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  • Writer's picturePresbyterian Church


Updated: Feb 26, 2023

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 don’t worship money or material goods. They’re looking for people who put people before profits. They’re looking for people who will take the job that pays less but will do more good. They’re looking for people who aren’t always measuring everything by “What’s in it for me?” Proverbs 28:21 says, “For a piece of bread, a person will do wrong.” The world is looking for people who won’t sell out their morals or their ethics with the excuse, “I can’t afford to do the right thing.” That would be really 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.

Believe it or not, the world is looking for people who live the Bible’s sexual ethic: sex exclusively between a husband and a wife. The world is looking for the modern equivalent of the whooping crane: couples who wait until marriage, and then enjoy each other as long as they both shall live. The world wants to see evidence that it can be done, and that the results are happier that way. It’s like the Oregon joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road? To prove to the possum that it can be done!”

Now, there is no need to criticize those who fail or make mistakes in the area of sexuality. They’ve got enough pain; I don’t need to add to it. That’s my point. God wants us to avoid heartache. God wants the very best for our love life. That’s one way where being holy, being different, pays huge emotional rewards.

More than ever before, the world is looking for people who can be trusted. They want people who don’t blow off promises or commitments, people who do what they say they will do. They want people who won’t pretend to be friends and then stab them in the back. As much as the world rewards posers and pretenders by falling for their sweet-talk, the world wants people who are genuine, people who will say what they mean and mean what they say, people who won’t bend, fold, or mutilate the truth, even if it is costly for them to avoid doing so. People who refuse to lie are a huge part of what it means to be holy, to be different.

The world is also looking for people who believe what they claim to believe. Back in the 1700’s, the famous skeptic David Hume was seen running to hear George Whitefield, the Billy Graham of that day. Someone asked him, “Why do you want to hear him? You don’t believe what he believes.” And Hume replied, “Of course I don’t. But he does!” Likewise, modern atheist Christopher Hitchens, after a debate with a Christian named Larry Taunton, was asked by his opponent why Hitchens didn’t rip him up like he’s done with other opponents. Hitchens answered, “Because you believe it.” (See the article "Listening to Young Atheists.")

Penn Jillette from Penn and Teller, who is an atheist, says he doesn’t respect believers who don’t proselytize. He wants to know how you can believe in heaven and a hell and not tell somebody because you’re afraid of being socially awkward; you must hate them! (See above link.) Another atheist says, “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”

The world doesn’t want people who believe just because others want them to, or because it’s the easy thing to do. The world is looking for people who don’t back down, who don’t pursue faith as a nice faith tale that is never to be taken seriously, people who passionately believe, and who live like they believe it. That’s part of what it means to be different.

A church whose people have their act together could be powerfully attractive to a world that is looking for a better life. There are a lot of people who don’t go to church because they don’t see any reason to. They don’t see how our lives are any different than theirs. How much change has Christ made in our lives? Has Christ given us peace and joy? Has he given us reason to live that we didn’t have before? Has he made us less jerky people – less selfish, less hateful, more caring, more loving, more sacrificial, more emotionally healthy and mature? Has he replaced our confusion with confidence on the issues that truly matter in life? Has he broken the chains on us that enslave so many people’s lives?

Show me a place where God is changing people’s lives, and you’ll see people breaking down the door to get into that church. You’ll see communities that refuse to zone those churches out of business, because the community can’t do without them. People are looking for a church that is different, and what they’re looking for (I would say) is a church that is holy, whether they would call it that or not.

Here I have hopefully cast for you a new vision of what it means to be holy. It means being set apart, being different in a positive sense. In a messed up world that is sick of its own dysfunctionality (whether they realize it or not), people who are different offer a better way to live. They offer tremendous benefits to those who live around them. If you think about it the right way, being holy – being set apart – being different from a dysfunctional world – is the most attractive, appealing way to live.

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