Now that we’ve entered the Christmas season, I was thinking about Santa Claus the other day.  It’s kind of hard not to, isn’t it? Who is more ubiquitous this time of year than Santa? (I mean, besides Dr. Fauci).

Regardless of your opinion on Fauci, it’s pretty hard not to like Santa Claus. I’m talking about the commercialized, Americanized St. Nick. He loves everybody, doesn’t he? We make a list of what we want, and he brings it to us. For free. Aside from the fact we’d be pretty terrified by anyone else breaking into our homes in the middle of any other night of the year, this is about the safest, most one-sidedly beneficial transaction we could ever ask for.

Plus, he’s nice.  He’s a happy guy, jolly, laughs a lot, a real grandfatherly type. Sure, we know about the “only giving stuff to good boys and girls” thing, the “coal in the stockings” thing, but do we ever actually know anyone that’s ever happened to? Seems like a pretty hollow threat to me. I mean, I could identify plenty of worthy coal candidates, both as a kid and now, who seemed to get a lot better stuff from Santa than I ever did. Santa’s a real prince of a guy.

I think, for many of us, God is a lot like Santa. Kind of “Santa God.” He’s a good guy, maybe the best guy, who really loves us and is really for us. He’s really into us. He loves us so much that He forgives our sins, kind of overlooking the bad things we do, like Santa. He takes our list of prayers and provides those things for us.  And, when we’ve been good kids, and something bad happens, getting metaphorical coal in our stockings, we feel ripped off, because we deserved the good stuff.

I was reading Oswald Chambers the other day, who once again reminded me that “Jesus Christ hates the sin in people, and Calvary is the measure of that hatred.” To say that God forgives us simply because He’s good or because He loves us, like a Santa God, is to fatally misunderstand his holiness or our sin.

The truth is that sin is so devastating, so complete in its separating power, so awful and filthy and corrupting, that in our fallen state we are completely other from God. Those incidents in the Old Testament that still shock us, like when David is bringing the ark into Jerusalem on a cart, and it starts to fall, and Uzzah reaches to catch it and immediately dies, or when Aaron’s sons are killed for offering unauthorized fire to God, are all examples of an unholy people approaching a holy God in unholy ways and suffering the terrible, but completely normal and expected consequences of doing so. They strike us as overly harsh, but they are no more unnatural or harsh than to say that walking out of our spaceship into the vacuum of space ought not vaporize us immediately, or it’s unfair that stepping into a blast furnace without protective equipment should incinerate us. It’s just what happens when one completely different thing is exposed to something, or someone, overwhelmingly different.

Given our current state of sin, we are simply unable to be in the presence of a holy God and survive the experience. When people talk of fear and awe and dread of God, it is this awesomeness of His holiness and recognition of our fallenness, as when Peter sees Jesus perform the miracle of filling his nets with more fish than he can handle, realizing Jesus is God, and falling on his knees saying, “Depart from me, Lord, I am a sinful man.”

Part of our problem is that sin is so bad that it blinds us to the impact and horror of sin itself, like walking around with a gauzy lens on life. We’re like hoarders living in a revoltingly-cluttered house, with vermin running all around. We’ve become accustomed to seeing our sin as normal, even justifying it and finding a perverse comfort in it. Something is so very, deeply wrong with us that we can’t even see it for what it is. We may think we’re glittery on the outside, but we’re rotten and corrupted within.

If we get these ideas, even conceptually, we can see how human evil and sin calls for an intensity of judgment of divine proportion.

If we bought the house from the hoarder, we would never say, “oh, just leave all that stuff, it will be fine,” or even, “just leave some of it.” We would take it all out, tear the place to the baseboards, maybe even take it down to the studs, and redo it all before we could stand to live in it. That’s just an inkling of what a Holy Other must do before He can live with us and in us. He can’t just be like Santa, wink at it, and forgive. He has to completely destroy it, and make it something other than what it was before. And nothing but atonement for that sin can bring about a change that radical.

This is why Christmas Cradle brought Calvary’s Cross, and why the love of God is not jolly or grandfatherly at all, but heart-searingly, mournfully, and painfully intense, overwhelming. The deepest kind of love there ever was. God couldn’t be what He was- a holy and just God- and magically blot away the state of sin. If He did, that very act would negate His very justice and holiness, because to not judge sin would not be just, and to allow the unholy to come into communion with the holy would render it unholy. Only by judging and dealing with the sin, and only by paying the price for that sin, could we be restored.

Only Jesus could pay that price, because only He had the natures of both God and man, and only He lived as one of us, yet without sin, so He wasn’t dying for His own sin. And by that death we were made holy and restored.

There’s an old joke about the pig and the chicken: which one has a greater commitment to your breakfast? The pig is all in.  Santa is a fun idea at Christmastime, but to pattern our perception of God after a Santa image is futile and fatal, foolish and unfulfilling.  Our God was definitely into us, so far in that He was all in-destroying His Son to demolish and renew the insides of our souls, atoning for our sin through His misery and death, and making us something completely other.  God is no Santa, and for that we can be grateful.

Jay Ferguson, Ph.D., Head of School at Grace Community School, writes regularly on his blog, JaysBlog.org.