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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