Joyless and loveless Christianity is a product of a one-sided and shallow view of holiness. It is joyless because a distorted view of holiness inhibits us from knowing God rightly, and loveless because the same view of holiness places us in perennial competition with others. In the words of Alan Hirsch, “If you have a wrong view of God, the more devout you are, the more damage you will do.” To aggravate the issue, there seems to be something in our performance based, perfectionist culture that encourages a white-knuckled approach to “doing all the good that we can and avoiding all the evil that we can.”
I need to take a step back for a moment and ask the question, “What exactly does a healthy view of holiness look like?” I have to confess that I am currently undergoing a profound shift in my understanding and I want to share some of the insight I am gleaning.
While attending a seminary that is rooted in the holiness tradition, I often heard the sing-song mantra defining holiness as, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do.” The premise behind this rhyme is that holiness should predominantly be viewed as a moral category, defined by doing less of what is “bad” and more of what is “good”. The problem undergirding this vision of holiness is that we perceive that our standing before God fluctuates predominantly based on what we do or don’t do—and this can facilitate an environment of judgment rather than grace, and one that invites self-righteousness. Isn’t it always easier to identify the weaknesses/struggles/sins of others, particularly in an area of our own lives where we feel strong?
I want to suggest a reframing of the concept of holiness, and in order to support this I need to go back to the beginning.
In the story of Adam and Eve, we see the repercussions of their fateful choice to seek wisdom outside of God. Immediately their innocent frame of reference was violated by fear, shame, self-protection, and blame-shifting. We can infer from this is that sin is predominantly a relational issue. As human nature was corrupted by the influence of sin, most notably a self-centered worldview, what was diminished was relationship with God, relationship with one another, and relationship to oneself.
As we watch the Old Testament unfold, God repeatedly seeks to establish relationship with His wayward creatures, first through Noah, then Abraham, until we arrive at Moses. As we read about the Law being given in Exodus and Deuteronomy it is easy to slip into the mindset that sin is predominantly a moral issue—there certainly are a whole lot of do and don’t commands! However, Scripture presents indulging in sin as an issue of being in covenant relationship with God or being outside of it. Thus holiness fundamentally involves remaining in a covenant relationship with God marked by his love, grace, mercy and provision.
Thus, when we come to Jesus, the perfectly sinless one, who was matchless in holiness, we find a man walking in perfect communion with his God such that his every action and word was governed by a loving deference to God. Furthermore, he walked in a sublime awareness that he was God’s son in whom He was well pleased. This is why I want to suggest a view of holiness that instead of being a restrictive list of do’s and dont’s, is an invitation into intimacy. Holiness is the removal of everything that hinders love such that we can receive God’s love and in turn love him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. Perhaps rather than viewing holiness in a negative light we can embrace John Wesley’s definition of holiness as “pure love.”
We wrongly perceive that holiness is the removal of all the things that bring us pleasure, which is the inevitable conclusion of looking at holiness merely through a moral lens. Understood in this mistaken way, we’ll hear the echo of the garden, “Did God really say you can’t,” and somewhere deep inside we embrace the image of a stingy God. Yet in response, the words of C.S. Lewis ring true, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Jesus has come to give us abundant life, and that life is in him, through him, and with him—and the gateway is holiness. If we could only let go of our trowel, he offers us the life that is truly life.