When it comes to Holiness, Christianity has a couple of very substantial issues. These issues come from a cultural misunderstanding of what it means to be holy and are virtually impossible to overcome because they are utterly pervasive – i.e., held by a majority Christians and non-Christians alike.
Even worse, both Christians and non-Christians have the same erroneous understanding of holiness, but whereas the Christians think it is groovy, the non-Christians do not. And, to be frank, it may be the non-Christians who have it right!
(Of course, among Christians, there are exceptions, but these are so rare that they are safely ignored by the majority, and so the problem persists.)
These misunderstandings of holiness can be described in high level terms as ‘Holy’ Separation and ‘Holy’ Fortress Building (with ‘holy’ deliberately in quotes since it is a false sense of the term).
What is needed instead is a holy heart.
The first is that hardly any one, not even Christians, has a healthy sense of what it truly means to be holy – which is to be whole, united, and loving. In fact, the dominant understanding of holiness could easily be argued to be the OPPOSITE of what holiness actually is.
For an overview of that understanding, see Wiktionary’s def, and note that almost every sense in this definition involves being set apart or separation. That is, holiness is ‘not normal’ but is somehow other than what we find in the real world. Or, to put a more positive spin on it, holiness is the ‘true’ normal and the world is not. In either case, their is enmity between the two and to become holy is to separate from the non-holy.
‘Holy’ Fortress Building
The second, related to the first, is that it has become much more fashionable to intellectualize about God, and go to war with others who have built alternative intellectual fortresses, than it is to actually BE holy. In this environment, defending one’s fortress, at any cost, is seen as the measure of one’s holiness (when in fact, ‘standing up’ is only 1/100th of what it actually means, the entire other 99 percent is neglected).
In short, holiness is confused with righteousness, and in particular, right ‘belief’ or doctrine. The unholy are those seen as holding some ‘evil’ doctrine, which is not ours, and by holding it are blameworthy and legitimate targets of a ‘holy’ war.
For what it’s worth, this same emphasis on righteousness at the expense of holiness is perpetrated by non-believers as well, though a more appropriate term for non believers might be something like ‘nobleness’. or loving kindness. Intolerance runs rampant in our society and acting with decency or character is no longer valued!
The Consequence – Holiness is Unattractive
The unfortunate consequence of both of these errors is that holiness is almost ‘wholly’ unattractive, except for the ‘militant’ few who are happy to have something to fight with others about (and to have God on ‘their side’) or for the ‘escapists’ who would rather reject reality for the sake of some impossible to reach or imagine ‘greener grass’ on the other side (aka heaven) instead of embrace and deal with it.
This has got to change.
A better, more inspiring, way!
It is not necessary that holiness be unattractive. In fact, to be holy is interchangeable with being whole, united, loving. And, in becoming these things, we become divine. What is unattractive about that!
Becoming this is the deepest, most longed for desire of all human beings. It is a matter of the heart.
But, let us consider each of these terms individually and interchangeably. (The interchangeability is key).
1. Holiness is holy – or divine:
Our nature is divine. So, whatever holiness is, it must include the divine. This is not a new concept for those considering holiness, but it must be said. Let it be noted, however, that divinity is NOT strictly separate from ‘the world’. For us at least, they exist together, not apart.
And, to be divine is not possible when we are not whole. Being divine requires us to be healthy (at least spiritually).
2. Holiness is Wholeness – or healthy:
To be holy is to be healthy. It is to fulfill who we are, not to ‘repress’ it or minimize it.
‘I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.’
And, to be whole is not possible when alone. Holiness requires unity.
3. Holiness is Oneness – or unity:
In Truth, Holiness is Unity, not Separation
Let me say that again. Holiness is UNITY, not separation. And yes, that unity is with the entirety of creation (in all of its messiness) and including the ‘holy’ and the ‘unholy’.
This is why Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors.
This is why He also said:
I pray father that they may be one, as you and I are one. As I am in you and you are in me.
This is also why he died on the cross… to bring everyone to him!
‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ Jn 12:32
And, holiness is not possible without being loving. Holiness requires affection.
4. Holiness is Loving – or affectionate
Love is a complicated word. There are so man different senses of it, the most notable of which is affection. But affection isn’t love itself, at least not in a human sense, since it is almost indistinguishable from ‘attraction’ but attraction can happen for any number of reasons, usually with the deeper sense of love left out.
