By Jason Gaboury

The Problem with Holiness

St. Augustine famously prayed, “Lord, grant me holiness, but not yet.” (Domine, da mihi sanctitiam, sed noli modo.) We may relate to his prayer. Of all the words that describe Christian life, “holiness” needs the most rehabilitation. 

Holiness as Killjoy?

The most common iteration of holiness that people encounter is the phrase, “holier than thou.” The connotation is negative; someone who is “holier than thou” is condescending, self-absorbed, and judgmental. Who wants to be—or be around—someone like that? 

Personal holiness has always been tough. I once knew a college student who really hated being single. When you’d ask her about her plans for the weekend, she’d sometimes sigh and say (with a smirk and a slight roll of her eyes), “I’m being holy.” Liza wanted desperately to have a date, to experience love and romance, to meet someone special. But somehow she assumed that holiness meant sitting home alone and dissatisfied. 

Collective holiness doesn’t fare much better. The recent decision of the California State University system to de-recognize InterVarsity chapters for insisting that leaders affirm a doctrinal basis is a sobering example. The assumption is that holiness is restrictive, discriminatory, and ultimately dehumanizing. 

Looking at Assumptions

Under the surface of our resistance to holiness is a set of assumptions about what it means to be human. These assumptions form a syllogism:

  • Authentic people are fully human.
  • Authenticity is following and acting out one’s individual feelings and desires.
  • Acting out individual feelings and desires makes one fully human. 

If these assumptions about life and humanity are true, there are implications for those who would assert holiness. Holiness might be authentic to some people, but only under the condition that it aligns with their own inner desires. Anyone wishing to assert holiness as a way of life for others will be seen as non-authentic and anti-human. 

But actually, the syllogism above has some significant flaws. Authenticity is a terrible arbiter of morality. In his lecture “Learning the Language of Life: New Creation and Christian Virtue” N. T. Wright joked, “What if your authentic desire is to cheat as many people out of as much money as possible?” Additionally, there is no imperative contained in the syllogism about recognizing and honoring the humanity of others.   

Biblical Assumptions

Scripture paints a surprising picture of holiness—one that runs against the grain of our assumptions. The Bible’s direct calls to holiness (Leviticus 11:44; 1 Peter 1:16) are set within the broader context of life with God. It is this life of relationship with God and human flourishing that sets the context for understanding holiness. This sets up a different syllogism:

  • Relationship with God and others makes us fully human.
  • Some attitudes and behaviors damage our relationship with God and others.
  • Behaviors and attitudes that damage our relationship with God and others should be rejected so that we can be fully human.

From this perspective, holiness is a key element to life with God. And life with God is a key element to our full humanity. Joel Scandrett captures this beautifully in his piece “What does God mean when he asks us to be holy as he is holy?” He writes:

If we read the biblical understanding of holiness through the lens of our relationship to God, Jesus, as the unique revelation of God, becomes preeminent. Too often, our notions of holiness are lifted from the Old Testament without understanding them in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus. And those who have responded in faith to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ have been united with Christ. To be a Christian means far more than merely to believe in God—as if the Christian faith were reducible to a system of beliefs—it means to be united with Jesus in and through the Holy Spirit.

Changing Assumptions

Our thinking about holiness needs rehabilitating. How do we do it? Here are some ideas:

1. Examine your assumptions. What comes to mind when you think of holiness? Is your picture of holiness boring, listless, moralistic, prudish, and condescending? If so, you need to change the picture. Holiness is connected to life with God. God’s life is abundant, full, loving, purposeful, powerful, and compassionate. Scripture shows us example after example of what it means to live with God. Daily reflection on Scripture is key to reshaping our understanding of what this looks like.

2. Pray continually. Prayer is to the spiritual life what breathing is to our physical life. Life with God grows in us as we learn to cultivate an awareness of God’s presence with us day by day.

3. Live fully. As individuals and communities we pursue holiness not primarily through our abstinence but through our engagement. For example, in a sexualized culture, we can create safe places for genuine relationships. In college “party houses” we can be people of genuine joy. In a competitive environment we can offer our best work without fearing how we measure up.

I recently caught a glimmer of what it looks like to live fully at a freshman orientation event at a prestigious university in the northeast. Several students gave speeches to welcome the new class to campus. The student who gave the most compelling address was a strong Christian. But it wasn’t the rhetorical skills that attracted attention. What shone through was the student’s sincere heart for the university as a place where people and learning could flourish. That’s what energized the students and faculty who were present. When our individual and communal lives are truly holy, they will be deeply attractive.

What comes to mind for you when you hear the word “holiness”? How can we begin to become holy people who model abundant life in Jesus?

Jason Gaboury serves as regional director for InterVarsity’s undergraduate ministry in New York and New Jersey. He has worked for InterVarsity for 19 years and contributed to two InterVarsity Press books, Drama Team Handbook and Drama Team Sketchbook. He and his wife, Sophia, have two children and live in New York City.

Image by twentyonehundred team members Matt Kirk and Laura Li-Barbour.


You might also find these resources on holiness helpful:

What Is Sanctification?

Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity


Thanks for this great post on Holiness. I have heard the phrase "holier than thou" to describe a feeling of superiority over others because of a more "Christian" lifestyle. I know that once I begin to compare my "level of holiness" with another person, it gets sticky. When I start to think about how "holy" I am, I can become puffed up with pride. This just kind of defeats the purpose. At times, I am able to thank God for what he has done in me. All holiness is from Him, I can't claim the credit.

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