What Is Holiness?

I wrote the following for a case study assignment in my Ministry Capstone class.  There is certainly more that can and should be included, but this fit the parameters of the assignment.  If anyone wants to explore the Wesleyan / Nazarene perspective of holiness further, I highly recommend the book Discovering Christian Holiness by Dr. Diane Leclerc.

Simply put, holiness is the restoration of our full humanity.  As we are made holy, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to love God fully with our hearts, souls, and minds and our neighbors as ourselves.  This love restores us to how God created us and compels us to be people of compassion and justice.

Contrary to what people often think, it is not human nature to be selfish.  This is not how God created us.  Genesis 1:27 says, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”  As beings created in God’s image, our nature is to be holy, just as God is holy.  Selfishness is the antithesis of how God created us.  This selfish nature is the result of the brokenness that has gripped humanity since the Fall, but it is not humanity in its true nature.

Because of the Fall, brokenness has become the reality of human existence.  Each person is at odds with each other, God, nature, and even themselves.  Holiness brings restoration to brokenness, though, and those fractured relationships are restored.  This restoration cannot be earned.  It comes through grace.  Prevenient grace draws us to God, saving grace restores our relationship with God, and sanctifying grace renews the image of God in us.  This grace is freely available to those who choose to respond to it.  This response, though, is not a work that people do.  Rather, it is an acceptance of the work that Christ already did in His incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

Once a person makes a decision to live as a follower of Christ, he or she gains access to the Holy Spirit.  Jesus told His disciples, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.  He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come” (John 16:13).  Paul explains, “People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit” (Romans 8:5).  The Holy Spirit transforms the way that people lived under brokenness and empowers them to live as God created them to live.

The best way to understand the created nature of humanity is to look at Christ.  In the incarnation, God is revealed to humanity in the clearest possible way that humanity can perceive.  “In these final days, though, [God] spoke to us through a Son . . . The Son is the light of God’s glory and the imprint of God’s being” (Hebrews 1:2-3).  Even more than revealing God to us, though, because Jesus is both fully human and fully God, Jesus reveals to us the way that humanity was meant to live as beings created in God’s image.  People can look at Jesus and see how God intended them to live.  “I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do” (John 13:15).

Our calling to be holy, to be like Jesus, is most fully realized in Jesus’ commandment to love.  He told His disciples, “I give you a new commandment: Love each other.  Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34).  Likewise, Jesus explained to one of the religious leaders in His day that love is the essence of all that the Jews had been commanded in the Hebrew Scriptures.  “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind . . . You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.  All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).  Jesus explains that our completeness, our holiness, is made known in our love for others.  And we are not called to love just those who are our friends, neighbors, and family.  We are even called to love our enemies.  “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you . . . If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have?  Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? . . . Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:44, 46, 48).

We are conformed to Christ’s image, we are made holy, partially through the means of grace.  These means include the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist.  They also include spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, meditation, fasting, solitude, and simplicity.  As we step away from the noises and distractions of the world that surround us and focus on God’s gentle voice, we draw closer to Christ and are shaped into the sort of people that He would have us be.  It is good to do good things, but we also need to take time to just sit at the feet of Jesus.  Being in His presence, as the spiritual disciplines lead us, helps to shape us, just as it did Mary, the sister of Martha.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  One thing is necessary.  Mary has chosen the better part.  It won’t be taken from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

Though we are conformed to Christ’s image through the means of grace, being conformed to Christ’s image will lead us to become people of compassion and justice.  Compassion and justice were primary themes of Jesus’ ministry.  Upon beginning His ministry, He gave the following sermon in His hometown: “‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor’ . . . Today, this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it” (Luke 4:18-20).  Jesus calls us, too, to join him in this ministry of compassion and justice: “I was hungry and you gave me food to eat.  I was thirsty and you gave me a drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.  I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear.  I was sick and you took care of me.  I was in prison and you visited me . . . I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me” (Matthew 25:35-36, 40).

Holiness, then, is being conformed to Christ’s image.  That conformity comes through grace, and it restores us to our true humanity.  When our humanity is restored, we will be people who live following the example of Christ and showing His love and compassion to the lost and broken world.  As the Holy Spirit works in and through us, the Kingdom of God will be expanded, and God will be all in all.

Joining Christ In His Incarnational Mission

I love the incarnation!  To think that the immortal, all-powerful, all-knowing God who created the entire cosmos in its vastness loves our broken species enough to take it upon Himself and walk alongside us on our tiny planet blows my mind!  Those who came before Jesus’ incarnation were at a disadvantage.  Though God spoke “through the prophets to our ancestors in many times and many ways” (Hebrews 1:1), they did not have the advantage of actually having God-in-the-Flesh to look at.  We are so privileged today!  We have the stories of Jesus’ life contained in Scripture as an example to us of how God intends us to live, and we have access to the Holy Spirit, who enables us to be restored to God’s image and actually live out that life.

