A Patient Pursuit
Having grown up as a Christian and having been on a quest to “be spiritual” and draw close to God for some 30+ years, I find myself still struggling with how to get there. New forms of spirituality are evolving every day as our world tries to figure out how to get to God.
I was very enthusiastic and driven to let God be the Lord of my life as a young man. I remember reading two books by Jerry Bridges that had a profound impact on me, The Practice of Godliness and The Pursuit of Holiness. I was also involved with The Navigators in my early adult years and they had a significant influence on my spiritual growth. My spirituality was built around the disciplines, a life that could admittedly have become legalistic and mainly focused on what I can do to become spiritual. The topic of holiness is something that has started bouncing around my head once again. Working in a more grace/freedom oriented culture these days, I struggle to figure out holiness in this context. And, as I attempt to engage an emerging postmodern culture, I wrestle with the question of how does holiness fit in? What might it look like today? How does one pursue holiness in a world where every part of holiness is being assaulted?
For me, ‘Emerging’ in emerging culture has at least two purposes: I believe the whole Church needs to ‘emerge’ into the present and the future, and I believe that both old and new forms of Church have treasures that they should share with each other. I say this because I’m reminded that “there is nothing new under the sun.” And, I’m not clever enough to think of anything new anyway. I believe that as we strive to figure this out in a postmodern, emerging culture context, we need to draw on the treasures of those who have gone before us. For instance, John Wesley was a key proponent of the holiness movement which has had a profound impact on church history and numerous lives in church history. Or, we could trace it all the way back to some of the early Christian Ascetics.
Perhaps it is helpful to try to define holiness before I go further. In the Greek New Testament, the root hag is the basis of hagiasmos, translated “holiness,” “consecration,” “sanctification.” The hag words, translated by the Hebrew qadosh, literally mean “separate, contrasting with the profane.” Separation is a major concept and a dynamic dimension of holiness. When God calls us to be holy, He is calling us to be separate from sin, separate from the unclean things of the world, separated unto Himself.
The holiness taught in the New Testament and exemplified in the life of Christ is that state in which the devil is defeated and sin is shunned; in which our will is in harmony with the will of God; in which the Holy Spirit rules the life in motive, affection, and action; in which we may be beset by temptations but have the mastery over them. Holiness is not so much an experience to be sought for itself, but rather is a byproduct of a life fully consecrated to Christ. It is God at work in our lives: shaping our characters, purifying our hearts, tutoring our minds, strengthening our wills, actualizing our highest spiritual potential.
Christ, who came to us clothed in our humanity, declared, “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” In Christ, holiness comes alive, not merely as a definition, but as a visible incarnation. In Christ we see all the fruit of the Spirit come to perfect fulfillment in humanity. Jesus Christ is our highest definition and declaration of holiness. There can be no better definition for holiness than, Holiness is Christlikeness. Because of his power at work in believers, we are freed to become like Christ – imitators of Christ.
This journey of holiness isn’t about simply trying hard to stop doing bad things, (i.e. stop sinning) as much as it is cultivating the disciplines in our life that will facilitate holiness, or Christ-likeness. I’m not a very disciplined person in that I don’t stick with good eating habits long, nor do I consistently exercise, nor do I do a lot of other things I’d really like to do. I actually get tired of trying to do the same thing all the time like reading my Bible every morning though I know it is genuinely good for me. We must appreciate that holiness is not only about doing or not doing certain things. It is about God’s grace. It is a “dependant discipline” as Jerry Bridges calls it.
I’d like to propose a few essentials of this pursuit of holiness:
Dependent Discipline is required
We want a recipe for righteousness and sanctification, not to be told if we believe in Jesus it is done. In Christ, I have been made holy, set apart. Yet this isn’t the full reality I experience in daily living. “Disciplines help us pay attention to the Holy Spirit!” Most believers desire to hear God but don’t do what it takes to put themselves in the position to hear God. A common misperception of pursuing holiness or exercising disciplines is using them to try to get God’s attention but it is really more about trying to help me pay attention to God. I’m reminded of Psalm 127:1 that says “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builder’s labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain.” Paul labored and toiled probably harder than anyone yet it is he who said “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) Just before this verse, he says “I have learned to be content.” Life is hard. Living a Christ like life is harder; in fact it is impossible without the help of God. Our spirituality must be a constant combination of action and reliance on the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. A common mistake that many of us have made is to just put a stricter regimen of spiritual exercise together instead of relying on His Spirit. Jerry Bridges says it this way: “It is precisely because we are not endowed with a reservoir of strength that we need to pray daily for the Spirit’s enabling work in us. Holiness requires continual effort on our part and continual nourishing and strengthening by the Holy Spirit.” Dependence on the Holy Spirit should permeate every discipline we practice and every step we take toward holiness. There’s no room in holiness for the “self-made man.”
Preach the gospel to yourself every day!
An old spiritual habit I had was that of reminding myself of the gospel every day by quoting Galatians 2:20 which says: “I am crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me and this life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me!” I realized in this process that I need to renew this practice. We face condemnation and ridicule every day from not only the enemy of our souls, the devil, but often from our very own self. The truth that “there is now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus” seems to allude us. Jerry Bridges says “when you set yourself to seriously pursue holiness, you will begin to realize what an awful sinner you are. And if you are not firmly rooted in the gospel and have not learned to preach it to yourself every day, you will soon become discouraged and will slack off in your pursuit of holiness.” It is vital that we not only have a grip on the gospel but that it has its grip on us before we entertain even the first ounce of effort. Only when we understand God has rescued us and has made us holy can we then patiently pursue holiness which is really a process or patient pursuit of becoming who we already are!
