What Is Holiness?
"We misunderstand and distort reality when we take ourselves as the starting point and our present situation as the basic datum."
-- Eugene Peterson, in *Leadership Journal* magazine.
God calls us to be holy. After all, God is holy. (Most of us just assume that, but in the Bible they're so awestruck by God, they keep saying it : 1 Peter 1:15-16; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:4). When we speak of the 'Holy Spirit', we're saying the Spirit is holy. If we are 'indwelt' and even 'filled' with the Spirit, does it mean holiness is in us? But what is holiness? Following the law? A saintly countenance? A quietude people can see? Churchly achievement? Excellent performance? Good deeds? Good PR? Being super nice to everyone?
The holy life is simply living as someone who belongs to God and who lives by the vision of the Kingdom of God. Were it only so simple. For we, on our own, don't have much to work with. We can't rightly envision what a life of holiness is, and even if we could, we couldn't get ourselves to be that way. So, the Spirit brings us into the holiness of Jesus. (I'm not talking about a holiness 'like' Jesus' or a holiness in Jesus' style. Thanks to the Spirit working through your faith, Jesus is really there with you and within you, giving you Jesus's holiness.)
Some Christians emphasize biblical standards of holiness. Some call this legalism, and unfortunately sometimes it is legalism. Firmer roots for personal holiness grow when we recognize that we are broken creatures, through and through. Even our vision of what makes for holiness is marred and twisted. We start growing in Christ as we learn we are strangers to God's ways. This leaves us no recourse but to prayerfully listen for the Spirit's leading. Without the Spirit's work, we not only cannot know God, but we also fail to discover our true selves. The Spirit, through the Bible, shows us what a God-pleasing life is, and leads us to want to live it and treasure it.
God doesn't get appeased by your doing good things, any more than by sacrifice of a virgin or conquest of a nation. God's not impressed. God does better things in the first minute of each morning than anything we ever did. If you need Godliness, only God has it, so only God can give it to you. It is 'earned' in a sense, but only by what Christ did. And through what Christ did, his life, death, and transcendence of death, God gave it to you. The light shines on you, and from there it reflects onto everything else.
Beyond The Golden Rule
Whether we're Christian or not, we've all been taught the Golden Rule: "do unto others as you would have others do to you". Jesus said it, in a positive restatement of something already in the Jewish oral tradition. When you mentally see yourself in place of those you act upon, the picture becomes clearer. Think like that, and you won't be so eager to do in your main rival at work. We often pull up short when we feel in our own back the knife which we just started to twist into someone else's. This is a good place to start: it's something for us to measure up to. Yet there are some things the matter with the Golden Rule. There is, of course, the sado-masochist twist -- someone doing unto others the torture he so craves from them. A more important problem, though, is that the Golden Rule keeps you in the center of it. No matter how many lessons you learn from trading places, they're still your lessons, and it's still your human capacity to love. This capacity is more like a dinner plate than a deep well, quite shallow when compared with the task at hand of living a loving and holy life.
Jesus takes us beyond the Golden Rule. The first step past it is when Jesus commends Deuteronomy 6:5's Great Commandment about loving God, and the second like unto it, originally from Leviticus (you know, the book everyone loves to avoid), to "love your neighbor as yourself". Jesus then measures this not by your own efforts, but through what is meant by 'neighbor'. Jesus calls on us to be a neighbor, moving the focus from ourselves to others, especially another who is in need.
One Step Further
But one more step is needed. For while this approach enhances your capacity to love, it is still your strained human capacity to love we're giving out. In John's Gospel, Jesus adds the last piece to Godly love, by giving a
"new commandment": "that you love one another, just as I have loved you". There is now a new measure : to love as Jesus loved. Right after He said that, He went on His way to setting a standard of love beyond our wildest imaginings : to the cross and the tomb. Then, He gave out a new power to love in such a manner: He emptied His tomb, and went back to God's Beyond, sending the Holy Spirit to us in His place. What the Spirit gives us is Jesus' holiness and Jesus' love, the bottomless well of love. No longer do we have to dish out our own love in saucer portions, we can now drench everybody with love from beyond ourselves. We can now dare to live the life of holy love, trusting that in the end there is no loss where that kind of love is found.
