What comes into your mind when you think about God?
American pastor AW Tozer famously said that your answer to that question is the most important thing about you.
But the problem, according to American poet, minister, writer, and hip-hop artist, Jackie Hill Perry, is that you may have formed a negative view of the holiness of God, linking it with hell and damnation.
She certainly did while attending church with her aunt as a child in St Louis, Missouri.
“In my Christian walk, holiness was always framed very negatively,” she told the OneLove Women’s conference at the weekend, where she was the keynote speaker.
“God is so holy and so pure and he hates sin and, because he hates sin, he’s going to judge sin and, because you’re a sinner, he’s also going to judge you.”
Born in June 1989, Hill Perry was raised without a father at home and experienced sexual abuse at the age of five. That abuse, along with school bullying and a lack of attention from boys, led to a battle with eating disorders. From the age of four, she thought she should have been born a boy, and from age six she started imitating male tendencies.
At age 17, she pursued sexual relationships with women and her girlfriend suggested that she become a stud, a woman who takes a masculine role in a lesbian relationship. She also began to abuse drugs and became addicted to pornography.
In October 2008, the Lord broke through and told her that her homosexual relationship would be the death of her. Convinced that the wages of sin was death, she left her girlfriend, returned to church and began writing poetry.
Through God’s transformation, she was able to change her sexuality, and in 2014 she married Preston Perry, with whom she has three daughters and a son on the way. As well as spoken word poetry, they also produce a podcast called “Thirty Minutes with the Perrys”, offering insights into relationships, theology, politics, race, and parenting.
“So we have a pretty loud and busy life,” she told the conference.
“And I’m just a person who enjoys the Bible and God, and being able to articulate that to people for the sake of building them up in the faith so that they can endure the winds and the ways of this world.”
Hill Perry’s 2018 book, Gay Girl, Good God, related her experience of same-sex attraction from being a very young girl. She has spent the past three years writing a new book, Holier Than Thou, which examines the way the holiness of God should affect the way we trust him.
“What we need are more books that show us the beauty of God.”
She says her research for the book was life-altering in her struggles with temptation.
“I think even when becoming a believer, [God’s holiness] was a topic that you’re hesitant to want to engage with. Until I started to ask myself this question. I said, ‘okay, if God is holy, then that means he can’t sin. If God can’t sin, that means can’t sin against me. If God can’t sin against me, shouldn’t that make him the most trustworthy being there is?’
“When I thought about that, I realised that my definition of holiness was too small. His holiness is the reason he’s trustworthy. And at the bottom of all of our failed attempts to be holy is a lack of faith, is a lack of trust.
“What we don’t need are more books about what we should stop doing. Oh, look, they’re helpful. I think what we need are more books that show us the beauty of God and that by seeing the beauty of God, we want more of God. And by wanting more of God, we trust God. And then by trusting God, we start saying ‘no’ to other things, because you realise they’re not better than God, they don’t compete with God because there’s nothing that can compare with God. And it’s in this dance where I’m now satisfied with the beauty and the holiness of God that I become holy like him too.
“The whole point of Holier Than Thou is to present a true and authentic picture of God. That he is the most beautiful being that has and will ever exist and for that reason he is eternally worthy of all of our trust.”
In her first talk, Hill Perry said that “in our unbelief, we tend to project our nature onto God by either accusing him of sinfulness or behaving in such a way that reveals that we believe he is. We might talk about him like he is unjust because he allows suffering or we open up his word and refuse to believe it as true as if he were a liar.
“You don’t have sex with people you aren’t married to just because you’re lustful; you do it because you don’t believe that God is the Lord of the body.
“You didn’t take that job God told you not to simply because you’re disobedient. You did it because you didn’t believe that God could provide for your needs at a lower pay wage. The connection I’m trying to make is that at the root of all sin is unbelief in the word and worth of God. And that, my friends, is a reason why it’s so hard for us to be holy … [we try to] modify our behaviour without dealing with the belief systems at the root of all of it.
“And I have a suspicion that one reason faith, and therefore holiness, is so difficult for us – apart from total depravity – is that we have experienced suffering – all that pain, abuse, unfaithfulness, inconsistency, dishonesty. We know that this world isn’t safe because sinners live in it. So we live in a constant state of self-preservation to protect ourselves from the potential of any kind of hurt.
I wonder if underneath our doubt, way at the bottom of it, is a suspicion that God isn’t safe either.
“And I wonder if underneath our doubt, way at the bottom of it, is a suspicion that God isn’t safe either. And he is just like the father that left us, the mother that didn’t nurture us. The friend that didn’t listen to us and the folks in positions of power that abused us. So when God reveals himself as our heavenly parent, as a faithful friend, our Lord, we won’t relinquish control, surrendering our wills because we mistakenly projected onto God the nature of those who have sinned against us, but understand this: if God is holy, that means he cannot sin. If God cannot sin, that means he cannot sin against you. And if God cannot sin against you, doesn’t make him the most trustworthy being that exists?”