Redefining Holiness

There are many words that Christians use today that I feel have lost their original meanings. Christianity took a common word and used it to explain a uniquely Christian concept. Over time the word fell out of the common vernacular, but the church kept using it. When such words are used today, they come with theological baggage: a specific understanding of the concept is implied whenever the word is used.

Today, I’d like to talk about the word ‘holy’.

NOTE: This blog post was adapted from a sermon I preached this past Sunday (May 4, 2014). The sermon was recorded, and that recording is embedded at the bottom of this page.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:14-16

Using the context of the passage above, you might reach the conclusion that to be holy, you must adhere to some moral code (instead of conforming to evil desires). Is this what ‘holy’ actually means?

Holy Etymology, Batman!

If we restrict out search to the English language, then, yes, holy has always had a religious definition. Let’s look further. The Hebrew word that is translated to the English ‘holy’ is ‘qadesa’ “which encompasses the idea of separateness and differentiation from the normal.”1 It’s first use in scripture is when God is speaking to Moses through the burning bush.

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” – Exodus 3:5

To be holy is to be different, set apart, special. But the word itself does not specify what makes something holy. It’s just like the word special. If I were to talk about special food, I could be refering to high quality, farm fresh foods, or I could be refering to McDonald’s special sauce. That’s quite a range.

What Makes One Holy?

The 1 Peter passage I quoted above says, “… it is written: ‘Be Holy, because I am holy.’” It turns out, the author of 1 Peter is quoting from Leviticus:

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. – Leviticus 20:26

Just one paragraph earlier, we read this:

“Keep all my decrees and laws and follow them, so that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. You must not live according to the customs of the nations I am going to drive out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhored them. But I said to you, ‘You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has set you apart from the nations.” – Leviticus 20:22-24

So, it would appear that keeping the commandments of God is what sets us apart, what makes us Holy. Did I really do all this study2 just to end up with the definition I started with?

There’s (at least) one more question left to ask:

Which Commandments?

The Torah3 contains 613 commandments. The rest of scripture contains countless stories of God’s people failing to keep his commandments.4 Is it reasonable to ask if there are a subset of commandments that we could keep and still maintain our status as holy?

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” – Matthew 22:34-36

2,000 years ago, someone who was considered an “expert in the law” asked Jesus which commandment was more important than the others. Pay attention to Jesus’ reply. He doesn’t question the premise (that some commandments are more important than others). He doesn’t say that all commands are equal in God’s eyes. Instead, he answers directly:

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus is saying that all of scripture is to be understood and interpreted through these two commandments. The most important command is to love: love God and love people.

If the command is to love, and the thing that sets us apart (makes us holy) is obedience to the commands, then the thing that makes us holy is our love. In programming terms: holiness == love.

Am I stretching here, perhaps reading too much into the text? After all, if Jesus really meant to redefine holiness as love, wouldn’t he have been more explicit?

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. – John 13:34-35

In other words, we are set apart as his disciples (made holy) when we love each other as he loved us.

To be Holy is to Love

Pause for a second and let your brain re-wire itself: holiness == love_for_each_other.

Good, now let’s revisit the passage from 1 Peter.

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy loves you, so be holy love each other in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

What are these evil desires? What does it mean to live in ignorance?

When I see phrases like this, my brain connects them with other phrases like ‘sinful nature’ and ‘flesh’. When the Apostle Paul refers to “desires of the flesh” he often has a list of vices:

I don’t think this list is what the author of 1 Peter had in mind. He is contrasting ‘evil desires’ with being ‘holy’, which we now know means loving others.

What are these evil desires? Let me illustrate this with a story:

It’s 3am. You’re sound asleep. The phone rings. You wake up, and immediately you get an anxious feeling deep in the pit of your stomach. You answer the phone. It’s a collect call.5 You know who it is. You accept the charges.

It’s your son. He’s in jail. Again. He promised that the last time would be the last time. You believed him because you desparately wanted needed to believe him. What is it this time? Alchohol? Drugs? Is he high now?

What do you feel? How do you react?

Any one of those reactions seems reasonable and justifiable to us, but I would suggest that they are the “evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.”

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply from the heart [from a pure heart]. – 1 Peter 1:22

Loving from a Pure Heart

What does it mean to have a pure heart? First, a pure heart is not dependent on the behavior or approval of others for happiness or validation. In the story above, the father needs his son to act a certain way in order for him to be happy and feel validated as a father. When the son deviates from the accepted path, the father is incapable of happiness and feels guilt and shame.

