Holiness: Let Your Bowels Clench.
HOLY, HOLY HOLY
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips;your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:6-8)
I used to be afraid of the concept of holiness. I thought it meant that I was to stop doing a lot of things I really enjoyed, that I had to pull back in some way from the world lest I be tainted by its grit and grime. I knew God was holy. I knew his holiness amplified my unholiness, so I assumed in that line of thinking I was something of a pariah to Him, as He mingled in my presence holding his nose on account of the stench. I felt that perhaps He was gracious enough to tolerate me, “for God was so fed up with the world, that he grudgingly gave his only begotten son…”
Naturally, it’s the places we fear that He draws us in to for His understanding. I was reading this passage from Isaiah a few months back, all too agreeable to Isaiah’s confession of being an unclean man with unclean lips, when I was struck by God’s response to his sin.
It was not, “You’re right, you are pathetic excuse for a man, and not worthy of my service.”
It wasn’t, “Get away! You’re compromising my perfection!”
The hand of God draws close to Isaiah and touches him, right on the lips, absolving his sin. I don’t know how I could have missed it for so long, but my assumptions of holiness prior to this revelation made it sound like something that had to be protected and coveted at all costs, locked away from the messiness of man. It was in this moment I realized what God’s holiness truly is, and it brought me to tears:
God is completely unaffected in his nature, yet He is profoundly affected in His character.
Consider the life of Jesus. The pharisees warned him of mingling with the least of these, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the lepers, because they thought it would taint who Jesus is supposed to be. Even the disciples fell into the trap as well, discouraging Jesus from mixing with the undesirables should he compromise his holiness. The religious thought that the holy man was like their image of God, neither of the world nor particularly in it. Elevated above the fray of human tragedy by righteousness, out of harm’s way. Purity by purge.
Jesus, however, offers us a completely different understanding of holiness. He recognized his nature as the son of God was immutable, uncompromisable, unshakeable; there was literally nothing in the world that could change that. And rather than using his divine nature to hover detachedly above creation, it enabled him to get right into the mix of it without fear. His immutable nature allowed him to be drawn in to the human experience completely by his compassionate heart. “Go and learn what this means,” he tells the pharisees, “‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6).
At the end of Matthew 9 Jesus “saw the crowds, [and] he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (36). The greek term for compassion is splagchnon, and it means to “clench ones bowels”. To feel so deeply for the other that you are drawn in to their space as the faithful presence of God, almost because you can’t help it. This was Jesus’ guiding light for most everything he did. It was the standard he set for what it means to be human God’s way, to live a life of holiness, fully in the world yet also not of it. I believe this is the fullness of the measure of Christ to be attained (Ephesians 4:13-16) and the transformation into his likeness we experience by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). It is not a standard of performance so much as it is a condition of the heart, to become completely outwardly-focused and other-cenetered, just as the Messiah was.
When we misunderstand holiness as the pharisees and disciples did, we hold ourselves aloof from the grime of the world, sometimes because we subconsciously think it may taint our God-given identity as sons and daughters. We don’t rightly believe that our true nature is “distinguished” or “set apart for a special purpose” (both the definitions of holy) and it must be something we protect from the world. This false holiness promotes pity, where we maintain that distance and chuck stones at the world, the “them”, from our safe vantage point of “us”. We insist people rise up to meet us where we’re at, to do it our way, to become our replicants, to receive what we have to offer. Even within the church, we remain aloof and cooly detached from our brothers and sisters, attempting to hover above the sheeple and calling it leadership. Pity, you see, indicates a lack of humility and a fear of trust in who God is and who we are by extension, masked by moral superiority.
But to be holy as He is holy, to trust in our identity as unshakeable because He is unshakeable. This awareness of our holiness opens us up to a life of compassion where we are drawn into the midst of other people because we can’t help ourselves. God’s love in us is so overflowing that we are practically helpless to resist getting right into the mix and offering that love to the hurting and lowly, the overlooked and compromised. This is the defining characteristic of the Christian; if compassion is not present we have no business interacting with the other. What could a life guided by the embrace of compassion and holiness accomplish?
As Christians, we should be unaffected by the world in our nature, yet profoundly affected in our character.
Pray for the Lord to give us affinity for one another, that Jesus’ compassion guides us in every moment to pursue justice and healing.