I borrowed ‘Holiness’ by J. C. Ryle from my friend Dan recently, and have been thoroughly enjoying it. It includes this pearl of a quote on the first page of the Introduction:
Sound Protestant and Evangelical doctrine is useless if it is not accompanied by a holy life. It is worse than useless: it does positive harm. It is despised by keen-sighted and shrewd men of the world, as an unreal and hollow thing, and brings religion into contempt.
Obviously, I think he is right. But it goes deeper than the old ‘faith without works is dead’ chestnut. Everyone would agree that head knowledge that isn’t lived out is a terrible thing. Our Lord was scathingly critical of religious hypocrites. But I fear that my church (and perhaps other evangelical churches) may be in danger of falling into a similar trap, obviously without intending to. I think there is a tendency for holiness to be misrepresented as an energetic feeling that makes you want to be involved in more and more activities without ever growing weary or tired.
I occasionally talk to Christians who see our church as divided into superstars and outsiders. Being outsiders themselves, they look in at the superstars who seem to have boundless energy and time to give to the church. The superstars are at every church social occasion; they appear up the front in church; seem to be good personal friends with the pastoral staff; they lead bible studies, are on the welcoming roster, and are always smiling, friendly, happy and good.
Meanwhile the outsiders know that they struggle. They feel so exhausted at the end of the week that if feels like a mammoth effort just to make it to home group and Church. They don’t feel like good people. They feel resentful of the repeated pleas to get involved and do more—sign on to this roster, attend this event, invite your friends to that seminar, read more, pray more, meet up with more struggling Christians. And then they feel guilty about feeling resentful and about all the good things that they’re not doing.
I know a few who have become so discouraged that they start to question whether they really are a Christian. “I don’t feel loving towards that person who annoyed me, perhaps I’m not a Christian.” “I’m not good all the time like those superstars, maybe I’m not really a Christian.” “It’s been weeks since I really looked at my bible and I only seem to pray when I’m in a crisis, maybe I haven’t really been converted; maybe that’s why I don’t feel like I have the Holy Spirit.”
Of course, there are a myriad of factors contributing to this. For example, It’s just plain difficult to establish a sense of community in a large church. Further, some people treat church as just another service provider, and whine when the church doesn’t change itself to suit their needs. But there is another passage from J. C. Ryle that got me thinking:
True holiness, we surely ought to remember does not consist merely of inward sensations and impression. It is much more than tears, and sighs, and bodily excitement, and a quickened pulse, and a passionate feeling of attachment to our own favourite preachers and our own religious party, and a readiness to quarrel with everyone who does not agree with us. It is something of “the image of Christ”, which can be seen and observed by others in our private life, and habits, and character and doings.
At our church, I think the older Christians know this, but we fail to demonstrate it, and also fail to tell it to the younger christians who feel like outsiders. People get the impression that holiness is about doing things, and feeling warm, loving feelings. It seems especially to do with being involved in church activities. But it is not. As Packer wrote similarly, true holiness is knowing God, not knowing about God. Similarly, evangelism is most effective when we show people God, rather than show them how much we know about God.
I long to have that kind of relationship with the Lord that shows itself in everything I do or say, and makes others long to know him better too. But I look at how I live and how I relate to others and I despair. I’m not holy enough. Thankfully, however, I know that God has a holiness program already in place:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28-29)
In the meantime, I wish I was better able to help people understand that knowing God and being a Christian is not about being like the superstars. It’s not about doing more things or smiling at more people, or even bringing more people to Christ. It’s about loving the one who loved us so much that he sent his Son for us. Yes, a lot of the time that will require me to do things I don’t feel like doing. Yes, I need to be self-disciplined and establish good habits. Yes, there will be times when I am infuriated. But being a Christian is like being married. People expect it all to run on feelings and be blisfully easy like it was when they first fell in love. But in reality it takes hard work and commitment. The end result, however, is well worth it.