If at First You Don't Succeed, Stop Trying so Hard
The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness
August 31, 2012
160 pp., $11.57
The Hole in our Holiness is a fine book that makes a good argument that all devout Christians should read and inwardly digest. And then, as soon as possible, we should forget about it.
It's a fine book because Kevin DeYoung makes as good a case as can be made for pursuing holiness. Holiness is never formally defined in the book, but what he apparently means by it is righteous behavior motivated purely by a desire to obey Christ. Being familiar with DeYoung's writings, I know he is aware that holiness embraces more than this, but here he uses the term in its more ethical sense.
The case for holiness is not hard to make, as the Bible is full of injunctions to that end. There is no better summary than that of Ephesians 1, wherein we are told that from before the foundation of the world God chose us to live holy and blameless lives (v. 4), and then in chapter 2, that we have been saved by grace so that we might do good works (v. 10). Put in the perspective of salvation history, every other biblical admonition to holy living seems like mere commentary.
In pursuing the life of holiness there are many land mines to avoid, and DeYoung warns us about most of them. For example, he rightly notes the temptation to think that good works are something owed to God because of all the love he has lavished upon us. He also reminds us that "holy" is not something we become as much as a reality we live into, since by Christ's death and resurrection, we are already holy in the most important sense. Because of many such nuances, the book avoids many of the dead ends that one finds in other pleas for righteous living.
I believe, however, DeYoung fails to take some of his own advice as seriously as he might. Three examples will have to suffice.
First, he rightly argues that, as Scripture enjoins, we should "examine ourselves," but also wisely says we shouldn't "take our spiritual temperature every day." He devotes one paragraph to the latter exhortation, but in my experience, the temptation to spiritual narcissism is so powerful, it requires a chapter or more to think it through. Whenever I've made a priority of examining myself, it's pretty near impossible not to take my spiritual temperature every day. I've come to conclude that I, at least, cannot vigorously pursue holiness without becoming preoccupied with my progress or lack thereof. I don't think DeYoung appreciates the full power of this temptation.
Second, he rightly notes that in the pursuit of holiness, repentance is "a way of life"—meaning we should not expect perfection in this life, and that we'll always need to repent of something. But he creates an impression that repentance is the gut check on the way to something else, a mere means to the life of holiness. Again, what I've discovered is this: The older I've grown, the more I realize how layered and subtle is my sin; the more spiritually mature I am, the more I realize, along with Jeremiah, how desperately wicked my heart is. In that sense, as I run the last laps of life, I'm much less impressed with my outward progress, and more aware than ever of my sin, and more and more in a constant state of repentance. Others compliment me on my "progress"—I no longer have a temper, I'm more considerate of my wife, more compassionate toward others, and so on and so forth. But they cannot see my heart, and if they did, they'd run in fear, repelled by the cauldron evil that remains. Perhaps I've simply failed in the pursuit of holiness. Or maybe the pursuit of holiness is not so much a striving to adopt a life of habitual virtue but learning how to live a life of constant repentance.
Third, he says that those who pursue a righteous life are "susceptible to judgmentalism and arrogance." What I think he fails to see is that those who pursue holiness with the passion that he pleads for are more than "susceptible" to these temptations; they will inevitably become self-righteous. This is my personal testimony and the witness of history. DeYoung points us to the Puritans as examples of holiness. But there is a reason that the Puritans have a reputation for priggishness and self-righteousness. Having been a student of the Puritans myself, I know their movement started out with the best of motives—to live godly lives in a sinful world. But their passion for holiness led inevitably to self-righteousness. Their historical reputation is due in part to secular bias, but it is also due to historical facts.
I think two teachings of Jesus need to play a much larger role in any discussion of holiness, but unfortunately they rarely do. The first is the parable of the Pharisee and the sinner (Luke 18). In that parable we see that the person who has pursued holiness, and has done so with reasonable success, is condemned. The person who is as unholy as unholy can be is praised. His repentance seems to be not merely a way to become holy but the very essence of holiness—that is, an attitude and a behavior that pleases God.
The second teaching is Jesus' admonition that our left hand should not know what our right hand is doing (Matt. 6:3). The context is almsgiving, but the principle applies to all our good deeds; Jesus knew all too well that when sinful people start examining themselves, taking note of their holiness progress, they will not be able to avoid one of two sins: despair at their lack of progress or self-righteousness at their seeming progress. This progress, of course, is an illusion, because it is tainted with the sin Jesus condemned with vigor: self-righteousness.
So while I applaud the reminder that we are called to be holy, and while I recognize that there is some deliberate effort involved, I believe that a conscious and purposeful pursuit of holiness is about the worst way to go about it. I cannot think of a person I know or a historical figure who has aspired to holiness without suffering from spiritual pride. This has certainly been the case in my own spiritual journey. The times I have deliberately tried to become godly are when I have become most like the devil—irritable, judgmental, arrogant, and prideful to start with. The paradox is when I stop trying to be holy, and simply repent as the sinner I am, I become more patient, kind, and loving.
Upsetting Our Timing
To be a bit prosaic, the spiritual life to me is not unlike hitting a golf ball. The more you focus on all the "ethics of the golf swing" (the timing and position of your feet, hands, arms, shoulders, and head at any given moment) and press to hit a good shot, the more likely you are to shank, slice, hook, or top a ball. Yes, one does sometimes have to work on each part of a swing in isolation, as well as spend some time on the practice range hitting ball after ball after ball. But what you are mainly learning during practice is to stop isolating parts of the swing, to stop examining yourself so much, and mostly to stop trying so hard. You're trying to learn to swing with grace and rhythm. You even have to learn how not to focus on hitting the ball as much as simply making a good, rhythmic swing. When you do that, the rest takes care of itself, and the ball explodes off the club, high into the air, with grace and power.
So, yes, books like this can be helpful, especially ones as nuanced as is this one. DeYoung avoids all the works-righteousness and self-justification habits that tempt the soul eager for holiness. But in the end, books like this and the advice they give are best forgotten as soon as possible. They have a way of upsetting our timing. Better than examining ourselves and trying to be holy is to stop looking at yourself in the first place, and to start looking for the neighbor, moving toward him with the rhythm of grace.
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today.