One of the defining convictions of the Methodist movement is that it is possible to live a holy life, a life pleasing to God. Methodists have at least given lip service to this conviction since the days of John Wesley in the 18th century.
This conviction was no less popular in Wesley’s day than it is now. Three primary inclinations work against the conviction that holiness is possible. Some people have been badly burned by those who proclaim themselves to be holy. Through those actions, the “holy” life has been imagined to be the “stuffy,” “stilted,” “inauthentic,” “mean-spirited” or “narrow” life. As second inclination that stands against the conviction of possible holy living is that it is not, in fact possible. Try as we might, we will inevitably fail. While the first inclination is usually rooted in ones experience of others, this second inclination is more often rooted in ones experience of oneself. We’ve made the resolutions, we’ve tried to be perfect, yet we fail over and over again. A third inclination looks elsewhere. It sees that language of holiness – like some other words (righteousness, goodness, etc.) – divides people. These people are holy, those people are not. What we ought to say, according to this inclination, is that sure, people mess up sometimes, but deep down, all people are good, all people are already holy. And because the opposite of holy is marginalized, the emphasis on holiness is either muted or rejected.
United Methodists wouldn’t deny either of these kinds of experiences – we’d be foolish to try. But these experiences don’t tell us everything we need to know. Methodists have, however, historically recognized the reality and depth of human sin, that deep down all of us, even the best of us, are estranged from God, and profoundly fractured inside. In spite of this assessment of the human condition, and in spite of these experiences, Methodists remain hopeful about the possibility of holiness.
First, Methodists consider the commands of scripture. At the very least we run into God saying, “Be holy, because I am holy.” Then Jesus had to go and use the “P” word: “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” While the counsel of despair might come on us at this point, Methodists have tended to draw the conclusion, “If God commands it, surely it must be possible.”
Second, Methodists consider that according to that same book of scripture, the life of holiness is not something we do on our own. My actions, my deed, my character, my performance, my resume – none of these will ever get me to the point where I am holy. Holiness, Wesley and his successors would say, is only possible through the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in us. The good news for us is that God not only commands holiness, but also graciously gives us the resources we need to live it.
It would be nice if, having said that our holiness is something the Holy Spirit does in us, we could just sit back, relax, and wait for it to happen. For holiness to happen, the Spirit will need to (a) remove some things, and, (b) add some other things. Some of this removing and adding is done through our cooperation, our learning to say NO to some of our desires and YES to God’s invitations. Just as marriage requires that we take up a certain set of practices, the life with God that leads to holiness requires us to take up certain practices.
Methodists modify these convictions with one more. The life of holiness, the embodiment of a life of love, joy and peace that is fully pleasing to God, is not only something for which we need the Spirit. It is also something for which we need other people. I will never be holy in isolation from the people around me. I need their input in my life. Sometimes that input is painful. They rebuke me and correct me. They offend me and hurt me, giving me opportunity to practice turning the other cheek and extending forgiveness. Other people, even those far from holiness (or at least far from what we take to be holiness), deliver us from self-righteousness by helping us see ourselves more clearly. Will we listen to them? Can we admit that we might hear the voice of God through them? It’s difficult, but that’s the way the holy life seems to work.
We also refuse to believe that holiness requires dullness. The life most pleasing to God is a life of love, joy, danger and adventure. Those are surely the characteristics we see in Jesus, the one we take as our model for life.
Are you interested in living a holy life? While Methodists believe Jesus is essential to the holy life, we don’t believe we have a corner on the market. In fact, we think we as a church are more likely to be holy the more we partner with disciples in other churches. Just as individuals usually go astray and miss holiness when they go it alone, so it is with churches. If you want live a holy life, try these few ideas. Worship God – not just on your own, but with others. Learn to hear “Yes” and “No.” Those inclined to depression and melancholy have trouble hearing Yes, while those convinced of their own rightness have trouble hearing No. God gives us both, so we need to be able to hear both. Take up some spiritual disciplines – reading the Bible, prayer, service. Finally, find a friend who would like to go on the journey with you, someone to encourage, provoke and challenge you, someone you will let speak into your life. Don’t go it alone.