When I was asked to write this article on the pursuit of holiness, I immediately began to think and pray about how I would address the need for holiness in believers today.
I remembered that the definition of holy means “to be set apart.” It literally means to be separate or distant. Separate from things and distant from people. We call the Bible holy because it is set apart from other things. We call the week before Easter Holy Week because it is different than all the other weeks of the year.
The Unthinkable Happened
And then three days after the request to write this article came, the unthinkable happened. The nightmare of every parent became my reality. I received a phone call from our local police department that our 27-year-old son had been found dead.
Stephen (Stevie to everyone who loved him), loved God with all of his heart. He had been to four years of Bible college and had been the pastor of a Celebrate Recovery church. In his short three years of ministry he had baptized over 50 people. He was drawn to the down and out. He called his church the church of “misfit toys.” He reached out to people who didn’t feel they fit into a “normal” church.
His father and I would like to think this noble quality came from good upbringing and our wonderful example. But we knew that Stevie had learned it because in a lot of ways, he was a misfit toy himself.
You see, in spite of his love for God, in spite of being a fourth-generation ordained minister, in spite of being able to quote more verses than anyone I know and being one of the best preachers I have ever heard, Stevie had a problem. A weakness, like everyone else. His battlefield was drug addiction, and it ended up costing him his life.
Stevie died of an overdose. He fought his addiction hard. He had been in rehab at three different Teen Challenge locations. He knew all the Scriptures. He knew what he should and shouldn’t do. But in the end, he gave in one more time to his temptation. And it killed him. We don’t know exactly what happened because he had been doing so well. We just know that he’s gone. And as James says, his life was but a vapor or a mist.
It’s interesting being the parent of an addict. Because not only am I a preacher’s wife, I’m also a P.K., a preacher’s kid. I was brought up with a set of rules and regulations that made you holy. I was taught that you don’t “drink, smoke, cuss, or chew, or run around with those who do.” I was taught that church attendance every time the doors were open was the true measure of holiness. I didn’t realize that I was being trained to be a modern-day Pharisee.
Following the Rules
To be quite honest, that’s how I tried to raise Stevie. We had a set of rules and we lived by them.
I liked legalism growing up because it gave me control. If I do this and don’t do this, God will love me. I realized later that the Pharisees (and I had become an accomplished Pharisee), were the ones who fought Jesus every step of the way, all the way to the cross. In writing this I’m reminded of Max Lucado’s comment: “I think it’s noteworthy that the Almighty didn’t act high-and-mighty. The Holy One wasn’t holier-than-thou. The One who knew it all wasn’t a know-it-all.”
I had become a holier-than-thou. Holier-than-thou people think that because their sin is different, that God loves them more. But the longer I lived and the deeper I got into ministry and serving God, the more questions I had. Who got to decide that mental illness and depression are spiritual flaws, or that drug and alcohol addictions are worse than being addicted to food? Who got to decide that suicide was the unforgivable sin? Who got to decide that adultery and homosexuality are worse than lying and gossip? Only God can decide that. And when he hung on the cross, he decided and paid the price for all sin.
Beautiful, not Binding
Holiness is beautiful! But legalism is binding. Holiness brings life! But legalism brings death. Legalism is rules and rituals. But holiness is freedom. Legalism is rules without a relationship, laws without love, and fear without faith. Holiness is connecting with Jesus who is God in the flesh, being loved unconditionally no matter what you do and having faith and hope and joy when the world comes crashing down.
Don’t get me wrong, God has rules too. And he calls us to a higher standard in our thoughts, words, deeds, our attitudes, our families, our relationships and much more. But we can never forget, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
Holier-than-thou’s try to change people by externals, from the outside. But holiness realizes that when we get close to God, the changes begin to happen from the inside. Legalism is a need to be good, holiness is a desire to be good. Legalism says I have to read my Bible and pray, holiness desires to be in God’s Word and know him in a more intimate way. Legalism is a search for innocence that you’ll never find, holiness is finding God.
Holiness begins in our heart and flows from a personal encounter with God. Holiness convicts us of our sin and grieves us when we have grieved the Holy Spirit. Holiness keeps us from forming too high an opinion of ourselves and allows us to forgive ourselves when we fall short of how we’ve been called to live.
Holier-than-thou Christians make you feel guilt about the very thing Jesus has forgiven you for. Holier-than-thou’s make us feel we can’t share what we are struggling with, so we suffer in silence thinking no one will understand. I would tell my son Stevie, “Never be ashamed of your story of grace. People who are afraid to share their story are afraid of what people will think of them. We don’t care what people think of us, we only care about what people think of Jesus and his amazing grace.” Holiness realizes that grace forgives the unforgivable. That’s why in Stevie’s honor, I’ve shared his story of grace with you.
I wonder what would happen in our churches if Christians really got real. What would happen if we all quit the holier-than-thou routine and quit pretending that we had perfect lives and perfect families? What if we worried more about what people think of Jesus than what they think of us? What if we were willing to be open enough to share our failures so people could see the victory that comes from Jesus? What would happen if we, like Paul, said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”? (2 Corinthians 11:30).
Let me tell you what I think would happen. Our churches would grow exponentially. The world would see a difference in us and want what we have. They would see people who are set apart in the way we grieve, in the way we love, and in the way we forgive. They would want the hope, peace, and joy we have that can’t be explained by anything but Jesus. They would desire to be holy!
Love Lockman is a Christian speaker and author. She is married to Bill Lockman who is the pastor of Bunker Hill Christian Church of Salem, Indiana.