And this is where the interchangeability of the four terms becomes important. To be loving is to have an affection for others that is rooted in the aforementioned words: holiness, wholeness, and unity. Any affection or attraction that is contrary to these other senses is not true love. In short, to be loving is to be attracted to others in a way that desires the good for them, which is also the good for us, because we are connected – that they be holy (with us), whole (with us), and united (with us).
These four things: holiness, wholeness, oneness, and loving are truly inspirational. Who would not want this? And, who does not long for this when they seek the approval of others, even in destructive ways.
Unfortunately, our understanding of who God is and how we should relate to him has led us down the rabbit hole of the above two errors – that holiness is a separation from the world and that separating from others for the sake of the fortress we have built actually ‘proves’ our holiness (which is ludicrous).
That is, the chief sin against holiness is a sin against the third attribute: unity or oneness. And, the reason for this sin has two basic parts: 1) we have correctly identified that God is infinitely ‘awesome’ and that he is utterly beyond us, and 2) we have concluded from 1 that nothing but God matters – everything that is not God is not worthy.
And, unfortunately, this understanding is reinforced by the ‘mystics’ (both Christian and non-Christian) – who have had a supernatural experience of heaven or God’s nature, or ‘the one’ and who much prefer that experience to their ‘normal’ life.
But this makes no sense! If nothing but God matters, then nothing but God would exist, and yet here I am typing this, and here you are reading it. To say that the goal of this life is to ‘escape’ it and attain the next is simply ludicrous. In fact, it is not the nature of reality that it must be ‘escaped’ but is the nature of the universe that we must grow through our experience of it.
In other words, EVERYTHING matters and gives glory to God. And, being united with others is how we fulfill our being in that glory.
And so, to become who we are, let us focus on loving unity primarily.
But here is the kicker. It is spiritual unity that we seek, but we are also material beings. And, for material beings to be united ‘in general’ is to say nothing at all. It is by our actions that we are united, and for that, we have consider the quality of our spirit that enables us to act… our Virtue!
But please don’t abandon this article just because I used that term! Our understanding of Virtue suffers from the same erroneous understanding as does our understanding of holiness. Please do read on to find out how.
The Role of Virtue
Be honest, did you feel inspired or deflated when you saw that word, virtue?
Don’t worry though, it is not your fault. The most common understanding also focuses on separation, but in a more subtle way. But, this is not the most important sense of the word.
Let’s face it, the virtuous are few and far between. They are the moral elite. The rest of us? We just suck. We do try… and fail, and fail, and fail. The virtuous, however, have heroic will power, and succeed.
This wholly demoralizing reality is based on the predominant attitude about virtue which is that it requires effort. In particular, ‘my’ effort to overcome ‘my weaknesses’.
But this attitude is rooted in separation because of its focus on the self. And, in truth, it is this separation that makes it so hard. It is not our nature to be separate!
There must be another sense of virtue, one that is rooted in unity, instead of separation. One that does not depend on our effort, but on our experience of being loved by others. In short, one that is not all about us and our effort, but is about others and our relationship with them. A virtue of the heart.
But, let me explain by using an example. I will explain both the separative (or worldly sense) and the heart (or unitive) sense of the virtue ‘patience’. The difference between these two is striking.
Worldly (Separative) Patience
A synonym for patience is tolerance. A patient person tolerates traits or actions in another person (or situation) that they find annoying. By an effort of their will, they suppress their distaste and do not let their emotions be overriden by it. And, the more annoying the person, the more heroic the effort!
But, this type of patience is totally separative because it centers around me. ‘I’ am annoyed, but through ‘my’ effort ‘I’ will overcome my annoyance because that is the right thing to do. (And by the way, I wouldn’t have to try so hard if ‘you’ weren’t so annoying! so there is an element of judging others involved as well.)
Heart (Unitive) Patience
There is another sense of patience that bypasses the above exchange completely! In this sense, the above exchange simply does not happen because I am not concerned with what I do or do not like or agree with. There is no effort on my part, because my focus is elsewhere – on you – and on your well being. (and by extension my own well being, because we are connected).
