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Holiness versus love?

by Jacob Ninan

Specialists in holiness

The Pharisees in the days of Jesus had apparently begun as a group of people who 'sincerely' sought to obey God in everything, keeping every commandment of God from the greatest to the least. The problem was that they, instead of understanding the spirit behind the law, concentrated on the letter, and finally missed the point altogether. In their zeal they went on trying to analyse each commandment, and wherever the instruction was not clear or comprehensive enough they added their own interpretation in the form of sub-clauses to the law. Their intention, as they perceived it, was good, but they became a distorted and warped form of what God wanted them to be.

What were some of the characteristics of the lives of the Pharisees? Jesus pointed them out very clearly in Matt.23. 1) They thought of themselves as teachers to the people. 2) Their standards were much higher than what they themselves followed. 3) They aimed at showing everyone how righteous they were, and craved for recognition for their greatness. 4) Their preaching was of such a type that actually turned off other people from entering into the kingdom of God. 5) They put so much stress on the minor points of the law that the major issues got overshadowed. 6) Their strong concentration on minor aspects of the law made them ignorant of the fact that they were breaking some of the major commandments in the process. 7) Preaching unreasonably high standards that they could not keep themselves made them hypocritical.

What did Jesus say were some of the important things that the Pharisees missed out? Justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt.23:23). Why justice? Because they were not right in demanding a higher standard of behaviour from the others which they themselves were not following. Mercy? Because they were hard on those who failed to reach those standards even though they themselves did not keep those standards themselves. Faithfulness? Because they knew they were themselves falling short while they preached high standards, and didn't do anything about being truthful before the Lord from their heart.

Another thing for which Jesus was angry with the Pharisees was that they lacked compassion (Matt.12:7). This was an important characteristic that came out in their dealings with the others, that they did not really bother about what happened to those 'sinful' people. Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate the point that these religious minded people were occupied with their religious activities unmindful of the sufferings other people were going through. It is also applicable to us if our major focus is on sanctification.

Pharisees as a group faded away from the scene long ago. But pharisaic minded people still exist in large numbers among believers. If we are people who love the Lord and want to please Him at all times, and we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we have a tendency to be pharisaic in our own behaviour and approach. The points listed out by Jesus are warnings for us against traps that we face every day. Isn't it our apparently good intention - to be pleasing to the Lord in every little thing - which the devil misuses to turn us away from the right path into the pharisaic way?

The world says that these people don't have any love, but are occupied with their religious activities or their own holiness, and people are put off from coming to the Lord as much as in the case of the Pharisees. One explanation that the holiness crowd gives is that the greatest thing they can do for the others is to be holy themselves and to teach others to pursue after holiness. They seem to think that giving physical help to others is beneath them! But how hollow all this intricate knowledge of the commandments and the profession of high standards of life look in the absence of love! (1Cor.13:2).

Specialists in love

At the same time when we look at Christians who are all over the place doing 'good' things, they don't seem to bother so much for holiness! Compared to those who are seeking after holiness there may be many more Christians who are carrying out ministries and services of different types, whether they are directed towards evangelism or support for physical and mental needs. For them love and compassion seem to be so much more important than keeping of commandments. In fact they seem to think that they need to bend the commandments here and there in order to achieve their goal of helping needy people. Do they end up finally like perfume with a dead fly in it (Ecc.10:1)?

Unlike the warnings against Pharisaic behaviour, warnings against do-gooders losing sight of holiness are less common among Christians. Because these latter groups of people are doing 'good' things, we like them and don't feel negatively towards them. On the other hand 'righteousness' is threatening (Rom.5:7).

