When I was a kid I was pretty sure holiness had something to do with bowl cuts and culottes. It was, after all, the 1980s in a missionary community where we rocked those looks.
While my idea of holiness changed as I grew older, in my mind it was still intertwined with appearance. I’d heard that Christians were supposed to be different — set apart from the world around us — and I thought that meant wearing the right clothes, using the right words and doing the right things to represent God well.
But when my view of holiness collided with the reality of human nature, problems arose. People can be pretty good at pretending. I’ve seen it in myself and others — this ability to smooth the surface, looking holy on the outside while the inside shelters ugly attitudes and hidden behaviors. We can even pack our secrets down so effectively that we fool ourselves into believing we have it all under control.
But we can’t fool God.
Because I Am Holy
I used to cringe every time I read 1 Peter 1:14-16: “So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, ‘You must be holy because I am holy’” (NLT).
It seemed too hard. How could I behave morally enough to satisfy a perfect God? I had a difficult time grasping the idea of living a holy life because I didn’t understand this critical truth: Holiness is less about transforming our behavior and more about transforming our substance.
It’s possible to live morally — to be kind and loving, teach Sunday school or even be a pastor or missionary — without being holy on the inside. Holiness can’t be attained by practice or force of will because it’s not about simply being good; it’s about being owned.
Several chapters of Exodus are dedicated to outlining detailed instructions for creating the Tabernacle, the place of worship for the people of Israel during their desert years. There wasn’t anything magical about the cloth, wood, precious stones and metals used in the Tabernacle’s construction. God made the Tabernacle holy: “I will meet the people of Israel there, in the place made holy by my glorious presence” (Exodus 29:43, NLT).
Ordinary materials in an ordinary place became holy only because God came and claimed them as his own.
Remain in Me
Jesus’ disciples came from a variety of regular backgrounds and professions, unremarkable men set apart simply by their response to Jesus’ call to follow him. He saw their rough edges and ordinary lives, but he also knew what would transform them into bold messengers willing to risk everything for the truth: an ongoing relationship with him.Near the end of his time on earth, Jesus told his disciples: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me. Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5, NLT).
No amount of moral behavior or good intentions can produce the spiritual fruit we’re meant to bear. Jesus flowing through us brings vitality and growth, giving us the ability to obey him on a heart level. We’re transformed as we remain in him — as we allow his Spirit and Word to permeate our core and fill us with life from the inside out.
Belonging to Him
God calls his children to be holy, not because he wants to chastise us into being better people, but because he wants us to live in the freedom that comes with belonging to him. He wants us to see him for who he is and be changed by his presence, like 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 says:
“But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord — who is the Spirit — makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (NLT).
Living a holy life as people owned by a holy God will certainly result in visible changes to our behavior as we become more like Jesus. As we lay down our will, God enfolds us into his holiness, where his glory stills our striving and his beauty cheapens every lesser thing we’ve ever wanted.
Pause and Be Owned
As you think about God’s desire for your holiness, consider these questions:
What images come to mind when you think about holiness? How might you have equated the word “holiness” with “appearance” in your life?
What does it look like for you to remain in Jesus? What specific spiritual fruit is he equipping you to bear as a result of being connected to him?
What feelings does the thought of being owned by God prompt in you? Consider a specific area of your life you’re struggling to release to God and take a few minutes to pray for his help to lay it down and let him transform you.