“Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy.”
1 Peter 1 v 13 - 16
I’m sure a lot of you will have heard the classic Christian joke of the man who asked God to be holy then added in a small voice “just not yet”. There is a very large element of truth in the sentiment expressed there. Despite the fact that Christians know we should want to be more holy we’re also kind of resistant to becoming more holy.
When it comes to being holy Christianity takes a completely different approach to all other religions. They say that man must strive to be holy and so gain salvation from sins. Christianity says no, man cannot ever make up the debt he owes God through good works. Instead a man is saved by the grace of God and then is made holy. Salvation first, holiness second.
This process is known as sanctification which basically means becoming more like Christ. The process of sanctification makes us more holy and it is a work that doesn’t originate from us:
“For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Philippians 2 v 13
Yet as often as not we resist this impulse to become more holy. We make excuses, we put it off, we procrastinate and we do a thousand and one other things rather than embrace holiness. Part of this reluctance stems from the wrong image we have of holiness and our wrong idea of what becoming more holy involves.
Without further ado let’s look at some of these ‘holiness myths’:
Being holy is boring
This myth is one of the most common and at the same time one of ones that makes the least sense at all. Too often our picture of holiness is of some sort of monk in a walled room mediating on the great things of life. We imagine holiness to come only as a result of cutting ourselves completely away from the material world. We imagine holiness to be part and parcel with being solemn and sad.
To strike directly at the heart of this myth let me ask you a question: was Jesus’ life boring? I think not. Yet Jesus was 100% holy, every action he did, every time he spoke, every thought he had was 100% guaranteed holiness.
What does this mean? Well, if we place Jesus as our prime example of holiness it suddenly doesn’t seem so boring.
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and "sinners."' But wisdom is proved right by her actions.”
Matthew 11 v 19
We have here an example of the fake, moralistic, legalistic holiness of the Pharisees who called Jesus a drunkard and friend of ‘sinners’. Set in complete contrast is the true holiness of Jesus who came eating and drinking because, you know, eating and drinking are fun, socialable, friendly and mostly not very boring things to do.
Being holy involves giving up all material things
Ok, first of all sometimes we do have to give up certain things that are bad for us. These things depend of what type of person we are. For example if someone is prone to getting drunk then he/she should probably give up all alcohol whereas most people can get away with a drink or two and that’s fine.
No, the myth I’m speaking about involved thinking that every single material thing is somehow not holy. Again, our picture of holiness involves chastity, poverty and a picture of a monk with no earthly possessions.
We have to ask is this what the Bible says? The answer would have to be no. After all there’s an entire book of the Bible devoted to sex (Songs of Solomon) in its right place: marriage. And while Christians are called to give to the poor actual wealth is seen as a blessing. As James writes:
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”
James 1 v 17
It is possible to be holy and rich, holy and sex three times a day (within marriage of course), holy and own shares on the stock market, holy and sit down to a five star meal.
What matter is not what material possessions we own but our attitude to them. As long as we follow God’s commands to be selfless, generous, upright and blameless Christians have a freedom to do what they like.
“"Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.”
1 Corinthians 10 v 23 – 26
Paul here effectively sums up the correct attitude of a Christian to all things. The question of what is and is not beneficial is entirely dependant on individual character and the various other commands of the Bible.
Being holy will make me sad
We always seem to imagine that being holy will make us unhappy. That holiness involves being po-faced and serious. Part of this view stems from the fact that it is always easier to go on sinning than to resist temptation and another part of this view also stems from the fact that sin can and often does bring us pleasure.
But this view is based on a lie. For if we obey God’s commands, if we actively pursue a life of holiness will not great blessing follow? I know from personal experience that the darker times of my life have always been when I wasn’t striving to be closer to God.
You can only be holy be working for the church
Wrong! We are holy by working for God. The church plays a part in that but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a large part.
Who is more holy a pastor or a Christian businessman? The answer is that they should both be the same. The pastor is not made more holy by his profession nor the businessman made less holy by his. If both love and obey God then both can be considered holy.
Side note: You also don't need to be really old, what a long white beard and dress in a robe to be holy although it helps! In all seriousness holiness is about what we do not about how we look. So sell that robe and shave that beard you really don't need it.
Holiness is too hard to achieve
Right, being holy is hard. There can be no doubt about that. It does involve sacrifice, resisting temptation and putting sin to death. But is not hard for the reason we think it is hard. What stops a Christian being holy is not outside things but the sin within his heart. As Jesus said:
“For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man 'unclean’.”
Mark 7 v 21 – 23
That is why we struggle with holiness. Because we all have sin within our hearts. But there is hope:
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
2 Corinthians 5 v 17
When someone becomes a Christian the Bible speaks about that person being made anew. Their old heart geared towards sin is replaced by a new heart that loves the Lord. As such sanctification is not the process of pushing a rock up a hill that we often think of it as. No, sanctification is the rock rolling down the hill and when we sin we are trying vainly to push against it.
For sanctification is the work of God in our lives and what God starts he will finish.
“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 1 v 6
We are never as holy as we could be. The glorious work of sanctification will continue to the day we die. Making us more holy is God’s lifetime work in us, a work that will continue regardless of whether we like it or not.
But make no mistake; the holiness God seeks to create in us is not the holiness we often imagine it to be. When we study the life of Jesus, our perfect example of a holy life, we see how often our idea and the reality of holiness fail to meet.
For holiness is nothing more than loving and obeying God and we can do that in all things. We do not have to give up completely on the material world and there is no need to lock ourselves away from the world. Holiness is never boring. Yet at the same time becoming holy will never be easy but it will be irresistible for the work which God has started in us he will see to completion.
I know from my own life that I'm constantly trying to push that great rock of holiness back up the hill and away from my life. But it is futile really, God is working in me, slow though I am to learn, resistant though I am to teaching, he is working in me and the work will be carried out to completion.