Today’s Epistle Reading from the Ashes to Fire devotional highlights another important aspect of the incarnation.  The full reading is Hebrews 2:11-18, but I want to focus in on verse 17: “Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way.  This was so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, in order to wipe away the sins of the people.”  Did you get that?  Jesus had to be made like us so that He could become merciful.  The Message paraphrase puts verses 17-18 like this: “That’s why he had to enter into every detail of human life.  Then, when he came before God as high priest to get rid of the people’s sins, he would have already experienced it all himself—all the pain, all the testing—and would be able to help where help was needed.”

This passage highlights an aspect of the incarnation that might not be as obvious to us as the aspect of revealing God to humanity.  Yes, in the incarnation, God is made known to humanity in the clearest possible way that humanity can understand.  And yes, in the incarnation, we can look at Jesus and see what it means to live life as a creature created in God’s image.  But even further, the incarnation enabled God to fully connect with the plight of humanity.  Through Jesus’ sufferings, the brokenness of humanity was fully experienced by God.  As such, we can be assured that God truly does understand all of our troubles, and we can be confident in God’s offer of redemption and restoration.

The incarnation is not just Jesus’ calling, though.  Prior to sharing with the Philippians the Christ hymn, which contains a beautiful explanation of the incarnation, Paul tells them, “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.  Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).  Just as Jesus took upon Himself humanity that we might know God better through Him, so too are we called to reach out to the broken world, that they might come to know God through Christ being revealed in us.

Being incarnational is about so much more than inviting people to church.  Rather than expect them to come to where we are, we need to go to where they are.  We need to experience life as they experience it.  We need to walk alongside them in their context.  As we do so, we will come to know their situations better, and we will be better equipped to represent Christ to them.

During this season leading up to Easter, let us commit ourselves to being Christ to the broken world.  May we represent God in all of our interactions with others, and may we seek out others in their brokenness, just as Christ sought us out.

Help My Unbelief

I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

–Mark 9:24

When I was a child, Christmas was probably my favorite time of year.  I’ll admit it: For me it was more about receiving than giving.  The anticipation was almost too much to bear.  I didn’t mind waiting until Christmas Day to receive my presents, but I hated not knowing what I was getting.  In fact, I would sometimes peel away the tape from wrapped gifts to have a peek at what was underneath, and then I would tape them back up.

My desire to have the answers hasn’t changed much now that I am rapidly approaching my 38th birthday.  Very rarely do I have time for personal reading anymore (my reading time is consumed with ministry training and development), but when I do, I tend to skim a book, even to the point of being “spoiled”, before I actually read it through.  Likewise, I often go into movies having a good idea of what to expect.

When it comes to life, there are no easy answers.  Though we may have an idea of what we are going to do at some point in the future, circumstances (sometimes in our control, but often not) can and will rapidly change things up on us.  It reminds me of a line from the John Lennon song Beautiful Boy: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  I know that some find these uncertainties adventurous, and they enjoy the unveiling of the mysteries as life unfolds.  Not me, though.  I hate not having a good idea of what I will be doing a few months down the road, or a couple of years.  I don’t need to know too far in advance.  I’ve never been one to develop even a strict five-year plan, knowing that the variables of life will undoubtedly render it obsolete.  And I do not need specifics, but I like having a general sense of direction.

When I find myself in situations of uncertainty, I am reminded of the man with the demon-possessed son, who’s story is told in Mark 9.  Jesus tells this man that anything is possible for those who believe.  The man responds, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

What contradictory creatures we are!  We can be fully assured of something in our minds, but when it comes to committing that to our hearts, we easily fail.  My life is built upon the assurance that as long as I faithfully live out my calling to represent Christ and fulfill the mission given to me to bring restoration to brokenness in all the situations I find myself in, God will see me through all things.  However, in the face of imminent uncertainty, it is easy to find myself like Peter walking on the water but looking at the wind and the waves around me.

Of course, as soon as we take our eyes off Jesus, we begin to sink under all that assaults us.  In my case, this usually means that I am overcome with anxiety, apprehension, and despair.  I am so overcome that it is difficult for me to do much of anything.  What, then, is the solution?  As always, it is to fix our eyes on Jesus.  It is to be like Peter, sinking beneath the waves, when he calls out to the Lord to save him.  It is to be like the father of the demon-possessed boy, and exclaim, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter what we will be doing five years, five months, or even five minutes from now.  What matters is that wherever we find ourselves, and in whatever situations we find ourselves, we are faithful to our calling.  We do not even need to be successful at what we are doing, as long as we are faithful.  When we are faithful, God will see us through.  After all, we are only called upon to play one small part in the tapestry of human existence.  Someone else will come along and weave their threads into the tapestry where we left off, and the completed work will be better for it.

