Toilet Training and the Holiness of God

Ask the parents of small children about the joys of toilet training and they will probably have some amusing stories to share. Not that those events are funny at the time – they are often very tiresome and gross. Parenting literally involves getting your hands dirty. It means dealing with the bodily wastes of other people. This is not adequately highlighted on the “have a baby” brochure. You tend to discover it after you’ve already got one.

Houses where children are learning to use the toilet can be gross. There are soiled pants, wet carpets and sofas, and toilets often bear evidence of remarkably bad aim. And these accidents tend to happen at inconvenient times. Who wants to live with that? With that stench? And the texture of it, and the way it soaks into things? Did it get on that cushion? Then it needs to go, preferably by incineration! And who ever thought that buying carpet was a good idea in a house which children live in? 

The remarkable thing is that whereas household pets tend to get kicked out into the yard for misdemeanors of this sort, these tiny filth-production units that we call ‘children’ are allowed to keep living inside. We keep cleaning up after them. They have a guaranteed place in our nice clean houses even though we have personal standards of hygiene that children often seem oblivious to.

A parent’s experience of cleaning up their child’s bodily waste is a pungent reminder of the gospel. It may smell like the stench of death (or maybe more like a sewer), but don’t let the smell fool you. That odor is a fragrant reminder of God’s mercy. It’s like a ‘stinky sacrament’ that should freshly convince us of how generous God has been to make us holy by his purifying grace in Jesus.

The Holy Tent that Kept Getting Soiled

In the Old Testament God living among the people of Israel in a tent called the Tabernacle. God emphasised that it was essential that his tent be kept spotlessly clean. In fact, all of Israel’s camp around God’s tent had to be clean. God is Holy. That means he is perfectly clean and pure, and therefore he needs a dwelling place that is also kept clean and pure. But whereas our ‘clean’ has to do with physical filth, God’s version has to do with moral filth. To God, sin is the most potent spiritual sewage that there is. It’s utterly repulsive and offensive. Israel had to keep clean if they were to be fit to live in God’s presence.

The problem is that Israel kept sinning. The Book of Leviticus describes sin as smelly waste that pollutes God’s Tabernacle and makes it unfit for God’s presence. An Israelite sins: there’s a stinky stain on the Tabernacle. There were lots of Israelites and (like us) they sinned a lot. Priests were the spiritual janitors who mopped up the spiritual stench of Israel’s sin with sacrifices. Most importantly, once a year on the ‘Day of Atonement’ the High Priest of Israel would perform a cleansing ceremony that God had given them (Leviticus 16). It was designed to purge all the putrid spiritual excrement of Israel’s sin out of the Tabernacle, a kind of spiritual spring-cleaning. The priest would symbolically cleanse the Tabernacle from the centre outwards before finally laying all of Israel’s sins on the back of a goat, which was driven far away into the wilderness never to return. Once more the Tabernacle was clean. Bath-time was over, all stains and smells had been professionally removed, washing implements were themselves washed or burned, and Israel’s Holy God would continue to dwell among grotty sinful humans.

This wasn’t a sustainable arrangement, nor was it intended to be. God gave the Tabernacle to Israel to teach us the gospel. Spiritually, we stink. That’s why Jesus came. His death on the cross was the sacrifice that cleansed us of our sin. He also entered heaven as our High Priest, cleansing it so we can live with God forever (Hebrews 9:11-12, 23-26). The cleansing power of Jesus’ death is so complete that it is repeatedly described as ‘once-for-all’. It’s a cleaning solution like no other: Jesus’ one sacrifice permanently purged and cleansed our every sin (Hebrews 9:12, 26; 10:2, 10, 14)! Christians are permanently holy in God’s sight and in no danger of polluting his heavenly dwelling.

The Moral of the Story…

Parents, when you are cleansing your dwelling of the stench of bodily waste, take a moment to thank God for getting his hands dirty for our sake. Jesus died on the cross to make us clean. We should use everyday aspects of life to remind us to thank him regularly.

But don’t pray for too long – you’ve got work to do! Whilst we may wish that we could wash our kids once-for-all, unfortunately there are limits to my analogy…