Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. When I encounter the same message from different people at different times in different contexts, I pay attention. I expect that God is trying to tell me something. In recent weeks I’ve read a couple of articles about holiness and a related Scripture passage that had me thinking, “What is God saying to me?” The first encounter I had with the topic of holiness is an article by Cheryl Bridges Johns in the Church of God Evangel. Johns laments that many Christians today see no need for holiness, and that unfortunately, these “profane Christians . . . hinder the message that Jesus came to save, heal, and deliver all creation from the bondage of sin” (p. 13). While there is hope, it begins with the “death of self” and requires that we purge ourselves of self-seeking behaviors. Another discussion is found in the recent entry by Antipas Harris on Renewal Dynamics. Harris reminds us that although we live in this world we are not supposed to live like the world. In particular, “we must remain in tune with the enduring nature of God’s character — holiness to which all believers are called.” As I contemplated Harris’ blog and, in particular the readers’ comments, which seemed to suggest an uncertainty over what holiness is, I happened to read a passage in Col. 3:1-25, in which Paul refers to unholy versus holy behaviors and characteristics. In reflecting on the potential importance of these encounters, I recalled a song from the early 90s that says, “Lord, I hunger for holiness, and I thirst for the righteousness that’s yours.” The song reflects on the relationship of holiness, the desire for God, and the life and death battles (at least spiritually) we must fight in order to be victorious. I wonder, has anyone else been thinking about holiness lately?
In the context of Paul admonishing the Christians in Colosse to set their minds on things above not on things on the earth (v. 2), he encouraged them to “put to death” the following unholy behaviors: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness (v. 5). To speak to just one of these behaviors, the word fornication is as equally foreign to contemporary Christians as the word holiness. The term comes from the Greek, porneia, and it means “to commit any sexual sin.” To put it in contemporary terms, it can mean anything from “shacking up”, to giving in to the lust of the flesh before the wedding day, to viewing pornography, to . . . Well, I think you get the picture. Any sex outside of the marriage relationship between a husband and wife is NOT holy and acceptable to God. But Paul doesn’t stop there. He goes on to list characteristics that are unholy. In verse 8 he commands the believers “to put off” anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language, and lying. That means no f*bomb, no G—d***, no road rage, no backbiting, no little white lies, and no “OMG”s. Ouch! That offends our modern-day sensibilities. Forgive the archaism, but therein lies the rub. We have so desensitized ourselves to what is holy that we get defensive when we’re called out by “those self-righteous sons of” — God. Some would cry “legalism!” But Paul himself was against legalism after his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. What is Paul saying to Christians today?
Paul goes on to encourage the Colossians that “as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another and forgiving one another. . . . But above all these things, put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (Col. 3:12-14). Perfection here refers to having actually achieved the goal of holiness. And Paul describes the nature of the task that defines that perfection: It is merciful not judgmental. It is kind not rude. It is humble not arrogant. It is longsuffering not impatient. It is forgiving not bitter. It is loving not hating, and so on. And it is also NOT sexually promiscuous/perverse, lustful, wanting what others have, lying, bad-mouthing, cursing, and the list could go on. If we are humble, merciful, kind, forgiving, and loving, we reflect a holy and perfect God. If we are faithful, pure, content with what we have, truthful, and men and women of integrity, we grow in the holiness of God. So, what is God saying to the world today? How can we discern God’s voice to the church? To us?
In my local church, the month of August is set aside each year as a month of prayer. This year’s theme is “Penetrating the Darkness,” and the body of Christ has embarked on a corporate fast. The idea behind fasting is that as we deny ourselves food (our carnal desires), we make room for the Bread of Life (our spiritual food), so that our desire for God increases. Fasting is an instrument on the way to holiness. I am sure that the church members who are fasting would agree that we get hungry, sometimes really hungry, and we’re tempted to throw in the towel. But we don’t give up because we know that we will have victory if we finish the race. During this time of fasting, I have acknowledged to God that some of my behaviors and characteristics are unholy and unrighteous. As I have humbled myself before God and confessed my sins of unrighteousness, I have seen chains begin to break and crumble around me. As Jesus told his disciples, some things cannot be achieved without prayer and fasting. The desire to live holy unto God is what we are commanded to do (1 Peter 1:16). It is not self-righteousness because as Isaiah declared, “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). It is a hunger for holiness and a thirst for the righteousness that is God’s. I’m hungry. Are you?