After all, what is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants who helped you to believe. Each one had a role given to them by the Lord: I planted, Apollos watered, but God made it grow.

–1 Corinthians 3:5-6

The Way Forward

One of my dear friends attended the inauguration of President Trump.  He posted a Facebook Live video of President and Michelle Obama leaving the inauguration.  As they stepped into the helicopter and it lifted, I could hear a few people say things like, “Good riddance!”  This is not the way forward.

Immediately after the inauguration, I saw several people post countdown clocks until the next inauguration, implying that they cannot wait until President Trump is replaced, which will take place, in their minds, in four years.  (Four and eight years ago, I saw republicans post similar things, waiting until the end of President Obama’s term.)  This is not the way forward.

Prior to and since the election of President Trump, I have seen post after post from republicans, mocking those who see things differently than themselves, calling them things like “snowflakes”, and ridiculing their hurt and pain.  At the same time, I have seen democrats accuse all republicans of being racist, misogynistic homophobes.  This is not the way forward.

Our country is sharply divided.  Nothing illustrates this better than the recent presidential election.  President Trump solidly won the election with 304 electoral votes (the only thing that matters), 30 states, and a red blanket across the individual counties of the nation.  When we look at the actual numbers, though, they are not all in the new POTUS’s favor.  Secretary Clinton received over 2.8 million more individual votes than President Trump did, and just a few thousand votes in a handful of states would have swung the electoral college to her favor.  So, though President Trump solidly won the election, it was far from a landslide.  Our nation remains sharply divided.

So, where do we go from here?  Certainly, some will want President Trump and the republican congress to quickly push through whatever changes they want, and others will want the democrats in congress to obstruct whatever they can.  I would like to suggest, however, that there is a better way forward.  Rather than working against one another, we should work together.  Rather than engaging in name-calling, ridicule, accusations, and other things that divide, we should learn how to have a charitable discourse with one another.

In his book A Charitable Discourse, Dr. Dan Boone writes, “If the holy conversation, a generous discourse, is to occur, the labeling must cease.  We are not dealing with labels, we are talking to people.  Forget their political party and economic status, that they beat you in the last board election, that they are different—and remember that Jesus removes labels.  So can we.  Then we might be able to talk” (Location 270).  Have you ever tried to think fondly of someone else who labels you in hurtful ways?  Do you like being mocked for the things that distress you?  Newsflash: Nobody else likes it, either.  If we are to move forward, we need to stop with the name-calling.  As long as this continues, we will not be able to work together, and we will always be opposed to one another.  Power will shift from left to right, and then back again, as the unending struggle for dominance continues.  And we will not have improved at all as a nation.

If you were on the winning side this election season, you may ask, “Why should I listen to them?  We won.  We now have the authority to do whatever we want.”  Well . . . good luck with that.  The pendulum always shifts, and somewhere down the road, the other side will once again control the government.  Would not a better approach be to learn to work together now?  And if you were on the side the lost, you may be filled with anger, fear, and/or despair.  You may not want to have anything to do with those who won.  But is this really the best way to live life?  Protest is fine, and the right to protest is part of what has made America great all along (no, it did not suddenly become great with the inauguration of President Trump), but ultimately real, positive change comes when we learn to work together.  Dr. Boone writes, “When we declare someone an enemy, we unleash something in that person’s direction for which we become responsible . . . By cursing the enemy, we unleash upon him or her the wish for harm to be done, not the desire for good.  This is not the way of Jesus” (Location 380).  Let us not continue as enemies.  Rather, let us learn to listen to one another, understanding that each and every person’s opinion is valid, and figure out a way to work together for the common good.

The best way to come to understand the perspective of others is to spend some time looking at the world from their perspective.  If you won this year, great!  Try to remember how you felt eight years ago when President Obama was elected and inaugurated.  And treat others how you would have like to have been treated.  And if you lost this year, bummer.  Try to remember your excitement eight and four years ago, and be happy for those who won.  And remember, there are more elections in the future.  The peaceful transfer of power is another thing that has made America great all along.

Friends, if we are to continue as a nation, we must learn how to rise above the division.  Let us love one another unconditionally.  Let us try to imagine what it is like to live the lives of others.  Let us stop using our words to harm and demean others.  And let us treat all people with dignity and respect.  We can do better than what we have been doing.  We must do better than what we have been doing.  God, help us.

Boone, Dan.  A Charitable Discourse.  Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 2010.  Kindle.