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Authors: John Eldredge

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Free to Live: The Utter Relief of Holiness

BOOK: Free to Live: The Utter Relief of Holiness
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May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.

1 Thessalonians 5:23–24

One of the strangest quirks of our life here on this planet is the fact that the one face we hardly ever see is the one closest to us: our own. As we move about in the world every day, our face is always right before us and always just beyond us. Somebody could write a fairy tale about that. It would be an allegory for how rarely we see ourselves, who we truly are, the good and the bad. But in unexpected moments we get a sideways glance, as when passing by a plateglass window downtown, and most of the time we don’t like much what we see.

Notice how we are in elevators: No one makes eye contact. No one wants to acknowledge that we are seeing and being seen. In a moment of forced intimacy, almost claustrophobic intimacy, we pretend we aren’t even there. The reason? Most times we just don’t know what to do with what we see. About ourselves, I mean. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize winner to know that something dreadful has happened to the human race. So we stare at the ceiling or our shoes; we watch the numbers report the passing floors; we hide. This is how most of us approach our entire lives—we hide what we can, work on what we feel is redeemable, and despise the rest.

There is a better way.

The first chapter of Khaled Hosseini’s novel
Kite Runner
begins with an arresting sentence: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” It is the beginning of a confession. He continues:

I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn’t just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins.

Oh, my. What if your past of unatoned sins called you on the phone one day? How would you feel? What would you say?

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an afterthought.
There is a way to be good again
. I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came along and changed everything. And made me what I am today.

Every one of us could write a similar confession. That is, if we saw things clearly, we, too, could say, “This is what I am today; this is what has made me what I am today.”

My favorite line in the entire novel is this one: “There is a way to be good again.”

Whether you are aware of it or not, you crave goodness. (Something caused you to pick up a book with the word
holiness
in the title!) In the depths of your being, you ache for goodness; we all do. Our souls long for a sense of wholeness, and goodness is essential for wholeness. We are made for goodness like we are made to breathe, like we are made to love. Goodness is the strength of our condition. Friends, you are going to need a deep and profound goodness for all that is coming at you like a freight train. And there is a way to be good again. It comes to us from such a surprising direction—as almost all of the answers to our deepest needs do—that we’d best begin with a question: What is Christianity supposed to
do
to a person?

How God Restores Human Beings

We exercise because we want to grow stronger; we take vitamins in the hope of being healthy; we attend language classes expecting to learn a new language. We travel for adventure; we work in the hope of prospering; we love partly in the hope of being loved. So why Christianity? What is the
effect
Christianity is intended to have upon a person who becomes a Christian, seeks to live as a Christian?

The way you answer that question is mighty important. Your beliefs about this will shape your convictions about nearly everything else. It will shape your understanding of the purpose of the Gospel; it will shape your understanding of what you believe God is up to in a person’s life. The way you answer this one question will shape your thoughts about church and community, service and justice, prayer and worship. It is currently shaping the way you interpret your experiences and your beliefs about your relationship with God.

What is Christianity supposed to
do
to a person?

How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son. Because of the sacrifice of the Messiah, his blood poured out on the altar of the Cross, we’re a free people—free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either. Abundantly free! He thought of everything, provided for everything we could possibly need, letting us in on the plans he took such delight in making. He set it all out before us in Christ, a long-range plan in which everything would be brought together and summed up in him, everything in deepest heaven, and everything on planet earth. It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone. (Ephesians 1:3–10
TM
)

I know—it’s a lot to take in. There is an exuberance here; Paul is waving his arms around and talking so fast we can barely follow the excitement. It has something to do with the plans God has for us. Those plans give God great joy. The heart of those plans is this: To make people whole and holy, by his love. To make
you
whole and holy, by his love. Whole, and holy—this is what you ache for. At least, you ache for the wholeness part. The holy part seems optional. But you will soon see why it is not. Whole and holy—this is your destiny. Once the truth of it seizes you, you’ll run around the house whooping at the sheer promise.

