Not all that long ago I was sitting and chatting with my wife and she made a comment that we are not as concerned about holiness as we once were. Her comment was in the context of us having journeyed outside of more formal church structures that had reformed theological systems of belief and a more fundamentalist outlook on life toward the freedom that we had found within the house church that we had started and the liberty that we discovered in Christ in this time. This grace and liberty had lessened the fear of been smitten by the Lord that we previously walked in and the example that she shared was that today we were more likely to watch something on TV today whereas, in the past, we would have switched it off the first time that we heard someone cuss.
Her reflection was accurate as well, while I still consider myself a conservative person, I do appreciate music that sometimes has naughty words in it. I’ll watch a show like the Walking Dead even though it’s filled with zombies and violence. And I’ll laugh hard at an inappropriate joke made on the Grand Tour. I could try and justify these things by saying that it has not corrupted me in any way, I never use coarse language myself, or encourage and applaud violence but at the end of the day I have to admit that my standards have changed.
My response on the day was that I think that my definition of holiness had somewhat changed over time which was manifesting in our lives subconsciously. Holiness was and is still important but it had become less of a personal discipline and morphed more into a relational expression toward others. What I mean by that is that growing up I always thought of holiness as meaning don’t drink, don’t swear, don’t smoke, don’t listen to angry music (I battled with that one), don’t watch movies that have any sort of age restriction on them, don’t hang out at bad places and don’t hang out with people who do any of the above. In other words, holiness was about abstaining from certain behavioral issues that were or had the appearance of evil.
And some of those things above probably are good to avoid with one or two debatable ones in there as well. Yet my old, narrow view of holiness as you may have noticed, was very negative and all about abstinence. It was all inward focused on not doing bad things but had very little positive application in ones life. So how do I see things now and what does it mean to be ‘set apart’? I think that at this stage I see holiness as an expression of love more than anything else. Holiness is not so much about what I am good at resisting (though that is important) as much as it is about how I relate to others around me that is unique or in contrast to the ways of the world. This certainly still carries inward connotations for sure, it requires more dying to self and the same sort of discipline as before, it’s just more others centered which means that it is more about doing good than it is about been good.
You see, I can abstain from all sorts of appearances of evil, I might not ever get drunk, be rude to people, sleep around, get into fights or similar things. Instead I could spend the day fishing or hiking in the mountains having never done anything ‘bad’ all day. But does that make me holy? I don’t think so. Thinking about these things I went and had a look at a few scriptures on holiness, and I soon discovered that holiness is intrinsically relational. In 2 Corinthians 7:1 for example, Paul urges us to ‘perfect holiness in the fear of God’, in the next verse he elaborates by saying that we should wrong no one, corrupt no one and cheat no one. Paul associates holiness with our conduct toward others.
I recently read the comic-style biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the faith Spy, and it documents a moment during his travels where he has an epiphany about been a good person verses doing good, faith to Dietrich had become something more than as intellectual study or exercise and shifted into something that demanded action in the face of evil. I see the same thing with Peter when he makes a similar observation where he associates holiness with ones conduct, “But as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:15-16). Likewise the author of Hebrews urges his readers to “pursue peace with all people and holiness” (12:14). I don’t think that it is possible to do one without the other.
Lastly, the verse that stood out the most for me was in Ephesians 5:1-3, keep in mind that the Greek word for holiness is ‘ἅγιος’ (hagios) and is, in this case, translated as ‘saint’.
Therefore be imitators of God dear children. And walk in love, as Christ has also loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting of saints.
My take away from this is that the saints (holy ones) are to live sacrificial, others centered lives, guarding their own thoughts and actions as we walk in love. The definition of holiness I am advocating for above does not detract from the previous definition that I held too, but it certainly calls for a broadening of what we think that it means to be set apart. What this may look like in practical terms, a decade ago I would have declined an offer for an alcoholic beverage ten times out of ten, setting me apart from others in whatever group environment I happened to find myself in. Today, I would probably still decline a drink because I just don’t really like most alcoholic beverages, but I might also say yes to appease my host, or to relax, share and enjoy the moment and a connection with another person. The point is, what was once a hard and fast rule is now more just a moment by moment decision guided by the principle of loving others as you love yourself. Maybe I don’t want to appear to be a religious stick in the mud and having a drink might cause my friend to open up more than he would have if I simply said, “no thanks I don’t drink”. Maybe this is why Jesus was happy enough to sit around a table flowing with wine and questionable characters. His holiness was certainly not lessened by it as He let His love for others and His Father motivate His actions. Of course, there are places that have no grey areas, sexual immorality for example is always harmful and therefore the opposite of loving.
Perhaps we do not need to complicate things so much. Remember Jesus’ new commandment, the golden rule, and I guarantee that we will stay on course in pursuing holiness as well.