Why Holiness Matters

July 16th, 2011

Summer is the time for ministry conferences, conventions, regional gatherings, and those endless displays and information fairs. Take some time to walk through the arenas, the halls, the gymnasiums, or other open spaces of church events, and you will find rows of tables devoted to interpreting mission work, educational ventures, social justice initiatives, retreat opportunities, and more. Most of the programs are very important, and those who staff the tables have critical stories to tell.

This year I hosted a table devoted to the college where I serve as chaplain. I met a lot of people, but my display gathered nothing like the attention of the one that gave away a free electronic device. Mind you, this was not a raffle. No money changed hands. Visitors to the display simply dropped their names into a box, and at a prearranged time, one winner was selected. The appointed moment created quite a disturbance. A large crowd materialized like clockwork. People pushed and shoved to be part of the action, and the announcement resembled some divine proclamation. This whole affair was billed as a relevant and contemporary way to focus attention on a godly cause, but I can not remember the ministry being promoted. I do, however, remember that excited mob of Christians hoping for a prize.

So what was I thinking when I wrote a small book on holiness? It is an old-fashioned term for something that many find mystifying or irrelevant. Holiness was not invented last night or released with great fanfare and a “killer app.” I have yet to see a crowd push and shove to find the secret of holiness. People who value spiritual life can not even agree on a definition of the concept. So what is holiness, and why should we care about it?

Holiness is connection with God.

The first point that needs to be made is this: holiness is not some isolated state of purity or superiority. It is best considered an open and grateful relationship with God. Then it is an overflow of God’s love that spills out of our lives toward others. This might seem like a stock description of an “old-school” concept, but I think it holds up well. We tend to fill our lives with stuff, at least in part, because there is an overriding emptiness. Achievement can be a way to collect artificial value, things, and advantage in an age of hyper-anxiety. Most of us, when perfectly honest, would acknowledge uncertainty about our worth. We may be on the trailing edge of the self-esteem movement, but we still carry a lot of insecurity about identity and value. To make matters worse, there is now a cynical backlash to the feel-good philosophies of self-affirmation. Unfortunately, most of these so-called corrective voices do not point to God. They simply ridicule others.

What we need, say some of the more caustic critics, is less blather and more bootstrap accomplishment. People should not presume worth; they should earn it. There is a sad irony here. For decades American Christians have almost forgotten God in the rush to embrace secular theories of self-esteem, but today’s commentators often do little better. We are left alone to prove ourselves. If holiness is about a living relationship with God that comes to us as a gift, then it goes way beyond anything we can award ourselves or create by solitary effort. Holiness is not self-esteem. Nor is it achievement. This twin truth suggests that holiness offers a promising third way.

Holiness is connection with the self and with others.

I work as a college chaplain and college professor. You might think that I would find the current flood of expertise in young adult ministry to be helpful. I do not. The young adults I know do not want to be forced into some niche. They want the same thing that people have wanted for ages. They want substance, depth, permanence, a place in the world that can outlast their mistakes and that is more powerful than their resources. They want and need grace – which is to say that we all do. So I write among college-aged people about themes that do not sound trendy to them, and they thank me for doing so. They remind me, better than I can articulate, that life has more to do with receiving and reflecting God’s love than anything else. They remind me that what they say they want and what really satisfies are not always identical, and they remind me that this is not simply their problem but a problem we all face. My young friends may present themselves as being savvy about the latest technology, but in their hearts they are happy to be counted among those who learned centuries ago that technology is but a tool. It is something to be used, not something to be worshiped. God, on the other hand, is someone (not really something) to be worshiped.

People are, likewise, in a category all their own, and they should never be used. Reflecting on the philosophical and theological distinctions between God, people, and things captures a lot of what holiness is about. Those who know God know themselves as fearfully and wonderfully made. They also know that this same God calls them into relationships, however rocky at times, with others. Given all of this, it is hard to see why the church would run after gimmickry to share the gospel. Interesting methods are one thing, but when techniques become the object of our ministry we are in trouble. Too often cheesy methods become the message, and we have something much more substantial to share. We also live in a world looking for something deeper.

That is not the only reason why Christian holiness matters, but it is one motivation for revisiting this classic concept and its accompanying practices in this and every generation.

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