I’ve been reading Debra Hirsch’s Redeeming Sex as part of the Patheos Book Club for May. It’s one of the better books I’ve read by someone with a traditionalist perspective on sexuality. One of my favorite quotes from the book looks at the contrast between Jesus’ holiness and the church’s moralism today.
What was it about the holiness of Jesus that drew people to him like a magnet? Sinners of all sorts were drawn into his orbit… What is it about more churchy forms of holiness that seems to evoke the opposite response? Sinners seem to be repelled by Christians! They certainly are not rushing forward to hang out with us. I want to suggest that perhaps this is not holiness at all but a counterfeit form of moralism… Jesus shows us that one cannot achieve holiness by separation from the unclean… The holiness of Jesus, it seems, is a redemptive, missional, world-embracing holiness that does not separate itself from the world, but rather liberates it. [155-156]
What is holiness for? It’s a key question that needs to be asked by Christians today. Many Christians understand holiness as a way of showing God how loyal we are by how much we refrain from enjoying in the world. This is the kind of holiness that Paul chides the Colossians for falling into: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe,why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’?” (Colossians 2:20-21).
The holiness of self-sacrifice for the sake of self-sacrifice is not the way of Jesus, but the way of the Pharisees. It consists in a subtle transaction. I hold myself to a very strict set of rules in exchange for the right to look down on other people who don’t follow the same rules. Of course, in our current age of ideology, I don’t even have to follow rules in my actual daily life to convince myself I’m a “holy” person. I just have to have very strong, dour opinions about other peoples’ immorality. I can be a disgustingly gluttonous, utterly undisciplined person but still call myself “holy” as long as I take a strong and clear enough “stand” on my facebook page against the gays and all of the other “immoralities” of our society.
Fasting, sexual chastity, and other forms of self-discipline are actually quite important to the Christian life, but we need to understand precisely what they are for. Jesus shows us this in his parable of the Good Samaritan. Unlike the priest and the Levite in the parable who pass the wounded man to avoid being made unclean, the Samaritan is “moved with compassion” (Luke 10:33) so he stops and loves his neighbor. The reason we refrain from gluttonous, self-indulgent behavior is in order to make space in our hearts to be moved by God’s mercy. It’s so that if we ever find ourselves on the road to Jericho like the Good Samaritan, we will be moved enough by God to act when we see a wounded traveler. If we’re spiritually undisciplined, then our hearts are too cluttered to notice other peoples’ suffering. Holiness is the antidote to self-absorption.
True holiness does not turn us into dour scowls but into deeply humble, compassionate people. If we’ve beaten down our ego sufficiently with our fasting and spiritual discipline, then we will be attractive to our fellow sinners in the same way that Jesus was, because we will actually have room in our hearts to love them. Holiness is not about being clean; it’s about being empty. Jesus’ life was all about “emptying himself” (Philippians 2:7). We empty ourselves not to earn spiritual currency for self-righteousness, but to open our hearts to God’s call and the needs of our neighbor. We pursue holiness in order to be made into the embodiment of God’s love for the world.