How to become… Holy (part 1)

Reflections from Dr. Howell

My last 2 topics in this series are Holiness and Joy. Don’t think they’re relegated to bringing up the rear. Holiness and Joy are the ultimate goals of the spiritual life, the twin fruits, the beautiful final products of bothering with a life with God.

Obviously, you’d leap at the chance for Joy. Are you as eager for Holiness? God wired things so there’s little Joy without a robust Holiness. God knows we get confused about holiness, thinking it’s being prissy or smug. C.S. Lewis was spot on: “How little people know who think that holiness is dull. When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.”

Holiness is your best life. No better personal mission statement could be conceived. You were made by God to be holy; your true self is itching to emerge as you grow in holiness. But what is it to be Holy?

We start with God, who is so Holy we sing it thrice: “Holy, Holy, Holy.” In fact, the whole spiritual life could be summarized as a lifelong meditation on God’s holiness, a constant availability to God’s holiness, a determined enactment of God’s holiness – which is God’s will, God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, God’s wisdom, God’s perfection. Holy is what God is – and ours then is to stick close to God, thinking God’s thoughts, loving what God loves.

You can’t just scrunch up your face, grit your teeth, and start being Holy. It’s a gift; it happens to us, for us. “O Holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray.” It’s the Spirit’s dawning, weaving holiness in you despite your resistant self. It’s the Spirit’s surprise, all gift – and yet, since God dignifies us by giving us a will, and choices, we have some labor to become Holy. Effort is required. Habits matter.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that “Holiness is empty space and empty time… The universe is the space God makes for us; holiness is the space we make for God.” I look at my surroundings; I study my calendar; I probe my mind and heart and ask if I’ve made sufficient space for God. And am I thinking, feeling, acting in sync with God?

Holiness might overlap with morality, but it’s far higher. It is immoral to have an extra-marital affair; holiness seeks to expunge lust from the soul. It is immoral to steal; holiness asks what I keep and why, and if I’m stealing from someone in need by having so much. It is immoral to lie; holiness asks how my words might build up others. Fairness is moral; holiness is extravagant, generous, thankful that God isn’t fair with me so I needn’t be merely fair to others. The moral are law-abiding; the holy parse hidden thoughts and avoid private acts that are legal but not of God. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, self-control; against such there is no law” (Galatians 5).

Holiness is far higher than mere conformity to what the world thinks is right and good. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds” – which begins when we “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God” (Romans 12). Holiness is a beautiful weirdness. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd” (Flannery O’Connor).

So what are the habits, the practices that over time might manufacture an increase in Holiness? And what are the things and thoughts and moods to refrain from in order to leave space for the gift of the Spirit to craft more Holiness in us? In our next email, we will explore these things. But for now,

TRY THIS: Ponder Leviticus 19:1, and personalize it: “I will be holy, for God is holy.” Try to envision it in and on you. Breathe in, creating some space for God’s Spirit to begin its work in and through you. Ask. Seek. Begin to find. Change – or begin to morph into the true you.