Here at the start of Lent is a good time to reexamine the meaning of holiness. What exactly does it mean to be holy? The answer might surprise you.
When we say the word “holy,” we often think of some kind of sinless perfection, to be a religious super-hero like Mother Teresa or someone who has reached the Hall of Fame we call “sainthood.” We think of someone who scrupulously obeys a long list of do’s and don’ts. We bristle when someone thinks they are “holier than thou”: they don’t want to hang around us, and we don’t want to hang around them either. Who wants to be holy, if that’s what the word means?
The word “holy” in both Hebrew and Greek doesn’t come with any of that baggage. It means simply “to be set apart” for a special purpose or for someone’s exclusive possession. It gives the idea of being separated from the rest of the pack, to be different.
Being different can be either good or bad, depending on how we look at it, and depending on the norm in question (“different from what?”). Being deviant or criminal (depending on the standard being used) is a bad way of being different from the crowd. But if you think of the world as a crooked place where you can’t trust anybody and people are selfish, malicious jerks, then being different is not a bad thing at all; in fact, it can be attractive to a world that’s looking for a healthier way to live.
Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot is about a character who wasn’t selfish or hateful or envious or spiteful or greedy or lying or sexually immoral, a guy who was so different that he gave some people the creeps. For some of us, however, such a character would be a refreshing alternative to the rest of the world around us. Where can you find such a person?
God calls us to be different. The apostle Peter quotes the Law of Moses, where God declares, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” God is different, and God wants us to be like God in this regard. That’s why Peter urges his readers to be holy, to be different from the surrounding culture. (1 Peter 1:14-16) Later in this same letter, Peter urges his readers to stop doing what the Gentiles like to do. (1 Peter 4:3) He mentions lawless sexuality and getting bombed with alcohol, but in other parts of his letter he also mentions hatefulness, envy, lying, and hypocrisy, which are also not healthy for the soul. God wants followers of Jesus to be different from a messed-up world.
The world is looking for people who are different. They’re looking for people who are selfless, not selfish; who are selfless, not because they are powerless to do otherwise, but because they don’t have egos that are craving to be satisfied. Where can we find people who give or help without any wish or expectation for reward or appreciation, and who keep on giving when others quit? If you give to help a poor person and get treated ungratefully, then you’ll find out whether you were really expecting a reward. Selflessness is part of what it means to be holy, to be different.
The world is looking for people who truly listen, who truly care. Someone I know tells me that she uses the two-sentence rule to see if people will truly listen. She is amazed to see how few people will listen for more than two sentences without changing the subject, taking control of the conversation, shutting it down, or walking away. If you can listen longer than that, and if you can truly listen, you will be truly different.
I was reading about a person who left the gay lifestyle when he became a Christian. He was being trashed by gays for doing so. This fellow said he was able to listen to his critics tell about the pain in their lives. He was able to listen long enough that the gays who were trashing him changed their minds and decided he was OK after all. No amount of debate could have changed their hearts – just the way this guy was able to listen. That’s being different.
The world is looking for people who are not hateful or malicious or always angry or resentful, people who don’t need to play petty games to build themselves up by tearing others down. They are looking for people whose lives are not falling apart, people who are emotionally healthy. And when they find such people, they’ll want to know, “Where can I get what you have?”
Now, none of us is perfect. We all have our rough edges. We are all recovering sinners. We all still have ways where our woundedness shows itself in how we talk about or treat others. But being different needs to become the goal of our spiritual life. That’s the mark of maturity. That’s what we can call holiness.
There’s more. Join me for my next post!