Patience is still required though. It just means something else. In this sense the patience that is required is patience with love. Love conquers all, but it does not happen immediately. God is patient with me (in love), I am patient with myself and others (in love) and the very act of patience (accepting that love is operative, but over time and not immediate) builds love itself!
But a very important aspect of a virtue of the heart is that it changes both us and those we interact with. Let us say that another person is not loving, that they are self centered. It is by the very act of my being patient with them (desiring the good for them and accepting that it will happen over time if I love them), that they are transformed, and become less self centered.
In short, unitve patience, ‘cures’ the very thing which we must be ‘patient’ about. And it happens not through an effort on our part, but a surrender to the one who is most patient (in love) with us – to God.
To summarize this concept:
It is in experiencing love that we are enabled to love. And, it is with holy virtue that we do it.
Each of the virtues can be treated in a similar way. There is a ‘try hard’ version, which is all about us, and an ‘easy’ version which is all about being loved and then in turn loving others.
But there is a third version, which is the hardest of all, and that is ‘evil’ virtue.
The true definition of virtue is ‘a quality of the spirit to act’. But this quality can be deployed in three primary ways: 1) to destroy others (and so the self), 2) to build up the self (which indirectly excludes others who do not have the same will power we do), or 3) to build others, and so indirectly to build ourselves (as in, it is in giving that we receive).
But let me use yet another example to demonstrate. Let us consider the virtue of Wisdom.
The Virtue of Wisdom, which may be applied in any of the above three ways is: insight and understanding regarding what is to be done.
‘Evil Wisdom’ – wisdom generated from self loathing that destroys the self and others
‘She is really wise in the ways of manipulation.’
Evil Wisdom is actually easy to know but hard to act on. Manipulating others, for example, is a simple task if only you are willing to destroy yourself in the process and obliterate any chance of others being connected with you in a loving way. People do do this, no doubt, but there is a reason that not ‘everybody’ does this all the time. The price is too high.
‘Worldly Wisdom’ – wisdom rooted in self love that enables us to achieve some positive material outcome
‘If he had handled that situation any other way, he would have been fired!’
This is a little harder to know, but easier to act on. Study and effort will improve your wisdom, if only you commit to doing it. And so, the knowledge of how to be wise can be obtained by effort.
Some people do this while others do not, and for two opposing reasons: 1) they are lazy, and 2) in the end, it is also not ultimately fulfilling. That is, material gain is nice, but in the end, when we have accomplished all things, we still feel empty.
‘Holy Wisdom, or Wisdom of the Heart’ – wisdom that is rooted in a concern for others and demonstrates our love for them, changes them, and unites us to them as a result.
‘Let him who is without sin, be the first to cast a stone.’
When Jesus said this, an instant bond with incredible strength was formed with this woman. I would guess that given the chance, she would gladly die for him.
This is the hardest to understand but easiest to implement. Jesus applied wisdom here in his choice not to condemn the woman. It may seem like an easy choice to you, since you are familiar with the story, and you already know what he did. But, this was an adulterer, a potential home wrecker, someone who cheated on her husband or on the other man’s wife. Why did Jesus choose not condemn her? There is no way for us to know, without putting on the heart of Christ. In this instance, he released her. But in another instance, with another woman, it may not have gone the same way. The spirit of God is required, to be wise. There is no ‘one’ answer to ‘how’ something should be done. And, the only way we can receive the spirit of God is to recognize and accept his love for us.
Is All of This Really Necessary?
‘Now hold on!’ you might say. Why are you making virtue, and holiness, for that matter so complicated. ‘To be holy is to Love God’. And, ‘Come on now, ‘evil’ virtue? Don’t be ridiculous,’ you might add.
But, what I am doing here is actually simplifying, not complicating.
Very simply, to be holy is to be divine, whole, one, and loving.
To be virtuous is to have the spiritual quality to act in challenging circumstances (which may be used to advance holiness or not).
If you bear with me, In this blog, I will go through a number of virtues and explain the senses of each of these with the understanding that it is only the last sense which actually ‘builds’ holiness, though the other two frequently get in the way because they are ‘valued’ as virtue but they should not be if holiness is the goal. (and yes, even evil virtue is sometimes valued, if the ‘goal’ is somehow related to a worthy cause, or even God).