Do you have an image that comes to your mind when you hear the words “holy” or “holiness”? I grew up in Brazil as a catholic. I wasn’t a very good one, but I was made to attend mass every week because the Nuns in my school would make us. The pictures around the school were all of “holy” people. They all had the same expression: sad eyes, pale faces (looking quite unhealthy), looking helpless and some had a halo above their heads. Those images pop into my mind when I hear these words, this is not very helpful to me.
Perhaps you don’t have an image but you might think of people pointing fingers at other people telling them they are getting it all wrong. The “holier than thou” kind of people. Sentences like “You are not good enough” or “You are worse than I thought” or “I am glad I am not like you” might be what you think of. To a certain extent we think of “holiness” as something we should be scared of and never able to attain.
We might think of people like Mother Theresa, the Apostle Paul, some of the Puritans, great preachers like Charles Spurgeon and most recently John Piper, Timothy Keller when we are challenged to be holy. Maybe we think of a dear friend in church, we see how they live and we wish we could be like them.
The big question is what does holiness look like? How would I know for sure I am leading a life of holiness or not? Why is it important to be holy? Pursuing holiness should be the priority of every Christian because it is God’s will for our lives. This pursuit is not simply a rule keeping exercise, a checklist we have and tick as we go along. It is important to note though that Jesus said:
“If you love me, keep my commands.” (John 14:15)
Obeying God’s commands is very important to every Christian (we will see that below) but not as a mechanical tick on a list. We must all be very careful to search our hearts and our motives. So if we stay away from drugs, sexual impurity, alcohol we might think we are good at this business of being “separated”, “set apart”, but we have not been humble, kind, shown compassion or helped anyone in the last day or so. Keeping rules for the sake of keeping rules is not pursuing holiness. Remember the Pharisees? They were excellent in keeping “rules” but their hearts were far from God.
Pursuing holiness is not being “spiritual” as the world understands it. People will say they are spiritual because they are open to “mysteries” and show an interest in prayer, healing and finding inner peace. Sitting under a tree with your legs crossed and eyes shut, listening to the birds singing is not going to make you holy. Believing all sorts of stories and fables are not going to make us more inclined to study God’s word. Buying books about self-help is not the answer either. What we learn from the Scriptures is that we are spiritual because we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit to be more like Christ each day.
Another thing holiness is not is being “true to oneself”. This is a very celebrated idea in our world today. Society will say that a truly good person is the one who is true to him/herself. Some believe that there isn’t a right or wrong way to do things. It will all be ok as long as you are true to yourself. This view causes all sorts of troubles. What if the way you see things is racist, violent, dishonest? If you are going to be true to yourself, many people along the way will be hurt and that will definitely not lead you to be holy, set apart, more like Jesus.
Pursuing holiness is not being friends with the world. By world I don’t mean the people around us but all who oppose the will of God. It is anything that makes sin look normal and righteousness look very out of place. The Bible tells us in 1 John 2:15:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them.” (emphasis mine)
We must remember that pursuing holiness comes with a cost. When we decide to apply Romans 12:1-2:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
We are swimming against the current all the time when it comes to the world’s view and expectation. If we save ourselves for marriage or decide to stay at home with our family instead of drinking ourselves silly on a Friday night, or if we decide to declare to the Inland Revenue all the things we own and earn in the year and pay the correct taxes, it is most likely people will distance themselves from us and think we are weird. The pattern of the world is not the path to holiness. This is what James tells us:
You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:4) (emphasis mine)
Pursuing holiness is having God’s image made new in us. We know that God created Adam and Eve in his image and when they disobeyed God that image was distorted/broken. Imagine rubbing mud with bits of sand on a mirror, when you wash the mirror you can still see yourself but there are places where the image is distorted because of the scratches the sand left on the mirror. That is how God’s image is in us at the moment because of sin. We are still image bearers and we strive to be holy because we want God’s image in us to be renewed each day. This process takes time and we must continue to trust God and His grace as we walk by faith being transformed with the help of the Holy Spirit in us. See what 2 Corinthians 3:18 says:
“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (emphasis mine)
The process of holiness looks at our character because we are to imitate God’s character. It goes much deeper than what we say and do. We need to get acquainted with our great God and His character more. He is holy, holy, holy and here are some of the virtues that should mark the lives of those who follow God and want to live for Him and for His glory alone: loving, patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not selfish, not rude, not irritable, not resentful, no joy in wrongdoing, rejoices with the truth, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. This list is not exhaustive. See 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. We get to know God and his character by studying his word deeply.
Obedience to God’s commands is another way pursuing holiness looks like for a Christian. We must remember that the Israelites were rescued from Egypt and then they were given the law to obey. They were not redeemed by observing/keeping the law, but they were redeemed so they might obey the law. In 1 John 2:3-6 we read:
“We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. 4 Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. 5 But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: 6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” (emphasis mine)
God gives us his commands as a means of grace so we might grow in godliness and show that we love Him.
Finally and most important of all holiness is to be Christ like. The goal of our salvation is that we should be conformed to the image of God’s Son. Jesus is our perfect example of holiness and obedience. He is the image of the invisible God “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” (Colossians 1:15) and the exact imprint of God’s nature: “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Hebrews 1:3)
To use the mirror illustration again, hopefully, as we become more like Jesus those scratches disappear and all that will be left is a true reflection of the perfect image of our Saviour in us. Remember we have all we need in the Bible. We need to be excited about getting to Know more about who Jesus is and we must, with God’s help, follow His example. God’s grace is being poured on us lavishly. Let us be encouraged as we open our Bibles and learn to live in a way that is pleasing to Him. May His Holy Spirit strengthen us each day for His glory alone.