off him, and went right back to all the pomp and magnificence and stateliness he’d abandoned. Because that’s what’s proper for God.

Trouble is, holiness means separation from the things of this world. Not from one another! The idea of a removed, distant monarch is a human custom.

One created for security reasons, actually. In the early days of the United States, our presidents chose to mingle with the people, because they wanted to remind themselves (and us) they were one of the people. Problem is, they kept getting assassinated. And presidents, for the most part, receive their power legitimately. Now imagine a king or dictator, who received power through conquest or inheritance, and not because they were loved, respected, or at least liked slightly more than their political opponents. Imagine living in constant fear of assassins. Of course you’d remove yourself from everyone, and make any visitors approach you in fear. It’s not because the monarch deserves any of this respect; it’s because fear keeps the monarch alive and in power.

Does God reign in this way? Absolutely not. Given the option, would he want to reign in this way? Again, absolutely not.

Praise him loud.

God doesn’t like our formality. It only gets in his way. Most of the authors of the bible understood this, because they had a familiar relationship with their LORD. They tried to express this in the scriptures.

Psalm 150.3-6 KWL
3 Praise him with a shofar blast! Praise him with a harp, a guitar!
4 Praise him with timbrels and dance! Praise him with strings and flute!
5 Praise him with loud gongs! Praise him with battle-cry gongs!
6 Every breath: Praise the LORD! Hallelujah!

Look, I’m not saying there’s no place for formality and old-timey songs in our worship of God. Of course there is. But here’s the fact of the matter: People treat God like that, not because God wants it that way, but because they want it that way. They like having a formal relationship with the Father.

Sometimes that’s for earnest reasons. Not necessarily good ones, but their hearts are kinda in the right place. Fr’instance, you know the saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt”? The idea is once you really get to know somebody, you stop idolizing them and start acting like the uncouth, rude, inconsiderate boors they are in private. They can’t befriend someone without growing to take them for granted.

This is a common practice—and it’s based on a serious character flaw. Because we shouldn’t take anyone for granted. Especially God! But not even our friends. Yet for such jerks, it’ll really ding their relationship with God once they think of him as a friend instead of their Lord. They need things to stay formal—simply because they won’t follow Jesus if he’s their buddy. They need to grow up—but in the meanwhile, God must remain their Lord, and no more.

Other times this distance is for no good reason at all. These people don’t wanna be close to God. He makes ’em uncomfortable. They’d rather he keep his distance. Since their church services make God feel distant and unapproachable, it totally works for them. Formality is the fence they build around their own lives.

Okay. There’s a place for formal worship. There’s just as much a place for informal worship. Loud, celebratory, enthusiastic worship. Obnoxiously loud worship: Psalm 150 has the Hebrews bust out the gongs, the ancient equivalents of the air-raid siren, so they could make a joyful noise to God loud enough to be heard the next two towns over. You wanna praise the LORD? Praise him like you’d scream at a football game. Praise him like you’d dance your brains out after winning a million dollars. Praise him like you mean it.

The reason kings had the whole formal presentation done for them? Because their people don’t mean it. Left to their own devices, they’d greet the king the same way people greet celebrities they don’t like: Mockery, and maybe a wave or handshake if they’re feeling generous. But kings want worship and fear, and adopt the formal style (or their courtiers created it for them) so they’ll get it, whether the people want to give it or not. It’s done out of duty, not love. It reflects no relationship. It’s not felt.

God is holy, but hardly distant. Glorious, but he doesn’t do regal. Serious, but because he cares about truth, not solemnity. Formal?—he figured being the same as God wasn’t something to clutch, and poured himself into a slave’s form. Pp 2.6-7 Can’t get less formal than that.

And yet God—particularly God the Son—has never been anything but holy. Y’see the difference?