“Holiness, not safety, is the end of our calling.”
Parables of the The Cross
How Lilias loved the young Arab women who peopled her life in Algiers. Her heart reached out to their common plight: married off by their families at an early age only to be rejected, in time, by their husbands for yet younger wives. I would have loved to listen in on her conversations as she walked with them through the practicalities of everyday living. One such conversation she recorded in her diary, 5 April 1898.
“I was at Fehira’s the other day. She was heavy and sorrowful. At last it came out that her husband had said some very insulting things about her and that they had been noised about and her good name blackened. ‘Did you answer him back,’ I asked.
”’Without a doubt I did!’ was the answer. So we read about Him who, when He was reviled, reviled not again, and she prayed, ‘Lord, make my tongue quiet.’
“Today I was there again and asked how things had been. Yes, her tongue had been kept quiet, she said, ‘but all is hot inside. The words stay in, because I asked God, but it is all hot.’ So we went a bit further down the road to holiness and she prayed, ‘Lord, Thou hast made my tongue quiet. Make my heart quiet now.'”
Who can’t relate to Fehira’s outrage when, like her, we have been the object of someone’s undermining or misrepresentation? To keep the “tongue quiet” when all is burning inside would be considered a major victory! But Lilias leads her “a bit further down the road to holiness” with the prayer that God would quiet the inside as well as the outside. Was that asking too much of her or, for that matter, ourselves?
Holiness. Who wants to be holy anyway? Holiness has gotten a bad name these days in a culture that promotes such ideals “self-actualization,” “doing your own thing,” “taking care of number one.” The very quality of holiness has morphed into pejorative catch phrases: “holier than thou,” “reeking of smug self-righteousness,” or “so heavenly minded as to be no earthly good.”
What does it mean, in the truest sense of the word, to be holy? Literally it means, “set apart.” Practically, from a Biblical point of view, it means “set apart from sin and its influences; set aside for God’s special use and purposes. John Stott puts an interesting spin on the double identity of Christians: “… God calls His people out of the world to serve and to witness. The first calling is to ‘holiness’ and the second to ‘worldliness’ using the word as the opposite of ‘otherworldliness,’ and meaning ‘involved in the life of the world.’ So it could be said that the Christian is called to ‘holy worldliness.'”
Who wants to be holy? Perhaps a better question would be: What would a truly holy person look like? I rather suspect that what we would note about a person “further down the road to holiness” would be their interest in and concern for us. They would exhibit those desirable qualities identified as the “fruit of the Spirit:” love. . . joy . . . peace. . . patience. . . kindness. . . goodness. . . faithfulness. . . gentleness. . . self-control. . . . Who wouldn’t want to live or work or engage with someone like that? Who wouldn’t want to be a person like that? “How little people know who think that holiness is dull,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “When one meets the real thing. . . it is irresistable.”
We are, in reality, torn between our desire to be what God intended for us – holy – and the struggle to achieve that desirable state of being. Solzhenitsyn wrote: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
It is a matter of the heart. Scripture describes this ambiguity as a battle between the old life (without Christ) and the new life (with Christ). Lilias addressed this tension in her Parables of the Cross: “So it comes to pass that a fresh need for deliverance is soon pressed upon him who is true to God’s voice in his heart. The two lives are there together – one newborn and feeble, the other strong with an earlier growth…” She illustrates this duality with a watercolor of new and old leaves on the same branch. (see above) “. . . indeed the will power is distracted between the two like the sap that flows partly into the old condemned leaves, partly into the fresh buds.”
Lilias minces no words as she presents the Biblical antidote, continuing the parallel to the plant: “Each day that follows is a steady carrying out of the plant’s purpose: ‘this old leaf shall die, and the new leaf shall live.’ So with your soul. Come to the decision once for all: ‘every known sin shall go – if there is a deliverance to be had, I will have it,’ Put the Cross of Christ, in its mysterious delivering power, irrevocably between you and sinning, and hold on there. That is your part, and you must do it.”
Hard teaching, yes. Truth is we can’t become “holy” in our own strength. We weren’t meant to go it alone. It is both an act of surrender to God (0ur part) and an ongoing process “further down the road” in which God’s Spirit works within our hearts not only to do His will but to will to do it (God’s part). It involves a life time of daily choices: “dead to sin” . . . “alive to God”. . . It is not always easy, this road to holiness, but oh the rewards of such a life!
I conclude my musings with a pithy little poem that describes both our true condition and our ongoing choice on the path to holiness – and freedom.
Two natures beat within my breast,
One is fool, one is blest,
The one I love, the one I hate,
The one I feed will dominate.
Painting: from Parables of the Cross