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A Holy Task



“Holy, holy, holy!”


With these words, the four living creatures gathered around the throne of God cry out at the sight of the slain lamb in Revelation. Not just “Holy!” But “Holy, holy, holy!” As if speaking it once could not capture the scope of what they were trying to communicate.


“Repetition is holy,” my poetry teacher used to say. She taught me to treat repetition like one might handle a sword: it is sharp; it will cut. Use it with discretion and never with haste. Repeat yourself and those words will burn into the minds of your readers. Repeat only those words which you love most.


The danger of repetition used without discretion is that it will dull the sword. “Holy” has unfortunately become one of those terms that has lost its luster in many Christian circles. It’s a word we casually use to connote God’s magnificence without doing the work to demonstrate it in detail or mean it with depth. It is easy to sing “holy” in our worship songs, to say he is “holy” from the pulpit. But how is he holy? Is he holy in our hearts? Holy in our minds? Holy in our relationships?


The word “holy” means set apart, otherworldly, sacred. Jesus teaches us to pray, “Hallowed by thy name.” That is, “Let your name, O God, be unlike any other name.” Holiness is a central characteristic of God. There is no one like him. Nothing can match his beauty, goodness, and love. The word “holy” becoming trite is tragic because it is antithetical to the meaning of the word and thereby contradicts the intention of Jesus’ prayer — that God’s name should forever be exalted.


The danger of repetition used without discretion is that it will dull the sword. “Holy” has unfortunately become one of those terms that has lost its luster in many Christian circles. John Michael Heard

Good writers are characterized by their precision and intentionality with language. They say what they mean and mean what they say. Even the nuances of their sentences are carefully placed, leaving room for their readers to roam. A bad writer can write a book and say nothing; a good writer can fit entire worlds into a single word. God is no exception. “In the beginning was the Word,” the Gospel of John begins. When God speaks, all creation listens because his words are significant. The same should also be true of his people.


I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he discusses the problem with oaths in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus urges his disciples to be men and women of their word. “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’” he says, “and your ‘No,’ ‘No;’ anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” Herein lies a crucial characteristic of our enemy: the devil does not merely want to deceive us into sin; he wants to make our words mean nothing. If he manages this, then our worship becomes hollow and, eventually, our lives as well.


Writers are wordsmiths. We can dissect words or fill them. We can parade them around or ignore them. We can even make them up if we like! As such, writers often carry a special awareness of the state of our vocabularies. The meanings of our words change all the time, for better or for worse. The task of the writer, then, is to fill our words with purpose so that they can stand firm in the ever-shifting tides of meaning. And, in some cases, this means bringing back to life those sacred words that may have been buried with time.


Do you think those gathered around the throne of God were merely reciting, “Holy,” as though reading it from a book? Certainly not. They were trying to give expression to what they could hardly fathom. Was “holy” sufficient? No. But it was the best that they could muster. When confronted by the glory of God, our words will always and inevitably fall short—if they could do him justice, then our God would be too small. Even so, we still speak because his creative and divine brilliance compels us to offer up the best of what we have to offer: words.


Writers, when you look at God, what do you see? Are there words enough to capture it? No? Then for now let one word suffice: “Holy, holy, holy!”

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