I lectured recently on holiness and wholeness. “Holiness,” of course, has been the subject of conversation in the sanctification debates among the New Calvinists asking, ‘Can we expect to progress in our holy living?’ On the other hand, “wholeness” has been all the chatter since Brené Brown released her breakout book The Gifts of Imperfection. Many Christians have been attracted to her message of vulnerability, brokenness, curiosity, and compassion. In my talk, I hoped to say, “We might just be closer to one another than we think!”
Of course, Brené Brown didn’t invent the terms “wholeness” or “wholeheartedness.” She’s a researcher who discovered certain things about living and thriving, success and failure, that caught her attention and changed her own life. I’d like to think that she stumbled upon the secret written from the foundation of the world – that we are designed to flourish. And human flourishing connects us to God’s vision for shalom – harmony, peace, wholeness. Brené Brown stumbled onto the grand telos, though she didn’t know it.
Now, that grand telos is what Moses offered Israel in the law, saying in essence, “Here are God’s commandments – live in this way and you’ll thrive.” And of course, he said, “Love the Lord with your whole heart.” The commandments, the very symbol of “holiness,” were God’s first window into the life of shalom. But Israel, like us, took the law as a sin-management tool rather than a vision for flourishing. They became a noose rather than a balm. And that holiness-legalism continues even today, enslaving us with guilt, with shame, with questions like, “What if I’m not enough?”
But Jesus ascended the Mount of Beatitudes as the “New Moses” with a new law. He began by saying, “You’re far more broken than you think.” Blessed are the ptochos – those who’ve come to the end of themselves, those who cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps, those who are impoverished in spirit. And on he went, speaking of mourning and humility and desire and mercy and…purity. And when we reach that Beatitude – the Purity Beatitude – we think to ourselves, “Well, here it goes…Jesus is going to tell us to get our acts together.” (Note: Purity is often all the buzz among Christian singles trying to make sure they don’t screw up sexually).
But purity, in the way Jesus understood it, was something radically different. The Greek word he uses (katharos) gets ‘to the heart’ of the matter. Purity, in this sense, is integrity (integer = whole number), wholeness, when our inner life matches our outer behavior. Jesus was saying that you’re blessed when you abandon the hypocrisy (= stage acting) of the Pharisees, and join the community of the broken, the mourners, the humbled, and the hungry who can’t quite hide their sin behind masks. The payoff of purity, Jesus says, is “seeing God.” True contemplatives long to see God, abandoning the masks which block the view.
Later in the same mountain sermon, he says, “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect,” which again makes us feel somewhat guilty, as if we’ve got to muster up the strength to match God’s utter perfection. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called Christians to a “costly discipleship” in contrast to a “cheap discipleship” must have loved this verse, we think. However Bonhoeffer himself translates this passage “Be whole as your heavenly father is whole.” The word there (teleios) gets at human flourishing, human wholeness, human thriving. This is the aim and goal of human existence. We actually get in the way with our legalistic striving and sin-management.
Of course, much later Søren Kierkegaard would write his book Purity of Heart is To Will One Thing. And St. Paul may have wished he’d read it. Paul, of course, would confess his own double-mindedness and inner contradictions in Romans 7 saying, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me.”
You see, Paul knew what we know, that we’re all a mix of beauty and brokenness, love and lies, holiness and hiddenness.
…Which brings me back around to wholeness and holiness. Way back in Genesis 3 we see Adam and Eve, naked and ashamed, hidden behind fig-leaved masks desperately afraid of God’s wrath. That same guilt sometimes motivates us today. We feel ashamed, fearful, a disappointment to God. But God met them with the words, “Where are you?” Not condemnation, not wrath, but a searching love, a Divine Curiosity, a Holy Empathy.
Our growing wholeness may actually come through honestly embracing the depth of our unholiness. As we become more honest, God can see us, because we’ve come into the Light. And then we can see God, as pure souls can. Sometimes the addicts I see for counseling see God better than theologians I’ve known. Brokenness can do that.
Who am I? This or the other? Am I one person today, and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine.
Perhaps being holy is to know increasingly that we are God’s, despite our many contradictions. As we come out of hiding, known to God and neighbor, we become whole, pure, full of integrity, despite our continuing flaws. We become more hungry and thirsty for the ways of God. We show mercy because we’ve been shown mercy. We suffer persecution because we’re willing to risk, to “dare greatly” as Brené Brown writes. Holiness might not look like the perfectly manicured saint. Holiness may in fact mean getting our hands and feet dirty for the sake of the other. Holiness might actually lead us to want to lose the very selves we found when we were found.
And so, I commend to you Wholiness. You’ll discover that it’s not really that hard. You’ll hear Jesus saying, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light.” He’s not trying to tie a noose around your neck. He’s empowering you to live in freedom.
And so, be free. Be wholly free.