RETRIEVING THE WORDS OF FAITH

Introduction to the Series: Over time, through overuse and bad theology, words of faith tend lose their meaning or come to mean something which they did not originally mean. An example would be the word “faith” itself. “Faith” has come to mean mostly belief, as if faith is what we do with our heads. As a result, we focus too much in the church on getting belief right and too little on following Jesus. Belief is important, but it’s not faith, at least, not the heart of it. As James says: “You believe that God is one? You do well. Demons also believe, and they tremble in fear” (James 2:19). “Faith” in both Old and New Testaments is less about what we call belief and more about trust and faithfulness. Many people claim to believe in Jesus but do not seem to trust what he says or want to follow him. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Jesus asked, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” He doesn’t mean belief; he means faithfulness.

There is much more about faith to talk about, and in this series, “Retrieving the Words of Faith,” I will in time look more closely at what faith is in the Bible. “Faith” is a word that we seem to be losing, a word well worth retrieving. There are many others. “Providence” comes to mind. Christians talk about providence in all sorts of strange ways. “Election” is another. But in this first post of the series, I’ll take a word that may seem smaller, less crucial in the sum of things, but that remains important: the word “holiness.”

I intended originally to deal with holiness in a single post, but my draft post got long and a bit tedious. No, a lot tedious. So, I split it up on the good advice of my wife. I’m calling it:

HOLINESS IN TWO PARTS

Part One: What’s Gone Wrong

“Holiness” is a sturdy old word of the faith that we seem to be losing? Or so it seems to me. I rarely hear “holy” or “holiness” used positively. More likely it’s used with a bit of a sneer, “holy people!” meaning people whose holiness is off-putting. Like many such words, “holy” has been damaged by its supposed friends. When it’s not being used casually in an oath like “holy cow,” the word has become tainted with religiosity and self-righteousness.

For the holier-than-thou crowd, it’s a Santa Claus world of naughty or nice, which is part of the problem. The problem lies in what’s “naughty” and what’s “nice.” “Nice” is what’s acceptable in polite company, which usually means what suits those in power. “Naughty” is typically not so much naughty as what flies in the face of what “nice people” think proper. And nice is not all that nice. Nice is not justice or mercy or even kindness; it’s all about appearances. Nice when I was growing up in an all-white community was a brush cut or neatly combed hair with a dab of Brylcreem in it; naughty was long hair and a beard. Nice was a skirt worn properly over the knees; naughty was short shorts or pants (imagine that from the perspective of 2021 when skirts are rarely seen). Most of the time, those of us who were young preferred naughty to nice. More fun. Or as we would have said in the day, more real.

If those are the terms, who would want to be holy? When I first became a pastor, some people called me “Reverend.” It always made me uncomfortable. Not only did I think then (and now) that there was nothing to revere about me, I didn’t want to be saddled with the expectations that came with the title. I didn’t want to be one of those “holy people.” I thought that kind of holiness came between people; it didn’t bring them together or make them better.

I still don’t want to be one of those “holy people.” But after a while I began to realize that I was avoiding something. I was avoiding taking full ownership of the role into which God and the congregation had called me. If I was to give myself fully to the role of pastor, I would have to deal with expectations that others had of me, either rejecting them but with good reasons and grace or accepting them and changing my perception of who I was and am. I needed to own my call, and in owning my call, I needed to retrieve the concept of holiness.

I think that this is true not only for young pastors, and old ones, too, but for the church as a whole and for Christians individually and collectively. We have to retrieve holiness from those who claim it. What does it mean to be holy? Not what people usually think.

The Bible attaches holiness to that which is specially dedicated to God: such things as temples and priests and sacrifices and the like. Those who have looked carefully at the way the words for holy and holiness are used in the Old Testament conclude that these words belong primarily to this world, to the world of those who were responsible for worship. The words for holiness are not in the first place words about right and wrong, naughty and nice, but about the purpose of things. Hebrew marks a division between the holy (qdš in its various forms) and the ordinary (ḥlḥll; see Leviticus 10:10, Ezekiel 22:26, 42:20, 34:23, and 48:15). What this means is that holiness is defined by the purpose to which something is put.

Holiness begins not with what we do—that comes second—but with who we are. Or, rather, to what we are called. Holiness has to do with mission. That’s true of the things that are called holy in the Old Testament, everything from the temple (sometimes called just “The Holy”) to the pots and pans used in the services to the priests who officiate; it’s their mission to serve God. It’s also true of the people of God. The people of God are called, set aside—dedicated, sanctified—for a purpose. It’s the calling that makes them holy, which means that living holy lives is not some arbitrary list of naughty or nice but that which serves the mission and which honors the one who calls us into mission.

In that sense, holiness is situational. What I had to learn as a young pastor was not to step into someone else’s definition of holiness, a definition that comes from their sense of what makes for naughty and nice in a pastor but how best to be the kind of person required by the mission to which I was called—to which I am still called. What are the excellences required by that call? 

They are found first in the doing, in offering oneself wholeheartedly to the call that God has placed on you. You are holy, called, set aside for God’s purpose. I am confident of this because you would not be reading this unless the call of God was already on you. I am confident of this because I believe that God places his call on all of us. No exceptions.

What serves your mission? For pastors, it’s not about stained-glass attitudes, being “holy” in the sense that the word often has in our culture. Such attitudes put people off. People are happy to see those who effect “holiness” fall on their faces. Biblical holiness requires fortitude, insight, canniness, and above all a kind of grace-filled winsomeness. We are best when we are able to laugh—especially at ourselves. 

One Sunday now long ago I was scheduled to preach in the Detroit area. As sometimes happened, I received an invitation from one of the elders to come to lunch after the service. I said yes. The elder, who I did not know at the time, was the son of an older friend, someone I knew well. I learned to my delight that this friend would also be coming to lunch. It was someone’s birthday in the family, and we would and we did celebrate the birthday together. A good time was had by all.

I later learned that it almost didn’t happen. When the son told the father, my friend, that he was hosting the preacher for the day, my friend was dismayed. A preacher? It was only after he discovered that it was me that he relented and decided to come.

Such is the reputation of preachers. Have you ever noticed how preachers are portrayed in movies and novels? They are seldom sympathetic characters. In many cases, they are not sympathetic because they have let their own notion of holiness get in the way of what they are called to be and do. We need holiness, but not that kind. 

There’s more to be said, a biblical case to be made for some of the things I’ve said in this post, and a perspective on holiness that goes beyond church and into all of life, but I’ll leave that for the post to follow. For now, own your call and with it your own holiness. Let’s start there in retrieving the concept of holiness.

Clay

Published by Clay Libolt

On me, see the front page of the website.

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