Holiness: What you do or don't do that is the question

Shortly after the young Francis of Assisi embraced a faith that would help color the face of Christianity for centuries to come, he sensed God telling him, "Francis, all those things that you have loved in the flesh you must now despise, and from those things that you formerly loathed you will drink great sweetness and immeasurable delight." If a believer heard such words today, he or she would likely write them down in a journal and then forget them. Or perhaps the new Christian might compose a poem or a song, celebrating the sentiment. If the person were an author, he or she might even find a publisher and entomb the lofty notions inside a book.

But not Francis. Almost immediately, he applied the divine admonition in a horrifically beautiful way.

As the young Christian rode his horse out of town, he saw what he once most despised — a leper. It is difficult for most moderns to understand the terror of that once untreatable disease. Leprosy is an insidious malady in which bacteria seek refuge in the nerves and then proceed to destroy them, one by one. Since the bacteria prefer the cooler parts of the body, it means the toes, fingers, eyes, earlobes, and noses are most vulnerable. When your nerves lose all sensitivity, you become your own worst enemy, not realizing the damage you're causing to your own body. You could literally rub your eyes blind.

Eventually, you lose your ability to see, and then you lose your ability to feel, and suddenly, you're living in a senseless world. The only way to know what you're holding in your hands is to find any remaining, stubbornly sensitive part of your body—perhaps a quarter-inch stretch of your lips or an eighth-inch spot on your cheek—and try to guess from the texture and the weight what it is you're carrying.

Even apart from the macabre appearance of a leprosy victim, no one wants to end up alienated from the world, so most people kept an understandably wide berth around lepers. It was one of the most feared diseases of its time. "During my life of sin," Francis wrote, "nothing disgusted me like seeing victims of leprosy."

Exuberant in his newfound faith and with joy flooding his soul—and remembering he was now to love and even treasure those things he formerly loathed—Francis chose not to run from the leper, as he would have done earlier in his life. Instead, he leaped from his horse, knelt in front of the leper, and proceeded to kiss the diseased white hand.

He kissed it.

Francis then further astonished the leper by giving him money. But even that wasn't enough. No, Francis was determined to "drink great sweetness" from what he formerly loathed, so he jumped back on his horse and rode to a neighboring leper colony. Francis "begged their pardon for having so often despised them" and, after giving them money, refused to leave until he had kissed each one of them, joyfully receiving the touch of their pale, encrusted lips. Only then did Francis jump back on his horse to go on his way.

In that indelible moment, Francis' faith became incarnate. His belief didn't just inspire him; it transformed him.

Francis' initial conversion was invisible, exhibited only in the changed expression on his face. That's as far as many of us ever go—a superficial change of mind in response to a compelling argument for faith. This act was astonishingly explicit—a grotesquely gorgeous parable of a radically changed man. The very instant Francis's lips touched the leper, what could have been merely a religion crumbled under the weight of a new way of life. The horse no longer carried a man; that beast transported a saint, whose example continues to challenge us yet today.

Knowing the dynamic witness of a young Francis, I feel embarrassed at how small-minded we can be when discussing the Christian faith with young people today. The apostle Paul exalted life in Christ as the most exciting and compelling life anyone could choose. In a marvelous take on 2 Timothy 4:7 (MSG), Eugene Peterson recounts Paul telling Timothy, "This is the only race worth running."

Today's believers often lose touch with this sense of the glory of being a Christian. We settle for so little—a tame religion, a few rituals, maybe even an occasional miraculous answer to prayer—and so pass our lives without understanding our true identity in Christ, embracing our calling as God's children or fulfilling our divine purpose.

Is the Christianity taught today large enough to seize our hearts? Does its promise of transformation so compel us that we would give all we have to take hold of it?

Most of us have heard the modern translation of 2 Timothy 4:7 that says, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." An Orthodox monk has pointed out that this is a "strikingly Greek" expression that may best be understood as "I have fought the Beautiful Fight."What a mesmerizing twist of a phrase! We can easily think of what is beautiful, and our minds can quickly grasp what constitutes a fight.

But putting the two together? A beautiful fight?

Here's the brilliance of it all: in the Christian life of real transformation and sacrificial service, there is drama, passion, struggle, and vision—everything our souls need to feel alive. And yet compare this exaltation of the Christian life with how it often gets presented today. Far too frequently, Christianity becomes a list of prohibitions.

I'll never forget talking with one young woman, who said: "Why would I ever want to become a Christian? All they want me to do is dump all the good music from my iPod and wear ugly clothes." Her words tell me that, at least in our preaching if not in our minds, we have lost our vision for the glorious, transforming presence of Jesus Christ—how He really makes a difference. This transformation goes well beyond a few instances of slightly modified behavior.

Frankly, I don't fault the world for celebrating our hypocrisy. I fault us for defining the faith by what we're not supposed to do, setting ourselves up for constant humiliation. If that's what they know us for, if that's what they hear us saying, then we have neither lived nor preached in a way that showcases God's glory.

Let me ask you—what do you most think about when someone mentions the word holiness? Does it refer to the words you use or don't use, where you go or don't go on the Internet, how you express or don't express your sexuality? What is a holy person? And then ask yourself, can a few prohibitions like this adequately describe the powerful presence of a Francis?

Without this sense of a powerfully transforming faith, we get stuck on lesser battles and smaller aims. We do this primarily by reducing our faith to a set of intellectual beliefs and a list of forbidden practices. Now, doctrine is enormously important, as is morality. But doctrine alone isn't enough. ("Even the demons believe [the doctrine that there is one God] — and shudder" [James 2:19].) And my problem with those who put so much emphasis on moralism is not that they go too far but that they don't go nearly far enough. They mistake the means for the end.

Francis would be likely, in today's world, to spend his time getting drunk, cussing out inconsiderate drivers or frittering away his time on salacious Internet searches. But you could never define him by these restraints. On the contrary, in his day he became known for what he was, not for what he wasn't.

Here's the challenge of a small-minded faith based only on prohibitions: we still sin. If a successful Christian is defined by what she or he doesn't do, we're all in trouble, because the Bible tells us that "we all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2). Preaching mere moralism is the surest way to tire people out, because in one sense we're all going to fall short of the ideal, and in another sense, spending our lives trying not to do something is far less than we were created for. If our goal in life is primarily to avoid something, then at best we'll achieve nothing. Such a faith will never capture our hearts. If a young woman won't even empty her iPod for that faith, why would she ever give up her life for it?

Incarnational spirituality—the living, reigning and ascended Jesus living through us and transforming us into different people—does not exist to uphold a few rules but rather speaks of a process that creates an entirely new person who sees with new eyes, feels with a new heart, hears with renewed ears, and lives with a new passion. It is, I believe, the only life worth living.

You've probably heard many sermons and read many books on what you shouldn't be and shouldn't do. This book seeks to paint a portrait of what you can become. Our creator God is eager to splash His glory on us. The apostle Peter promises us that "[God's] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness" so that we "may participate in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:3-4).

God didn't create you not to do something; if that had been His goal, He never would have formed you, because if you never existed, you never would have sinned. God made each of us in His image, and He wants us to recapture that image, to surrender to His work in our lives so that we "will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lordfor the display of his splendor" (Is. 61:3).

I pray that we will settle for nothing less than the return of this splendor. Holy Available explores how faith in Jesus Christ can be radically different from and better than what we are currently experiencing. Christianity as a spiritual journey is not simply defined by what we believe or how we behave but is marked profoundly by who we are. It is a different type of transformation—a transformation of being, not just allegiance; a transformation of experience, not just confession; a transformation of existence, not just adherence. It is a return to splendor—for the glory of God.