Holiness = Love

August 8th, 2011
All of us have

My very first pastorate was a set of three churches who had just voted to merge together. I was an unlikely person to walk with them down the difficult road of merger. I came from an ivory-tower seminary. My studies emphasized history and theological ethics. Philosophy was my undergraduate major. The churches involved never consulted any leadership gurus. They united because they believed God called them to live together, and they trusted that I would do my best to help them love one another through it all.

A few years later we found ourselves in a new building and with more members than ever, but we did not measure our situation by brick and numbers. Then one day I received a phone call from some nationally-revered expert on church development and mergers. He had heard about us and wanted to know the secret of our success. Which cutting-edge technique did we follow? I replied that the people believed God had called them to join with one another and that learning to get past old hurts and to love one another was the major task. I never heard from that expert again. I suppose our “secret” was not something that could be patented, packaged, and (perhaps most importantly) sold. Oh, well. We never really cared about that stuff. We simply wanted to live the love of Jesus.

Re-examining Love

Love is perhaps the most underrated reality in Christianity today. The church assumes to know all about it, but often we buy into ideologies that embrace less-than-loving principles. This happens constantly in personal relationships. We’re human, and we know that. Yet it also happens on a larger scale, where denominational cultures and bureaucracies send the message: “You are not good enough.” This kind of thinking comes from many places, but one of the most prominent is the business world. The ideology of quantification, measurement, and bottom lines is killing us. It is also very controlling, and love is anything but controlling.

When I wrote a recent book on Christian holiness, I found that some feared it was about one more expectation. Most of us can get by in life, hang in there, and keep going – but holiness? Forget it. That’s way beyond our aspirations and energies. Besides, it sounds rather elitist. Yet here’s the irony: holiness is not about being better than others or even meeting someone else’s “measurable” expectations. It is about receiving and reflecting God’s love. I don’t know about you, but I would much rather open myself to God and share love than toil to satisfy questionable standards.

What is love?

There is an old nugget of “wisdom” that teaches kindness as a matter of who we are, not a matter of the recipient’s identity. I get that. Others don’t always act in lovable ways, and we can be people of dignity regardless of the behavior around us. Still, I will call out some implications of this notion. There is a difference between reacting to the behavior of others and affirming the value of others. (I knew there was a reason why I studied philosophy and ethics). I can respect the person and being of those around me without appreciating everything they do. Love is more about the value of others than my ideals and determination. This may not sound clever enough for those who want to focus on the self, but I think it points to a huge issue in today’s culture. Love is not about my feelings or even my resolve to act in spite of my feelings. Love is an affirmation of the intrinsic worth of others. Intrinsic worth is a value created and redeemed by God, not a worth assigned by society or earned by performance. When I found notes from an old “holiness” writer that emphasized the intrinsic worth of people, I scanned the near-illegible handwriting and had it enlarged on several hundred posters. I distributed them around the college where I teach and serve as chaplain. Months later I was surprised to hear from one student after another regarding how important these two words – “Intrinsic Worth” – were for them. One posted the phrase in a place where she could see it every morning. It was an affirmation for her, but it also called her to acknowledge this value in others. I can’t get over the way this perspective has rippled through our college community and beyond.

Holiness is a Gift

So we can stop thinking of Christian holiness as an impossible burden or dated expectation and start thinking of it as a gift we might offer others! We can do that because we, too, have intrinsic worth. I’ve heard several Christians claim that those who resist the “numbers game” around evangelism and mission are lazy. That is not necessarily true. We don’t need folks who can put up better numbers, but we do need those who are willing to love others with abandon. It is hard work, but it is immensely fulfilling work. Stop apologizing for being unique, for not doing as the experts say, for not running after the latest thing. Start loving others – all others – because they matter to God. You might surprise yourself. The way of holiness is freedom – freedom to love, and that’s the only kind of freedom worth something.

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