Stendahl’s Syndrome: The Holiness of God

Stendahl’s Syndrome. Have you ever had it? It’s not a common affliction. But if you ever visit the northern part of Italy, watch out! Dr. Magherini, head of the psychiatric hospital at Florence warns, “Some tourists fall to the ground with heart palpitations thinking they’re having a heart attack. Others suffer from delirium or disorientation. But what they’re really having might be called a ‘brush stroke.’” For what is Stendahl’s Syndrome?” She explains, “Mix one tired and lonely tourist with a heavy dose of Michelangelo. Throw in a fresco by Giotto and a Bernini statue or two. Simmer to the familiar babble of the Italian language, and presto! You have another victim of art illness.”

According to her research, some tourists just can’t handle the dazzling array of art found in Florence. The sudden exposure to great masterpieces tips a delicate psychological balance and resurrects long-repressed fears. But she says most victims recover quickly. All it usually takes is just a phone call home. Or if the condition persists, the patient is told to cancel the rest of his vacation and return to the monotony of everyday life. Why? The doctor explains, “All they need to return to normal is a heavy dose of the familiar and the mundane.”

Do you find all of this a little hard to believe? I did when I first read about it. I thought it was a joke. But apparently it happens. And I find that fascinating for two reasons: 1) It points out how accustomed we are to the ordinary. Like someone living in a cave, we’re so used to the darkness that it blinds our eyes when we come out into the light. 2) It gives us a small glimpse of how you and I would react if we ever witnessed the truly glorious. After all, if people are falling down in a faint from seeing something as mundane as Michelangelo’s David, imagine how we’d react if we came face to face with the Risen Christ!

Let me share an example of what would happen if we did. In Revelation chapter 1, John the apostle has been banished to the Isle of Patmos for preaching the Word of God, when Jesus suddenly appears to him in all of His glory. So how does John react? Verse 12 says, “When I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone ‘like a son of man,’ dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” Verse 17 adds, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead!”

 Why did John have the reaction that he did? Stendahl’s Syndrome! When faced with the All Holy and Glorious Christ, the only thing he could do was fall at His feet in worship and awe. And friends, that is the same reaction you and I ought to have as we realize how holy He is. It ought to do more than spark our interest and imagination. It ought to shock us into being holy ourselves.

Our topic this week is the holiness of God, and  my goal is to take us beyond the facts to the fundamental issue, which is to know Him more intimately, to love Him more passionately, and to strive to be like Him in all we think, do, and say. For that is the only path to the abundant life He came to give us. Over the next few days I will break the topic down into these key points: 1) What it means to say God is holy; 2) Why we want God to be holy; 3) How we ought to respond to God’s holiness. Join us each step of the way and invite a friend to come along.

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