The word “holiness” has always fascinated me while at the same time making me feel uncomfortable. Throughout the scriptures, it is used to describe God, His Spirit, His dwelling place and many of the things he does and has done. My discomfort comes from the fact that I can’t relate.
To be holy gives me the impression of being disconnected from reality, in a way that sounds extremely boring and a little scary. Yet on the more attractive side, it has sometimes stirred a sense of mystery within, mainly because I feel there’s more to it than I have experienced or understood. Something or someone that is holy seems to be in another realm that is definitely not of this world. “Otherness” or “indescribable purity” come to my mind. If true, it could be kind of fascinating to experience. But, practically speaking, why would I want it?
Most definitions I hear equate being holy with being “set apart.” Most the examples of “holiness” that I have been shown over the years, however, have centered on what a person didn’t do (and were usually proud of it). People who were serious about holiness didn’t wear certain clothes, especially the kind that were popular or trendy. They didn’t touch alcohol, tobacco or drugs—at least so others knew about it. They stayed away from expressions of any kind of sexuality, never even talking about it. And for the overachievers, women wouldn’t wear any makeup or jewelry, the men grew no facial hair, there were no tattoos, and everyone avoided going to dances or watching movies. And then there were those who seemed to see it all as a competition. That was my impression.
No thank you. I can live without “holiness.”
There’s more to it?
But then, as a Jesus follower, I find the word all throughout the scriptures. What am I supposed to do with it? One verse in particular gets me: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14, NIV). This appears to say that holiness is a requirement for getting close to God. Really? It sounds like God thinks this is pretty important.
But all those examples I’ve seen of “holiness” strike me as superficial. Maybe the people were sincere in what they were trying to do, yet nothing about it ever appeared to be more than putting on appearances. The goal seemed to be to merely look holy or just look different. Is that truly what God wants from me as His son?
I sure hope there is more to holiness than this.
The word “holy” appears in the Old and New Testaments more than 600 times. It indicates that something or someone is unique and set apart from what is ordinary. Often, it refers to God or His Spirit, but many times it speaks also of the expected holiness of those who claim to love and serve Him. Other words that are used to mean roughly the same thing are “sanctified,” “sacred,” “consecrated,” and “purified.”
Does this then mean to be holy or pure I have to focus on being different in what I wear, consume, or just not go to the places people typically go? Is that all there is to it?
Why is holiness so important to God?
Leviticus 20:26 says, “You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.”
God was calling His chosen people to come closer to Him and be more like Him. It seems that He desired the barriers between Himself and those who are His to be removed so that those He loves can be intimate with Him. Holiness appears to be a common denominator that can connect us to God Himself. Thus it was never meant to be a burden but an opportunity to live and interact with God in a way that allows us to fully benefit from Him as our life source. Holiness is a bridge for a love connection between God and His people.
Many of the Old Testament laws were about keeping God’s people ritually pure. Today, these rules feel irrelevant, and we usually skip over them when reading through the Bible. One theme that is woven throughout, however, is the prohibition against touching dead or diseased things. While there are sound hygiene principles here, it can feel a bit over the top with how hard these particular laws are pressed on the people. Yet, this may be a key to better understand holiness.
Holiness = Anti-death
Throughout the scriptures, God is described as being the source of all life. Death is unnatural in His reign and ultimately anti-God. For the sake of His relationship with His people, it was vital for His people to understand this. So, He used the purification laws as a teaching tool. Touching dead things was not a sin, but it did make a person unclean and keep him or her from coming into God’s presence until proper purification had been performed. The lesson: Death is a cancerous contaminant in God’s Kingdom. He is all about bringing His children from death to life. And this is what He has wanted us to learn from the beginning.
While these purification laws feel meaningless to me personally, they get me thinking. What do I hold within me that is a source of death rather than life? What practices, habits, mindsets, or attitudes that I regularly exercise act as diseases or deadly contagion to my spiritual walk with God? My pride? My idolatry? My demand to be in control? Perhaps holiness then is what I get when I separate myself from the things that allow death to entwine itself with my soul. Holiness is meant to connect me with the Source of Life!
Of course, the challenge is recognizing these “diseases” that lead to death for what they are. The insidious abilities of COVID-19 over the past two years are a good reminder that sickness and death can be “invisible” to the natural eye. How do we protect ourselves from something we don’t see? Holiness may very well be the spiritual equivalent to a “super” vaccine.
The bad news is that even when I recognize them, I cannot heal myself of these sicknesses that are enmeshed with my soul. Growing older has humbled me. I have had to face the fact that on my own, I cannot make the deepest parts of myself truly clean. No amount of self improvement or education has been able to completely cleanse the motivations of my heart and heal the sickening stuff that inconveniently bubbles up within—lust, prejudice, self-righteousness, hatred. I need something—Someone—from outside myself to inject me with the holiness immunization.
What makes me holy?
The Good News is that Jesus, the Holy One, came to do what none of us could do for ourselves. He took the sickness of our souls (also known as sin) on Himself, letting it kill Him. In exchange, He has given us His purity and His Life. This divine holiness is what allows us to actually get close to and intimately know God the Father. We receive this holiness by faith that He has made us pure and blameless in His sight. We can draw close to God the Father now because true holiness has been made available through Jesus to those who put their trust in Him.
But the mindset of selfishness that brings on spiritual sickness must still be rejected, everyday. That’s why the biblical writers tell us to continue to choose holiness. It’s something followers of Jesus must pursue as our appetite for intimacy with God grows. And intimacy with God is never boring, nor is it scary once we taste and see that He is good. Yet in this present age, it’s so easy to lose sight of the holiness we have been given access to through Jesus. We must never forget that missing holiness is missing the close relationship with God we were designed for.
Holiness then, is not so much what I don’t do but what I choose to focus on—God’s heart, God’s plans, God’s call for me to be devoted to and relate to Him. A holy lifestyle, a holy focus, is one in which staying intimately connected to God is my highest priority. It’s living out what has already been done for me. It’s also the eternal reality that every follower of Jesus must prepare for and embrace. For without it, we cannot see God.
(Edited and reposted from September 21, 2020)