Why is it that when we hear the command to be holy we tend to recoil? It is as if we look at it as something undesirable, or perhaps all together ugly. I know that in my own experience, I have heard sermons on holiness and walked away honestly feeling oppressed and even discouraged. You may respond to that by saying, “You must have been convicted, brother!” It is certainly the case that when we grieve the Holy Spirit through an unholy lifestyle, we too will be grieved. It is also true that there is a part of us the Bible calls the flesh that will always buck at a call to holiness (Romans 8:7). However, I believe, at least in part, that we dislike the term holiness because we have allowed a faulty understanding to shape our view of it rather than the scriptures. Here are a few reasons we recoil at this command to be holy:
Because holiness has been equated to a few forbidden practices.
These practices could involve not drinking, not smoking, not going to the movie theater, no physical contact with your boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage, or not having a TV in your room. Now obviously, though many of these have a biblical foundation, perhaps some of these should be considered personal standards. The issue with equating holiness to a few forbidden practices is that it overlooks the purpose of holiness entirely. The goal is not just avoiding bad or unhealthy practices – that is more like asceticism than it is true sanctification. A moralist could abstain from these practices and yet he would not be holy at all. The goal of holiness is to reflect the very likeness of Christ with our entire being. The goal is not just abstinence, the goal is Christ! Will my pursuit of reflecting the glories of Christ cause me to abstain from certain practices? Absolutely! But if the goal is reduced to mere abstinence the point is missed. Sometimes these lists actually don’t even have a Scriptural footing. They are more grounded in traditionalism – “What we have always done” – rather than being solely governed by scripture. This has not only frustrated some of the younger generation, but it has also caused some to be lifted up in pride because they have passed the “holiness test” by abstaining from a few bad practices.
Because we fear that holiness sounds outdated
The moment you bring up the subject of modesty or sexual purity in a world that is aggressively pushing a sexual revolution, you get the sense that people think you are out of touch with reality. The truth is, the world will always think it is strange that we don’t run with them after the same sinful and reckless lifestyle (1 Peter 4:4). But when we reflect the true holiness of Christ, by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, people actually see our living hope. This is the way Peter laid it out for us in his first epistle. He tells believers to sanctify the Lord God in their hearts. This command is calling believers to consecration or to holiness in light of the lordship of Christ. Then he follows this command with this directive – “and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). When a believer reflects the glorious holiness of Christ, the world doesn’t identify it has holiness, per se; they identify it as hope. They notice the distinctiveness in light of their barrenness and brokenness. Though some teachings of holiness are outdated and man-centered, the holiness that is through the person and work of Christ is relevant in every generation and it is what the world desperately needs to see!
Because of a false dichotomy between holiness and happiness
Have you ever heard a preacher say, “God is not interested in your happiness; He is interested in your holiness!” I have heard it on several occasions, and I’m sure I have said something similar in my preaching and teaching in the past. This a false dichotomy. I will go as far to say that until a believer learns to source his happiness in the Lord, he will never be truly holy in his practice. The desire to be happy was not a result of the fall, but rather it was derailed by the fall. God has wired us to be happy in Him and to enjoy His creation, as well as the gift of life (1 Timothy 6:17). The problem is not a desire for happiness. The problem comes when we replace the proper source of happiness with God-substitutes. We try to find happpiness in pleasure, fame, or the accumulation of things rather than in drinking deeply of Christ and in him finding satisfaction. A lot of people are trying to find love, joy, and peace in the world. They hope it will make them truly happy. It is interesting that love, joy and peace are a part of the fruit of the Spirit – it is what we experience when we are partakers of His holiness.
While I could give more reasons why we recoil at the command to be holy, this is sufficient for us to see that much of our reservations are couched in a faulty understanding of this subject. Five times in the Old Testament we are called to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. When we begin to allow the scriptures to shape our view of holiness, it becomes something desirable, attractive, and simply beautiful.
I want to close with an illustration that I think will help us see that holiness is beautiful. Take out a sheet of paper and draw a line right down the middle, making two columns. On the one side, write out ten qualities that you despise in other individuals. Perhaps you would write dishonesty, infidelity, self-centeredness, and pride among others. On the other side write down ten qualities that you desire in other individuals. Perhaps you would write honesty, integrity, humility, compassion, patience, and joy. Now draw a circle around everything you put in the despised column and label it unholy – because that what it is. Draw a circle around everything you wrote down as desirable and label it holy – because that is what it is. Honesty, integrity, humility, compassion, patience, and joy are all the outflow of the Holy Spirit’s filling a believer with the beauty of His holiness. Don’t allow the world or poor teaching to shape your view of holiness. The scriptures teach that holiness is beautiful.