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WHAT SHAPES US
Are we 'without form and void'? Does the world, the culture, the people around us set our shape for us? If so, the Spirit isn't shaping us. We'd be more like an amoeba than a Christian or a human being. A shapeless lump of a church isn't one that follows the Spirit. A Christian chameleon who blends in with his/her surroundings isn't a Christian at all. Eventually, they regenerate into a degenerate, improve like a newly-repackaged product, renovate into a crack house, and become as just as the fine print in a contract. Likewise, any group that tries to be everything in general and nothing in particular isn't worth being a part of. Those who believe in Christ are called to live out the Kingdom. It's different from the others, distinct, holy.How does the Kingdom stack up with today's moral climate? Think of the attitudes which are becoming more common nowadays:
How does the Kingdom stack up with today's moral climate? Think of the attitudes which are becoming more common nowadays:
- "It's only a crime if I get caught."
- "Become big enough to get away with it."
- "I've got to come out of it looking good."
- "Go do it; you can always cover up the consequences."
- "It's better to be believed than it is to be truthful."
- "Rules are made to be broken by me and used against others."
This is the stuff that's filling our minds. Many people even call it "getting real", because 'this is how the real world is'. But there's nothing 'real' about it. It is all about seeming to be what you aren't. What's 'real' about that? In the eyes of God, the Ultimate Reality:
- God knows even your inmost thoughts, thus you are so "caught";
- You can't get anywhere near big enough to throw your weight around with God;
- God doesn't care what it 'looks like', only what it is;
- Your cover-ups have consequences too, and the more you cover up the cover-ups of your cover-ups, the greater and more deadly the consequences will be;
- God doesn't believe; God knows, holds to the truth, and calls on us to hold to it too;
- Rules are made so you stay aware that you are not God, and so we all don't have to be as good as God in order to live reasonably well with each other.
Holiness and Holeyness
You can't be made holy if you're worrying about protecting yourself or about getting success or sex or fame or power, or even keeping up an image as a 'holy man'. Your life becomes more holey than holy. There's just no place for that before the God who ultimately determines your safety, success, or power. God wants you to really 'get real'. The emperor Ego has no clothes, and the Spirit is the little boy who has the sense to say so.
is to do the right thing. The rest is in God's hands."
Holiness Within a Larger Context
Living holy is not only pleasing to God, it is displeasing to those who work evil in the world. To live as a follower of Christ and to love your neighbors as yourself is an act of spiritual warfare against evil. The struggle can be waged by acts as simple as :
- telling the truth instead of lying,
- treating people with respect instead of cussing them out,
- listening instead of blowing them off,
- deciding against spreading the juicy gossip you've heard,
- ordering vegetable juice instead of a daiquiri.
It could be :
- some gentle words for your girlfriend,
- a helping hand to an elderly woman in a store,
- simple 'thank yous' to the people who've helped you along,
- an act of kindness to a stranger, just to be kind,
- keeping your lifestyle simpler and less upper-class than your neighbor's.
You could choose to do something else, and the idea wouldn't be from the Devil. But that idea would still have to be chosen *against* when there is a more Christlike response to be chosen *for*. Thus it could be something like :
- choosing not to throw your punch or draw your knife,
- choosing not to walk out on your marriage,
- choosing not to abort your child,
- choosing to stop trying to be a star so you can have time to work with troubled teens,
- choosing not to step all over your colleagues to get promoted.
Even that which you are allowed to do, which you are morally justified in doing, which would make your life easier, which would give you more success or more control over your life -- even those things are to be turned away, if there is a more Godly choice to make. These spiritual struggles are fought in you and in the parts of society around you, every moment of every day. When Christ says "Follow me", He is showing you the way forward for a holy life.
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"As long as
we think we can save ourselves by our own will power, we
will only make the evil in us stronger than