Making the curse of holiness into grace: the mundane teachings of Wisdom

What we struggle with is the necessity to trust in God, as well as the responsibility of diligence to God’s call of holiness in our lives.  The Nazarene manual speaks to this issue in its article of faith on entire sanctification, saying,

“We believe that there is a marked distinction between a pure heart and a mature character. The former is obtained in an instant, the result of entire sanctification; the latter is the result of growth in grace.
We believe that the grace of entire sanctification includes the divine impulse to grow in grace as a Christlike disciple. However, this impulse must be consciously nurtured, and careful attention given to the requisites and processes of spiritual development and improvement in Christlikeness of character and personality. Without such purposeful endeavor, one’s witness may be impaired and the grace itself frustrated and ultimately lost.
Participating in the means of grace, especially the fellowship, disciplines, and sacraments of the Church, believers grow in grace and in wholehearted love to God and neighbor.”[1]

We acknowledge that holiness involves both God and the person.  God initiates holiness, cleansing and preparing the person, giving them the grace of the resurrected Christ, and enabling them to be holy by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is the “divine impulse” to grow in grace.  However, we must respond by consciously nurturing and involving ourselves in the spiritual habits of Christ.

It is this response to the “divine impulse” that causes us to struggle with ourselves.  We find it daunting.  Not only have we met the divine, and been forgiven.  Suddenly God has impressed on us the need to actually be like Christ, to “be holy as I am holy.”  And we have to respond.  Sometimes it feels more of a curse than a grace from God.  But it is because we sense the need to change ourselves immediately and absolutely.  We miss the language of maturing.  God acts on us in an instant, but we take time to mature.  We must nurture this new grace, pay attention to it, and develop it into habits.  It is not an absolutely instantaneous work.  God’s grace is still a forgiving grace and a nurturing grace.  It does not expect us to be holy, and then abandon us when we fail.  It stands alongside us, lifts us up, forgives us, and nudges us forward.

How is it that we can best hear God’s grace being spoken to us on a nurturing basis?  First and foremost, we must continually read the gospels, the words and works of Jesus, as God and God’s grace with us.  These words will give us the example to live up to.  However, we must not let the example of Christ move from amazing grace to daunting curse.  Instead, I propose that we must read it within the mundane daily happenings of our lives.  We must read it as another form of Biblical literature: as the Wisdom literature.  Wisdom literature is concerned with the mundane activities of our lives.  It is not the grand commands at Sinai, nor is it the grand sermon on the mount.  Wisdom literature is the simple words concerned with the development of a person’s character.[2]  If we read and study the wisdom literature of the Bible alongside the Torah, Gospels and epistles, we will learn to see and hear God’s grace through the small and mundane happenings in life, allowing us to be the bearers of the grace of Christ through daily happenings.  I find that it is necessary for a holy people to focus their sights on the normal pieces of life in order to nurture themselves into the habits of the grace of Jesus.  God has not left us alone, but is teaching us as a parent teaches a child.  So, “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction; and do not reject your mother’s teaching” (Prov. 1:9 NRSV), “For the Lord gives wisdom” (Prov. 2:6 NRSV).

[1] 2009 manual, Article of faith X.14

[2] Crenshaw, Intro OT Wisdom, 3; Brown, Character in Crisis, …


And so it begins: the struggle of holiness

Be holy as I am holy…

What a statement!  We come as sinners bowing at the feet of God, touching the wounds of Jesus and receiving the mercy of the resurrected Christ.  We hear the words that Jesus spoke to many sinners, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2:5; Luke 5:20; 7:48; c.e John 8:11).  And in this moment we receive new life.  But, we are caught in the tug-of-war between two masters, the desires and dispositions of this world, and the desires of God.  We go through life, triumphant one day, and struggling the next; finding God’s grace as sufficient and abundant at times, and as a drought at other times.  And we hear the words, “Be holy as I am holy…” (Lev 11:45; 19:2; 1 Pet. 1:15-16).

How can we dream of being holy like God, the Father?  How can we hope to achieve the holy life of Jesus in our sinful lives?  We despair.  We struggle.  We hope.  We pray.  We achieve.  We fail.

And in our most hopeless of times, when God’s grace is a drought, we turn from God and to our own strength.  We desire to be like God, but we succumb to the words of temptation, “if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 3:3).  What an easy temptation: if you are a son of God, then provide for yourself in the same power God provides for you.  In essence, we are tempted to make ourselves holy before God.

But we keep hearing the impossible command, “Be holy, as I am holy.”  And on our own strength, we try to turn stones to bread.  We make rules to avoid sin and sinful people.  We abstain from joys so that we might be repentant enough to achieve grace.  But there is no grace in our rules, and there is no joy in our meager attempts at holiness.  Instead, we reject those who might tempt us into breaking our self made fortress.  Or we turn the other way, and succumb to our own desires, forgetting the call to holiness all together.  We think, “If God really wanted me to be holy, God would make it possible for me.”  Either way, though, we take the place of God in our lives, and our self-made holiness is only a sacrifice to the idols of our own making.  We become abominations before God.

But there is always hope!  There is the hope of the Resurrection!  There is the hope of Pentecost!  The same spirit that was incarnate in Jesus is incarnate in us as well!  The Holy Spirit, the very life giving breath of God, is breathed into our bodies, giving us a living grace and a new life.  It is the Spirit that cleanses us before God, making us righteous, and sanctifies us for God, so that we may be God’s grace incarnate in the world.  What a blessing.  And it is not an impossible task, but a task of everyday living.  It is learning how to dance.  You will fail when you begin to learn, but the more you dance, the more nimble and moveable you become.  You will step on the feet of your partner, but the more practice you have, the more in tune you become with the movements of the music and the people.  It moves from trying to remember how to not thinking at all.  The movements will be natural, fluid, and without thought.  Suddenly, you can’t remember not knowing how to dance.  This is the practice of grace.  And when we are given the grace of the resurrection, we become partners with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us how to dance with grace.  The Holy Spirit teaches us through the Gospel of Christ, the words and works of Jesus, and the Church as the body of Christ.  All of these bear witness to the Word of God, incarnate in Jesus, and incarnate in us by the Holy Spirit.  But we must be willing to learn.