When your happiness is dependent on the behavior of others, it’s impossible to truly love them. Our happiness and validation should come only from God. He created us in his image. He gives us our existance and our purpose. We are loved and valued by God unconditionally. When we can truly believe this, we become able to drop the baggage of co-dependency and truly love others with the love of God.6

This kind of love is supernatural. You will not be able to just grit your teeth, work harder, and will yourself to love another. The only way to love like this is to drop your baggage at the foot of the cross. Give your life over to Jesus, truly believe that he loves you, that you have a God-given purpose in this life. Only then, through the power of his Holy Spirit, you will be able to truly love as he loved you. You will truly be holy.

Download MP3

  1. Leviticus Primer by Laurent Stouffer (Word doc) 

  2. And did you really read this huge blog post (so far) 

  3. The first five books in the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Torah is commonly translated to law

  4. Is one of the 613 the command to be holy? If to be holy, one must keep the commandments of which one is to be holy, we may have our first recorded instance of recursion in human history. 

  5. Do they still do collect calls? 

  6. For more on this, please read the very excelent Families Where Grace is in Place by Jeff VanVonderen. 


Persecution

Yesterday, I posted a link to an article by Rachel Held Evans on walking the second mile. It was re-posted by a few people and generated several comments on the different people’s posts.

One of the themes I saw in the comments was the idea that serving at a gay wedding is equivalent to “bowing to an idol of sin” and that Christians shouldn’t be forced to do so. I spent some time thinking about this. I began to craft a response in the Facebook comments, but I quickly realized that I was writing too many words to be a comment1. I decided to make it a blog post.

For the sake of this argument, I’ve decided to just take the following assertions at face value2:

Let’s say all those things are true. Christians being targeted for their beliefs and sued sounds like legitimate religious persecution to me. What should the Christian response be?

Should we try to change the law to prevent this persecution? Should we hire lawyers and defend our constituional right in court? Should we take a public stand for our beliefs and “fight back” against the culture?

Here’s what Jesus has to say:

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. – Matthew 5:11-12

We’re supposed to be persecuted. If we really believe that serving at a gay wedding is a compromise of our moral beliefs, then we should graciously refuse and then welcome the persecution (e.g. lawsuits) that comes our way without fighting back. Not fighting back probably means settling out of court and paying whatever amount of damages are requested (if not more). Again, Jesus said, “…if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”3

We need to remember that those of us who are called to follow Jesus are called to follow him above all other things. We should be Christian primarily and American secondarily. It is very American to want to stand up and defend our rights, but the Christian response is to lay down our lives (the rights go with our lives). The American founders fought their oppressors, our founder told us to love our enemies.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. – Romans 5:8

  1. I must confess that I tend to skim over comments that get broken out into paragraphs. 

  2. Although there is much that can be debated here. 

  3. Matthew 5:40 


The terrorist as rock star

Dave Winer:

…they show us our fear of ourselves. The realization that we equate youthful and sexy appearance with benevolence. Our value system fails. The input does not equal the output. Does not compute.

Go read the full blog post (it’s not very long). This is a brilliant assessment of both the outrage over the Rolling Stone cover and our misplaced cultural values.


One Grain More

This is just brilliant. With the new Les Misérables movie, I’ve often thought of resurrecting Les Buffet, but I’m not sure I could best this.


Influence

I don’t like national elections. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in and understand their importance. In fact, I think it’s great that every citizen gets a vote in choosing national leaders. The problem I have with national elections is that it over-inflates the importance of our national leaders. They trick us into putting our hopes and dreams into one candidate. The one candidate who has all the answers for the economy, military, society, etc. It’s easy to get caught up in this contest, even if you try not to.

It happened to me this year. I didn’t like either candidate. I felt neither one of them represented me, so I checked out. I voted, but did so almost begrudgingly.

I began to believe the lie that I had no influence in this world.

The truth is, every one of has influence. Influence works like a radio signal. It’s strongest when your right next to the tower, and the further away you get, the weaker the signal gets.

-> How to Save the World Part I: Spheres of Influence <-

I have the most influence on those closest to me: my family, my friends, my coworkers, my neighbors. I have the least influence on those I see or speak with rarely.

What am I doing with this influence?

When you believe the lie that you have no influence, you absolve yourself from any responsibility to this world and those around you. Once you accept the truth (that you have influence), you must also accept the responsibility.

