May God Himself, the God who makes everything holy and whole, make you holy and whole, put you together—spirit, soul, and body—and keep you fit for the coming of our Master, Jesus Christ.
—1 Thessalonians 5:23, The Message
I have a confession to make: I get itchy when I hear the word "holiness."
I seem to feel fine when I hear about the holiness of God, the Holy Spirit, that our God is a holy God, but when it comes to ascribing holiness to people, then I get itchy.
Holiness, to me, seems to have legalistic, exclusionary connotations. It brings to mind the phrase, “Holier than thou.” I recall interactions I have had with well-meaning saints whose whiff of “holiness” was enough to make me want to run in the other direction.
And yet, my personal itchiness aside, there is much said in Scripture about the people of God being called to be holy, just as God is holy. We are told that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, to make us holy and to shape our lives into the image of the Son. If holiness means that my life is being shaped and formed along the lines of Jesus’ life, then maybe it is my experience of holiness that needs to be re-examined, to be shaken loose from its negative connotations.
What if holiness is actually about wholeness? I like that Eugene Peterson, in his noted paraphrase The Message, connects these ideas when he translates 1 Thessalonians 5:23 and says God will make us “holy and whole.” How many people do I know who are whole?
Suddenly the image of “holier than thou” is gone; some of the most whole people I know are honest, willing to be vulnerable, grateful, intentional, and funny. (Who would have thought that holiness encompasses a sense of humor?) The people I know who are pursuing wholeness, who are being “put together—spirit, soul, and body” by the Spirit of God, are paradoxes: they are kind, but have boundaries; they are gentle, but firm; they know their personal limits, but are willing to expend themselves for the sake of others. These same people are willing to face the pain of their past and to grieve their losses; they are working to unlearn old patterns and are learning new ways of acting and being in the world. Whole people are conscious of the power that they hold—whether institutional power, cultural power, or personal power—and steward it wisely.
If holiness and wholeness are meant to go together, then I want to be holy. I want my life to overflow with the abundance of God—God’s generosity, gentleness, graciousness. I want to be known for my love, that God’s love flows through me. I want to live in such a way that as the days go by and those days turn into years that I am becoming more and more like Christ, that I am becoming more and more whole because I have been in the presence of God.
If holiness and wholeness are truly inseparable, then I want to live a whole and holy life. Itch free.
Alyssa M. Foll is a chaplain for Adventist Health System who writes from Orlando, Florida.
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