Now, we probably all have some idea what wholeness might look like, might even feel like. But what about the holy part? It almost seems a disconnect—summer vacation and clean your room; gelato and Brussels sprouts. What does
this
have to do with
that
? For years I thought of holiness as something austere, spiritually elite, and frankly rather severe. Giving up worldly pleasures, innocent things such as sugar or music or fishing; living an entirely “spiritual” life; praying a lot; being a very good person. Something that only very old saints attain.

In fact, do a little exercise right now—what comes to mind when you read or hear the word
holiness
(that is, as it applies to human beings)? What are your unspoken assumptions about holiness?

This book emerged out of a series of talks I gave to a live audience; at this point I asked them what came to mind when they heard the word
holiness
. These are their words:

Boring

Denial (as in, self-denial)

Discipline

Unattainable

Striving

The goal

Separation (as in from the world or that sort of thing)

Hard

I don’t think they are an exception. Their response is completely understandable—and heartbreaking. Holiness is not exactly a hot item these days, in great part because we have come to associate all sorts of crushing and unattainable things with it. Yet in order to make human beings what they are meant to be, the love of God seeks to make us whole
and
holy. In fact, the assumption of the New Testament is that you
cannot
become whole without becoming holy; nor can you become holy without becoming whole. The two go hand in hand.

Perhaps there is a rescue waiting for us if we can escape our misunderstanding of what Christianity is supposed to do to a person, and the role of holiness in that.

Clarifying God’s Intentions

Let’s have a look at an argument that Jesus continues to have with the professional religious of his day. It has to do with the Jewish understanding of the Sabbath. Centuries earlier, God handed down the Law to the Jews (by way of Moses). The fourth commandment stated, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy” (Exodus 20:8). Correctly observing the Sabbath was for the Jews one of
the
core issues of personal holiness. Getting this right was vital. Getting it wrong could get you nailed to a cross. Now, early in the Gospel of John, Jesus does something that absolutely infuriates the religious leaders of his community:

Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’…So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jews persecuted him. (John 5:2–16)

Jesus heals a man on a Sabbath day, tells him to pick up his mat, and as a result, the religious leadership rages. Two chapters later, Jesus publicly explains his actions:

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from him who sent me. If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own…Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law. Why are you trying to kill me?” “You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. “Who is trying to kill you?” Jesus said to them, “I did one miracle, and you are all astonished. Yet, because Moses gave you circumcision (though actually it did not come from Moses, but from the patriarchs), you circumcise a child on the Sabbath. Now if a child can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the law of Moses may not be broken, why are you angry with me for healing the whole man on the Sabbath? Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” (John 7:15–24)

Jesus is doing this on purpose. He
waits
until the Sabbath to heal people because he is trying to pierce to the heart of the issue: “What is God after?” His people—especially the religious technocrats—have veered pretty dramatically off course in their religion, beliefs, convictions, passions, and their understanding of what God is up to. So Jesus provokes the debate by healing on the Sabbath. He does so as a dramatic illustration of the purposes of God. “This is what I’m up to. I want to heal the whole man.” The healing of the whole man. Do you see that? The purpose of God is restoring the creation he made.

That
is what Christianity is supposed to do to a person: restore him as a human being.

God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see that original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid base as with himself and then after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun. (Romans 8:29–30)

From the very beginning, God decided to shape our lives along a certain line. The intended shape of our existence is made clear in the person of Jesus. It is a massive undertaking, and notice that it requires
restoration
. “The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored.” Thus, the healing of the whole man. That’s the purpose of Christianity.

Now let us jump toward the end of the New Testament (which is the end of the Bible—the whole narrative is drawing to a close). The author of Hebrews is talking about God’s processes, his ways with us—both what it feels like at times and, more important, what the
goal
is:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. (Hebrews 12:7–13)

BOOK: Free to Live: The Utter Relief of Holiness
4.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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