Editor's note:

Holi­ness has got­ten a bad rap as Chris­tians strug­gle to live an authen­tic faith rather than a pret­ty one. We just want to fol­low Jesus and have lit­tle to do with self-con­grat­u­la­tion, self-right­eous­ness, or self-con­cern. But, what if true holi­ness real­ly has noth­ing to do with self at all?

The appear­ance of per­fect piety that springs from spir­i­tu­al pride is the oppo­site of holi­ness, Chris Webb argues. What we tru­ly need is to order our hearts like Jesus did — with humil­i­ty, love, and service. 

—Renovaré Team

Thomas Aquinas, in his Sum­ma The­olo­giae, dis­cuss­es the root and ori­gin of sin by com­par­ing two vers­es, one from the New Tes­ta­ment and the oth­er from the Deute­ro­canon­i­cal books. He notes first that Paul writes to Tim­o­thy: the love of mon­ey is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). But along­side this he sets a line from the apoc­ryphal book of Sir­ach which says (in the Latin Vul­gate), pride is the begin­ning of all sin” (Sir 10:15). Whether or not we want to accept, with Aquinas, the author­i­ty of the deute­ro­canon­i­cal text, the point he makes from these vers­es fits well with the tenor of Scrip­ture as a whole. The first, he says, describes the way in which we allow our hearts to turn to an inap­pro­pri­ate degree towards the beau­ty and rich­ness of cre­ation. But the sec­ond cuts to the deep­er and more seri­ous issue of the way we allow our eyes to be turned away from God him­self in the first place. As Paul puts it so direct­ly, they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and wor­shiped and served the crea­ture rather than the Cre­ator” (Rom 1:25). Our hearts become increas­ing­ly holy as they are healed of these twin mal­adies; we begin though by focus­ing our atten­tion on the lat­ter, our pride­ful turn­ing from God.

The most odi­ous cor­rup­tion of love with­in our souls takes place when we allow love to become inward­ly direct­ed and self-absorbed. Chris­tians insist on a sim­ple truth which is strik­ing­ly counter-cul­tur­al in our con­tem­po­rary soci­ety, obsessed as it is with self-real­iza­tion and self-regard: we are not here to love ourselves.

Now that needs some qual­i­fi­ca­tion, of course. It is not that we Chris­tians are called to hate our­selves. The loathing which some peo­ple expe­ri­ence when they look in the mir­ror is nei­ther nat­ur­al nor healthy. But, con­trary to the way many preach­ers and writ­ers have come to inter­pret Christ’s teach­ing on the great com­mand­ments, the call to love your neigh­bor as you love your­self ” (Mt 22:39) does not imply that our first task is to learn self-love. The twelfth cen­tu­ry Cis­ter­cian writer Bernard of Clair­vaux had a clear­er pic­ture. In his short but bril­liant work On Lov­ing God,” he argued that love at its least per­fect­ed is inward­ly focused, seek­ing only its own good. And this self-love is not true love at all, mere­ly the pow­er of love cor­rupt­ed into pride and van­i­ty. As grace begins to reorder our hearts, though, some of that love starts to turn out­ward, towards God (and our neigh­bor), draw­ing us beyond our­selves – even if ini­tial­ly only because of the self­ish ben­e­fits we can derive from oth­ers. A yet more well-ordered heart is able to love God and oth­ers for their own sake. And final­ly, says Bernard, we then tru­ly learn what it means to love our­selves: to be grate­ful for the gift of our­selves, the only thing we tru­ly have to offer to God and those around us, to express love. Growth in holi­ness ends in a prop­er love of self by turn­ing out­ward to oth­ers, not by turn­ing inward on ourselves.

The hall­mark of the holi­ness of Jesus is this con­stant turn­ing toward oth­ers seen in his con­stant acts of humil­i­ty and ser­vice. Per­haps the most strik­ing exam­ple occurs on the night of the last sup­per. The apos­tle John tells us that Jesus, ful­ly aware of his divine ori­gins and sig­nif­i­cance, was seek­ing a way to love his dis­ci­ples to the end” (Jn 13:1 – an equal­ly accu­rate trans­la­tion of the Greek could be to the utmost”). So he stripped off his out­er gar­ment and pro­ceed­ed to per­form the work of the low­est, most menial slave: wash­ing the filthy, dirt-crust­ed feet of those around him. The dis­ci­ples are shocked and appalled, so much so that Peter is embar­rassed for Jesus and tries to refuse. But Jesus per­sists, teach­ing them what holi­ness towards oth­ers might mean — and call­ing them to love one anoth­er to exact­ly the same degree.

For we who fol­low Christ, oppor­tu­ni­ties for sim­i­lar acts of hum­ble ser­vice abound. The world around us scram­bles to be the first, the great­est, the strongest; the way is wide open for those will­ing to become the least and the last. Jesus him­self gives us numer­ous ideas of how we might live into the holi­ness of the ser­vant. Choose to take the low­est place in the peck­ing order, not the high­est (Lk 14:7 – 11). Share meals with out­casts, even invit­ing them into your home (Lk 14:12 – 14). Do not be mis­led by trap­pings of hon­or and pow­er, but be ready to rec­og­nize the pres­ence of the King of Glo­ry in even the small­est child (Lk 9:46 – 48). You might want to pause for a moment and reflect. What oppor­tu­ni­ties has God placed before me to serve oth­ers? Do I sense the resis­tance of my heart to tak­ing the low­est and least place? Pray for the grace to be able to lay aside pride and take up the servant’s tow­el. A heart reordered towards oth­ers is a heart which is grow­ing in holiness.

If you’d like to explore the holi­ness stream in even more depth, we rec­om­mend this pod­cast con­ver­sa­tion between Nathan Fos­ter and beloved Ren­o­varé Insti­tute teacher Trevor Hud­son: Holi­ness is Bet­ter Than You Think

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