I want to spend some more time unpacking this concept, but first I think we need to live with these questions:

  1. What is the scope of your influence?
  2. What should you do with it?

2012 Big Tex Choice Awards Finalists Announced

UPDATE: Descriptions Added

The finalists will compete for two awards (most creative and best tasting) on September 3 (Labor day).

They Fried What?!?


History Never Sits Still. Thus Neither Can Our Politics

Lee C. Camp:

…everything is so very polarized that it seems, at worst, that there are only two possible positions, or at best, that there is only a single continuum between two possible positions. If the daughter comes home talking about non-violence, and the mother is a supporter of her government’s wars, then the daughter must be a damn communist, too.

…as the theologians have increasingly explicated, “the powers” get made manifest in a variety of institutions, -isms, systems, and structures. “The powers” are created for good (per the letter to the Colossians) but overstep their bounds, and rather than serving humankind, get “hell-bent on their own survival” (per Walter Wink) and thence begin to enslave and oppress.

…to those who foolishly idealize “the free market,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that they do in fact co-opt the supposedly free market for purposes of greed and grasping which corrupts and controls as much as any tyrannical dictator. Or to those who foolishly idealize “the welfare state,” we insist that the powers of darkness are cunning, baffling, and powerful, and that the over-weening bureaucratic mechanisms of control do in fact limit creative human creativity, and create dependence.

The centralization enacted by Joseph for the good of the starving Hebrews provided the very bureaucratic tyranny that served to enslave those same Hebrews. History never sits still. Thus neither can our politics. If we find ourselves lumping together into one mass group of political enemies anyone who disagrees with us (as in the irrational conclusion that a pacifist must be a communist), the perhaps we have become enslaved to the powers which use a binary, polarizing view of the world to create enemies, stratify communities, and breed hostility, precisely for the good of the corrupt powers, but never for the true good of humankind.


A Restless Patriotism

Richard Beck:

I’m a mess when it comes to the Pledge of Allegiance.

So I’m trying to walk this line between being socially appropriate, respectful to others (particularly to those who have lost loved ones in war), deeply grateful, and yet holding onto the belief that the Pledge of Allegiance is inherently idolatrous.

The problem is that it’s a pledge of allegiance. If it were a pledge of respect, love, or gratitude there wouldn’t be a problem.

Can’t I just say Love and Thank You without pledging allegiance?

But he’s not really talking about the pledge, he’s talking about the Christian response to war. Within Christianity, you find two opinions of war. One believes that some wars are just, the other that no war is just. Logically, if some wars are just then some wars are also unjust, therefore the “just war” Christians and the “pacifist” Christians should find themselves united in their oppositions to some wars.

But the trouble isn’t with the theory. The trouble is in the practice and implementation. … Just war Christians and pacifist Christians rarely move in concert, despite everyone recognizing that this should happen from time to time. And it might ought to happen most of the time.

So what’s the problem?

First, it could be the case that every war declared (and undeclared) by the American government has been a just war.

The second possibility is that American Christians aren’t spiritually capable of resisting the patriotic call in a time of war. That is, when the patriotic call comes it is so powerful that Christians will make any rationalization necessary to fit the current conflict into the mold of just war criteria. At the end of the day, all wars are just wars because they are American wars.

…I think even the most politically conservative Christian would have to admit that this could be a real temptation. And if that is so, then we finally get to the point of this post and back to the Pledge of Allegiance.

My question is this: What skills do we need to practice–today–if we are to be ready to face this temptation?

And to clarify once again. This isn’t about saying there are no just wars. I’ve granted that part of the argument.

This is about something different.

It’s about creating the ability to notice the unjust one.


Who moved the goalpost?

Dan Bouchelle:

All this happened despite the fact that the language of “salvation issue” and “go to heaven” does not even appear in scripture. These matters are never the concern of Jesus or the apostles. Jesus was concerned about God reigning on earth as in heaven, or to put it another way, the Kingdom of God.


Short-Term Missions: The Ugly

J.R. Goudeau:

Without long-standing relationships, divided by race and socioeconomics and even age, it’s very difficult for a short-term mission trip to avoid the trap of poverty tourism. The point should not, should never be, enlightenment for the privileged on the backs of the poor they came to serve. … Difficult, but not impossible.

This is a very thoughtful post backed by personal experience. I do think that short-term mission trips can be a very good thing, but those embarking on such trips should be mindful of these thoughts.