I distinctly remember one visit to a church youth event in my teens. In those days, I was a pack-and-a-half-a-day smoker, a punk/hardcore music enthusiast, and comfortable pressing the boundaries of social conformity. The conversation I had in the parking lot of the church has stuck with me for more than 25 years.
“You’re welcome to come to our group . . .” Christine said, pulling me aside. “But you really can’t be serious about God if you smoke and . . . uh . . . stuff . . .”
I had no idea what “stuff” meant, but the message was clear. There was a holiness test for this group and I didn’t pass it. Not only did that group of teens view me with suspicion, but they were sure God did too.
I never went back.
Does Holiness = Judgment?
There’s an old joke that asks, “Why are conservative/holiness Christians so negative about sex?” Answer: “Because it might lead to dancing.” The joke betrays our suspicions, judgments, and anxieties about forms of discipleship that take holiness seriously. Holiness is often associated, at a gut level, with “holier than thou” attitudes we’ve experienced from religious people. And we project these attitudes onto God. If God is holy, and holiness is associated with being looked down upon, then we assume God’s holiness translates to a moral indignation toward us who fail to measure up. Even worse, we associate fun, pleasure, and excitement with sin, while holiness conjures associations of judgment, scrupulosity, and boredom.
Exhortations to “be holy because I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2) sound like bad news. Most of us are already investing considerable moral effort in the everyday business of life. The demands of holiness feel like a burden impossible to bear. Who has the energy?
Two Views of Holiness
But what if this understanding of holiness misses the point? In his book Prayer: Our Deepest Longing, Ronald Rolheiser points out the difference between Hebraic and Greek notions of holiness. In the Greek tradition, says Rolheiser, holiness literally refers to God’s distinct and unique nature, and is interpreted to mean moral perfection, inscrutability, inexhaustible goodness, and undiminishing quality.
St. Gregory of Nyssa captures this same idea in The Life of Moses, his book on the spiritual life, which holds up Moses as the ideal disciple. He describes how, motivated by loving desire, Moses climbs the mountain of God, overcoming obstacles and being purged of lesser desires along the way, and finally arrives in a cleft of rock to behold “all the goodness” of God. The final image of Gregory’s book, taken from Exodus 34, is of Moses in the cleft beholding God’s back. Gregory sees this as a picture of the disciple’s ultimate and eternal future: God’s goodness ever leading onward and the loving disciple, held by grace, pursuing the inexhaustible goodness of God.
Whether we’re familiar with the books mentioned above or not, their idea of holiness resonates. Our view of holiness has been shaped by this Greek tradition. And it’s not all bad. It keeps the bright vision of God’s character constantly out ahead of us. There is always more to learn, always further to go, an expanding depth of goodness and love.
But this perspective is also limited. For one thing, it can drain and demoralize as easily as it inspires. When Christians invest themselves in ministry and discipleship only to find that they still wrestle with bitterness, resentment, sexual preoccupation, or anxiety, this vision of holiness can be crushing. We may be tempted to give up the pursuit of holiness altogether. But what if there’s another way?
The Hebraic concept of holiness is rooted in God’s uniqueness and power. The God of the Old Testament is the creator of heaven and earth. God has no equal, no successor, and no rival. God alone can create and sustain life in all its wondrous variety. God alone creates humans as image-bearing stewards within creation. If God’s word and being create life and existence, then God’s holiness is defined relationally with respect to creation. God’s holiness denotes distinction from creation in form, substance, and power, and connotes wholeness, life, and generativity.
In addition, in the Hebraic tradition God’s holiness is acknowledged and honored in worship. Worship emphasizes God’s unique place as creator, sustainer, and redeemer. Worship illumines the mind through contemplation of God’s distinction from his creation. We ponder the holiness of God when we consider the vastness of creation or the scope of redemption. This contemplation quickly exceeds our categories of thought and language. We are led to praise God in the words of the Trisagion: holy, holy, holy. And as we worship, we’re participating in what holiness denotes: God’s unique, distinct, and powerful reality upon which we are totally dependent.
The Hebraic concept of God’s holiness also includes the constraint of evil and death. Constraint is necessary in a world damaged by evil. If all people were trustworthy, we would have no locks, passwords, or prisons. But constraint is not about avoiding pleasure; rather it is about creating the conditions for life to abound and for death to be restrained. The reason for the moral and ritual law laid out in the Torah in the Old Testament was to enable God’s life and presence to be tangibly present in the world. Extortion, greed, licentiousness, and exploitation collude with death. The moral law names and constrains this collusion. Blood, corpses, or disease are not sinful in themselves, but they are associated with death, and so the ritual law places constraints around those too. Ultimately the law constrains how people are to relate to God’s presence. And these constraints connote holiness not by what they forbid, but for what they allow. When evil and death are restrained, life flourishes.
Imagine my teenage parking lot conversation again. How different it would have been to hear Christine say, “You and I both know that smoking hurts your body. Is it okay to encourage you to quit? God loves your body.” In the conversation that actually happened, smoking is offensive to God. In this reimagined conversation, smoking is offensive to God’s desire for life, health, and relationship. Perhaps I still wouldn’t have gone back, but I would have imagined God differently.
An Invitation to Be Holy
How can we engage with holiness as a gift of life, health, and relationship with God?
The beauty of God’s holiness is embodied most profoundly in Jesus. Like the burning coal in Isaiah 6, Jesus had a profound ability to transfer holiness to others by touching them. In his ministry, Jesus often touched unholy/unclean people, including lepers, dead bodies, a woman with hemorrhages, and demonized men. His holiness seemed to pass to them, healing their bodies, freeing their minds, restoring them to community. In his death, Jesus offered to God the perfect holy and obedient life that we cannot. In his resurrection, Jesus breathed his Spirit into his people with the profound words, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you . . .” (John 20:21).
The call to holiness is not a call to try harder, enjoy less, and judge more. It’s a call to contemplate the beauty and wonder of who God is and what God has done in Jesus. It’s an invitation to order our lives toward wholeness, life, and generativity. It’s a daring call to rub shoulders with people who, like my teenage self, presume that God is judgmental and angry through the grace and power of the Spirit.
How are you growing in holiness during this season?
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.
Evangelicals are known for their emphasis on conversion. But what about life after conversion and beyond justification? In Called to Be Saints, Gordon Smith draws on a distinguished lifetime of reflecting on these themes to offer us a theologically rich account of our participation in the life of Christ.