God talks about prophets who proclaim, "Peace" and whitewash over the sins of people whom they should have warned (Eze.13:10). Even assuming that some of these prophets are not trying to get money from people or build their own empires, the reason why they proclaim only peace may be because they don't want to hurt anyone. It is a case of 'love' having become superficial. Preachers who do not mention about the need for repentance while proclaiming the gospel do not help the hearers to get a proper foundation in their Christian life. Even if there are openly known sins in a person's life do-gooders tend to ignore them thinking that only love is important. God's promises are dispensed rather freely to people in order to make them feel good, even when there are issues of sin, wrong attitudes and wrong behaviour to be dealt with. Preaching tends to major on the love and mercy of God while downplaying aspects of God's hatred for sin, hypocrisy, etc. All people in the church are accepted as children of God and the preaching does not indicate that some people sitting there need to be born again. God's problem with the church in Pergamum was that they were not very strict with preserving sound doctrine and good behaviour (Rev.2:14,15), and in the church of Thyatira it was that they did not take action against false prophets (Rev.2:20). There may be an impression created that everything is all right once a person has become a child of God and there is no stress on obeying God in everything and becoming godly men and women. Aren't all these there because of an over emphasis on love and doing good, while neglecting holiness and purity of life?

If we are born-again Christians and we look at our own lives, we may find ourselves leaning to one side or the other of this divide. If we are those who seriously pursue holiness, we may have some of the following characteristics.

Characteristics of the specialists in holiness:

On the other hand, those who major on love may have some of the following characteristics.

Characteristics of the specialists in love

The above is certainly not an exhaustive list. But I hope it shows us some general differences in the approaches. Holiness groups tend to become conceited, legalistic and exclusive, and finally lose out on holiness too. On the other hand, groups that major on love ultimately become a mixed multitude. Love itself finally takes the form of nice sentiments rather than a deep and genuine concern for the other's welfare.

Of course, everyone will agree that it is not God's desire that holiness and love should be mutually exclusive. They are but two aspects of the same God, and each cannot exist in its proper form without the other. Love and holiness need to be there at the same time with proper balance. We cannot see God without pursuing holiness (Heb.12:14), but he who does not love does not know God (1Jn.4:8). God is love. Without love we cannot represent God in the right way. It is to a God who loves that people are drawn. People are scared of a holy God. And if it is only holiness that we manifest to people, we may end up turning people away from God, even though our desire may be to draw people to Him. Nobody feels comfortable with someone who gives out an impression of being holier than him or her. On the other hand, concentrating on love without taking care to be holy is like going into an infected area without proper immunisation or precautions. We will compromise our love in the end and generate followers who will be more compromising.

Bringing the specialists together

As in every other area of Christian life, we need a balance here. This balance does not come merely by accepting this in our head. It is in our heart that we can go astray as far as this matter is concerned (Heb.3:10). We need to be open to the voice of the Holy Spirit who knows exactly which way we are heading. He is the One who can correct us when we tend to go to the right or left of God's chosen path (Isa.30:21).

One of the truths of spiritual life is that God's wisdom is manifold - many-sided (Eph.3:10). Do we think that we have understood some things clearly? No, there are more sides to them than we are aware of at present. We must not think that the truths we have once learned do not need any better understanding or balance. We must be always open for correction and becoming more balanced.

Many times God tries to teach us balance by bringing us into new situations and across people who are different from us. There are always people who see things differently, hold different sets of priorities and whose callings are different from ours, and we will miss opportunities to learn further and to become better balanced if our loyalty to the truths we have learned makes us inflexible. Our tendency is to reject people who are different from us. We will then get hardened, fall into a rut, and go round and round like the needle on an old gramophone record - producing the same monotonous sound, and not making further progress.

When we begin our Christian life it is possible that we are governed more by our natural temperaments than by the Holy Spirit, and we choose one of the above streams. But we need not continue in the same way. We need not think that this is how we have learned and this is how it is going to be. As we grow and allow the Holy Spirit to teach us and mould us, we can get more balance in our lives.

Let us be willing to learn, and teachable. Let us be willing to admit that we have made mistakes in the past, and also that even now our views are not perfect. Let us keep open hearts and minds to look at new perspectives, forms and ways.

-- Published in the Light of Life magazine, July 2008

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