Holier Than Thou

Scripture: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

The phrase “Holier Than Thou” drips with sanctimonious superiority. It conjures the image of someone smug about the ways they abstain from immorality and avoid questionable practices. Someone confident in his or her own efforts to rigorously avoid being contaminated by secular, worldly, or frivolous pursuits.

I am reminded of people who protested and preached around my university campus. Much of what they shouted was bent on shaming people for the way they dressed, what they did on their weekends, and their lack of religious participation. The reality that at that time I was wearing a Christian t-shirt, rarely frequented Sixth Street, and volunteered in church did not spare me their “Spirit-Led” pronouncements of my impending doom and idolatrous ways. Honestly, I am not sure the people with their protest signs and bullhorns were even paying attention to who they were bitingly preaching. I was a college student at a state school. From their scathing judgment, this meant I was clearly unholy and going to hell.

From the beginning of the biblical revelation holiness has a very different intention. It is not primarily concerned with what one is avoiding. As if all the world is shot through with sin, and we are only safe inside a hermetically sealed bubble. That kind of approach not only avoids sin, but also ends up avoiding life. It throws the sacred manifestations of God interwoven through our everyday life out with the proverbial cultural bathwater.

Authentic biblical holiness is driven by reflecting, embodying, and living out God’s Image in the world. After all, from the beginning of Genesis we were created to be God’s ‘very good’ image bearers. N.T. Wright puts it this way, “People have often regarded holiness as a negative quality – the absence of moral fault – but it is actually a positive thing, the shining reflection that appears in human character when we learn in practice what it means to be in God’s image.” The focus is away from avoiding the bad and squarely on growing in our practice of the good.

In his letter to the Thessalonians, the apostle Paul states plainly what God’s will is for the church: sanctification. This is the same root word for holiness. We have every indication Paul understood holiness to be a positive reflection of God. He begins this plea for holiness by suggesting they are already pleasing to God. Nothing to earn here. Yet Paul wants them to keep on growing in this manner of walking “more and more.” Paul is like a proud parent applauding a young child’s first steps and cheering them on to walk more and more.

Walking with Jesus as the Source of our lives is challenging. Fortunately, it is God at work in us, not something we have to manufacture on our own. Holiness is not something we do for God, but something God lives out in us. I remember when I was learning to ride my bike. My dad let go of the bicycle seat and I gleefully realized I was still maintaining balance as I pedaled further and further forward. Then I began to become self-focused on the fact that I was riding my bike for the first time on my own. A few seconds later I was picking gravel out of my arms from my fall.

I have also met people embodying authentic holiness who have been equal parts challenge and encouragement to my life. They exhibit simplicity, compassion, genuineness, humility, centeredness, freedom, joy, and life-giving growth. As Richard Rohr writes of these kind of people, “Whatever they are after, they already seem to be enjoying it—and seeing it in unlikely places.” These people awaken me not only to the sacredness of their lives, but also to the sacredness of my own life, and of all God-created life. I sense their immersion in God’s Love and want to experience this Love more and more.

What do you think of when you think of ‘holiness’?

Have you ever experienced someone who seemed ‘holier than thou’?
What was that experience like?

Who is someone you have encountered who exhibited authentic holiness?
What did that encounter awaken in you?