Patiently pursue holiness.
Want to be countercultural? Integrate patience into your lifestyle! Gary Thomas says “Impatience is a far more deadly enemy of spirituality than most of us realize! …If we spend ten, twenty, or even thirty years pounding a sinful habit into our lifestyle, we shouldn’t be surprised if the residual elements take a long time to be rooted out.” Putting habitual sins to sleep takes time. Scripture leads us to wait: “But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” (Galatians 5:5) Our pursuit of holiness should be a patient pursuit. Transformation takes time.
It’s our story being written
We hear a lot about people’s journeys and stories are a strong vehicle of communication to a truly postmodern person. We should see this patient pursuit as a process, as the unfolding of my story as I journey to become like Christ. It’s not a spirituality of performance. Holiness calls us to be real, transparent and honest. The journey of holiness isn’t about us doing what’s right only when others are looking. The pursuit requires introspection and honest candor from ourselves, the Holy Spirit and others. Jerry Bridges says “there will always be conflict within us between the “flesh,” or the sinful nature, and the Holy Spirit. This conflict is described by Paul in Galatians 5:17 “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” Romans 7 also shows this honest tension quite well. Bridges also says “what honest Christian would not admit to the frequent gap between his or her spiritual desires and actual performance?” This pursuit, this life long process is our story unfolding as we morph into Christlikeness! It is a story that will have many high points, low points, surprises and bumps along the way.
Disciplined by Grace
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11-12) Grace teaches us! It teaches us to say no to ungodliness, things like gossip, immorality, lying, greed, etc. It also teaches us to say no to worldly passion like “the inordinate desire for and preoccupation with the things of this life such as possessions, prestige, pleasure, or power.” Grace also teaches us to say YES! Often holiness gets the bad rap of all the “don’t do’s” or only being prohibitive. But, it also has to do with the positive expression of Christian Character like the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 (love, joy peace, patience, etc). Paul talks in Ephesians 4:22-24 about both “putting off” and “putting on” as key to patiently pursuing spirituality. It’s kind of like cutting and pasting to use a modern computer analogy! That is cutting out the unholy and pasting in the holy. This quote about John Bunyan sums up what I think Paul meant when he said grace disciplines:
Run, John, run. The law commands
“We must be utterly convinced that there is nothing we can do to increase God’s love for us! Our role is to ‘hoist our sails’ and position ourselves to be open to God’s Spirit. God’s role is to propel us on the path of transformation.” The moment we think we have to earn God’s love or favor, we’ve slipped over the edge into a performance and self-assuring spirituality.
Don’t go it alone!
Where I really start to grow toward holiness and develop is when I practice the disciplines in community. “The athletes of God: Ancient Christians from many cultures and walks of life, they gathered in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East beginning in the third century. They created communities where they could train themselves in godliness (1 Tim 4:7) and run together ‘the race marked out for them’ (Heb 12:1).” Maybe to us this means forming some form of an urban monastery; maybe triads of life-transformation groups; maybe it means taking retreats together to focus on the journey toward holiness; maybe it means getting on line regularly with a mentor or fellow journeyman and so on . . .
Don’t get stuck in a rut.
I like to employ a diversity of disciplines in my life. It’s easy to say it’s not working, so I’ll just stop doing them. Or, it is easy to get bored with practicing disciplines. We must patiently pursue holiness and that comes through incorporating a variety of means/disciplines. “If we think of the disciplines as spiritual food (another analogy popular with ancient Christians), then we should view them as a MENU not a recipe. We must choose from the menu according to our present spiritual hunger rather than stir them all together like ingredients into one big casserole.” There is still a need for repetition and practice of disciplines to achieve progress and growth. One way to do this might be to take a whole season of time to focus on one discipline. The menu of disciplines is vast but a few would be disciplines of freedom to help us get unencumbered are the discipline of abstinence, simplicity, or stillness (solitude). To help us develop further spiritual heath we may choose Scriptural meditation, prayer or reticence (the control of the tongue). Crucial to this patient pursuit is focus. Practicing disciplines of thankfulness, contentment and worship can help us keep our eye you Jesus. Christ likeness is after all, our goal!
Going the Distance
There is a lot of talk today about finishing well. All of us long to hear the words “well done!” Remember, everything is gift! It is also helpful to observe moderation in taking up our pursuit of holiness through discipline. “Excessive discipline, the elders insisted, only leads to discouragement and giving up.” Take the disciplines in bites size pieces and pace yourself for a marathon! More doesn’t mean better and sometimes slower is faster. Though you stumble, don’t give up. Though you may falter His grace can take you on.
We must live holy lives if we are to be Missional. It will tarnish the image of Christ on the world if they see us being inconsistent and hypocritical. As we take the good news to the world, that good news must have a solid grip in our lives. It is only as we experience Christ’s transformational power that we can become agents of transformation to a needy world. As Christ truly transforms us, we become free and we become passionate for His glory. This holy passion and freedom is attractive to the world looking for something to grab onto!
I conclude this by saying that in case you’re still wondering – we’ll never be perfect. But that doesn’t mean we can never be holy! Though the desert father’s standards of holiness were high, they recognized that the spiritual race requires distance runners, not sprinters. Let’s all commit to stay in the race, even if for just one more day.
 Stacey Patrick, Taking the “Ugh” out of Spiritual Disciplines,
Discipleship Journal Issue 143, 50.