I think the idea of holiness means different things to different people. I certainly don't think that I understood the word very well at all, at least for most of my Christian life. Correct me if I'm wrong, but most people don't grasp the true meaning of the word. I'm a lover of semantics and often play with words to change the shape of how people hear a message. I think this quality causes me listen to messages, namely sermons, more carefully and brake down what words are being said and what message is being received. Often times, there's a big difference between those two things.
I may be having wine with a friend and I ask her, "Do you think you've had enough wine for this evening?" She'll likely interpret my statement as saying, "Hey sister, back of the juice. You're getting hoovered." Perhaps my intention for asking her was only to determine if I needed to pour her another glass or put the bottle away. She heard something different, though, and got her feelings hurt. My words were not received how I intended to transmit them and so I failed as a communicator.
All the more, this is imperative when we are speaking and teaching scripture. If we are not cognizant of how our message is being received, then the essence of it is not being transmitted and the intent of our words remains unheard. Message transmission is a huge part of communication.
Back to holiness. If you ask someone with knowledge of the scriptures (namely, someone other than me), they'll probably tell you that, essentially, holy means to be set apart. I remember learning this when I was in college and it stuck with me for some reason. Probably because my teacher repeated it about a million times in one lecture (later to be found on an exam. I love teachers like that.) If holiness means to be set apart, then why do some people understand it as pious, soft spoken, angelic, or just plain good?
I suppose some of those things are set apart by their very definition, but when I say I want to be holy, I don't mean I want to be turned into a weakling; someone with no cultural relevance and no opinion. I don't want to listen to the laments of my friends who are in deep sorrow and merely reply: "God is in control. Let go and let God. In His time. I'll be praying for you."
None of these things are innately wrong. God IS in control. We do need to relinquish our fierce grasp on our lives and allow Him to lead us by faith. And we DEFINITELY need to plea to God on behalf of our loved ones when they're in need. Intercession is part of what being a Christian is about. But when we reduce our responses to serious life issues by using a cliché, we're not being holy. We're being robots.
The following verse, Romans 7:4-6 (The Message), Paul talks about being set apart. Not only that, he talks about the difference between obeying law for the sake of obedience itself and obeying law out of a deep love for God and an understanding of the law's purpose.
"So, my friends, this is something like what has taken place with you. When Christ died he took that entire rule-dominated way of life down with him and left it in the tomb, leaving you free to "marry" a resurrection life and bear "offspring" of faith for God. For as long as we lived that old way of life, doing whatever we felt we could get away with, sin was calling most of the shots as the old law code hemmed us in. And this made us all the more rebellious. In the end, all we had to show for it was miscarriages and stillbirths. But now that we're no longer shackled to that domineering mate of sin, and out from under all those oppressive regulations and fine print, we're free to live a new life in the freedom of God."
If Christ "took that entire rule-dominated way of life down with him and left it in the tomb, leaving you free" then why are we still teaching people on a regular basis how to control sin? Why do we preach about miniskirts and homosexuality (!) and the wretchedness of sin itself when it is God's kindness that leads up to repentance (Romans 2:4)? I think that sin is so abundant in our culture and it's easy to point to the horrific things that are going bad in our world and say, "This world is getting what's coming to them." Sure we may not say it in so many words, but it's relevant in our voice inflection; what we choose to emphasize and what we don't. It's noteworthy to notice what certain people emphasize as 'bad' sins and which ones they don't.
For example, in the past, if I was talking about adultery you may have heard a more harsh tone in my voice than if I was discussing profanity. I've had some close friends deeply hurt by extramarital affairs and have no personal struggle in this area. Adultery pisses me off. Cursing, on the other hand, is something more personal. I've been known to say a less than honorable word before (please hold all comments 'till the end) and so would be shedding light on my own personal dirt by fire-and-brimstoning foul speech.
All I'm trying to say is that focusing on the management of sin does not produce holiness. It manufactures innocuous people with dead faith. Most of my life, I've focused on avoiding sin. Many of you reading this may be quite surprised to hear that as my behavior hasn't been- how shall I say this- set apart. It's true, though. I've focused on not having sex, not smoking weed, and going to church. I thought that if I wanted to be a good Christian, then I must read the Bible to figure out what all the rules were and then follow them. All I became, though, was a sexless church attendee without a buzz. It sounds funny, but ask a non-Christian why they don't like church, and you'll often hear 'I don't like all the rules."
I heard that. I don't like the rules either. What I like is a God who has saved me. What I love a man who's rescued me from the pain of failure, the darkness of depression, and the wretchedness of addiction. What I can't sing enough about is the glory of it all. That's what makes me want to be set apart. I want to love and please my Maker and by doing so, I abstain from the things that he didn't create my body to take part in.
It's much simpler than following a set of rules. Our outward cleanliness should only be a reflection of our inward desire to honor God. When Jesus was talking to the Pharisees about their grave misunderstanding of scripture, he said this:
"You're hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You burnish the surface of your cups and bowls so they sparkle in the sun, while the insides are maggoty with your greed and gluttony. Stupid Pharisee! Scour the insides, and then the gleaming surface will mean something."
I'm a touch frightened that some of the Pharisaical teachings are sneaking their way back into our message. We're teaching people about the Gospel of Sin Management - namely, how to avoid sin and look squeaky clean for the sake of looking squeaky clean. We may not intend to convey this message to people. Perhaps we discuss sin so much because we're concerned for the people steeped in it; we grieve for the ones who are being ravished by its merciless path. But by talking so much about the problem and not the solution, we're conveying the message that holiness is primarily the absence of wrong actions. Being set apart comes from the renewing of our minds resulting in obedience, not the other way around.
"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." -- (Romans 12:1-2a).