I was planning to preach on holiness at a summer retreat a few months ago but decided to change my topic a few weeks before the retreat. I had scribbled down some thoughts on a torn-out journal page, and that page has been sitting on my desk since mid-summer, waiting to be typed or discarded. I think I’ll do both. The page contained a number of misconceptions about holiness. I’ll try to expand on them, as well as identify the biblical reality. These are the first three.
- Holiness is boring. In the same way that many today automatically associate the word “obedience” with “heartless duty,” the word “holiness” is often allowed to connote boring, stuffy, disconnected spirituality. If you’re holy, you must be an overly spiritual stick-in-the-mud who’s fairly irrelevant and unavoidably bland. Certainly there are forms of false holiness that are somber, dreary, and rigid, and there’s no getting around the fact that Jesus didn’t just denounce people like this but actually made fun of them. But they aren’t accurate representatives of true holiness. The biblical reality is that holiness is beautiful. The beauty of God’s manifold perfections is meant to be reflected in the holiness of His people, and this kind of radiant holiness (the true kind) is only boring to the blind. Christian character carries the power of allurement when lived out consistently in the midst of a dark and dying world. I don’t mean this in a triumphalistic way, as if to say that a holy heart and life will automatically win over everyone at your workplace. But I mean that God has called us out of the world not just to be different but to be delightful, not just to be strange but to be striking, not just to be marked out but to be remarkable. Not only can holiness be attractive; it should be.
- Holiness is passive. In other words, holiness is about what you avoid. It’s mainly about dodging wrong, not doing right. If you’re a 22-year-old who doesn’t use profanity, lose his temper, or look at pornography, you’re in the clear. I think this misconception is part of the reason why we often don’t pay much attention to sins of omission. We assume that if you’re not committing sin, you must be holy. But the reality is that holiness is active. Holiness is aggressive. For instance, we don’t normally consider evangelistic zeal and activity an issue of holiness or morality. But it is. If holiness is about imitating the character of God, missional living is not outside its scope. It’s not as though the concept of holiness includes your entertainment choices but doesn’t include your ministry choices. “Pure and undefiled religion” means “keeping onself unstained by the world,” but it also means “visiting widows and orphans in their distress” (James 1:27). The startling implication is this: You can do your devotions every day, attend Sunday church and weekly Bible study, and be “different” than your unbelieving co-workers, but if you don’t actively share the gospel, encourage the church, and care for the broken, you have no claim to biblical holiness. Holiness is active.
- Holiness is structured. This may be more of an American misconception, but I think it’s a subtle misconception nonetheless. We love programs, formulas, systems, and strategies, and often we think that external discipline or programmed spirituality equals holiness. It’s typical to think that the person who reads the same amount of chapters in his Bible at the same time each morning must be more mature than the person whose devotions are unscheduled yet consistent. Or that signing up to serve in a ministry program equals church involvement. Or that participation in the perennial church outreach event is enough even if there’s no evangelistic lifestyle during the other 364 days of the year. Scheduled devotions, church programs, and one-time evangelistic gatherings are all profitable if done wisely, and I don’t mean to denigrate organization. But generally we greatly value structure over spontaneity even though Spirit-led spontaneity is exemplified and encouraged in Scripture. By “spontaneity” I don’t mean being purposefully anti-institutional or making off-the-wall choices or sliding into an undisciplined lifestyle. I mean a genuine nearness to the heart of God that encourages you to engage in unscheduled ministry, that compels you to respond immediately (and sometimes unpredictably) to the conviction and guidance of the Spirit, that frees you to embrace providential interruptions, and that eagerly jumps into unscripted gospel opportunities instead of putting all your stock into what’s programmed and predictable. I am all for wise planning, comprehensive preparation, thoughtful foresight, spiritual discipline, and thorough self-control. But these things aren’t antithetical to spontaneity, and their external exercise doesn’t guarantee holiness. Holiness is meant to overflow from the deepest desires of our hearts. It is good and wise to channel that overflow, but sometimes we mistake the banks of the river for the river itself. Just because you have banks doesn’t mean you have a river. And just because you have a smoothly-flowing river doesn’t mean you shouldn’t long for a flood.