I imagine that January 6, 2021 will indeed be a day we remember when, where, and how we heard news that shook us to the core, the invasion of the U.S. Capitol. I watched the violence and vandalism by rioters in disbelief. I could not gather my thoughts through the afternoon and evening of January 6th. When I awoke on January 7th, the first thought I had was that our church needed to gather for worship and prayer, to worship the Lord ‘in the beauty of holiness.’
In recent months I had been meditating on the priority of holiness in Christian witness—God’s own holiness and our call to personal and collective holiness. I have been drawn to the themes of holiness and reverence in recent months because they are noticeably scarce in current discourse among Christians. So many discussions of recent years, both on the right and on the left, concern political and social matters which speak passionately about fears for country is headed. Noticeably absent in our discussions on the fear of the future is any mention of the fear of the Lord.
Many write and post about what happened or speculate about what really happened when the U.S. Capitol was stormed by rioters. This truth pertains to any current event disputed in our culture. The storming of the Capitol was not a singular event, but the culmination of hostilities developing for years. Our response to horrible events has become predictable. We become tremendously competitive and boisterous about what information is best or trustworthy, what ought to happen to bring justice or end hostilities.
In any disputed event, we hear a profusion of spoken and written words about immediate actions our country ought to take. Yet where does one hear the call to holiness, reverence, and wisdom?
Reverence has little room in a culture of political tribalism and activism. In such a culture, speech becomes reactionary and adversarial. There is no speech that resembles the “pure words of the Lord,” refined seven times, purified by patience and humility (Psalm 12.6). Reverence for the Holy One is seen, at best, as an accessory to the real business of life and politics, or, at worst, a pietistic escape from moral obligations. Recovering awe for God’s purity, wisdom, and glory sounds terribly impractical to modern ears when social conflict arises and intensifies.
And yet I believe holiness requires our utmost attention, even when our world descends into more protracted and intense conflicts. Or especially when social conflicts escalate.
The Call to Reverence in a Worsening Conflict
Evelyn Underhill, the Anglican spiritual writer of the early 20th century, addressed this same kind of question when she published a book on the contemplative life in late 1914. As Europe descended into World War I, Underhill considered postponing her publication entitled Practical Mysticism: A Little Book for Ordinary People. In the end, she proceeded with publication, not despite the outbreak of war, but believing spiritual matters were imminently practical for a world in crisis. The life of prayer remains feeble, Underhill believed, if consigned to “fair weather alone, if the principles for which it stands break down when subjected to the pressure of events, and cannot be reconciled with the sterner duties of the national life.” In fact the spiritual life must intensify in times of national trial, the value of prayer “is increased rather than lessened when confronted by the overwhelming disharmonies and and sufferings of the present time.”1
The life of the spirit is not opposed to the life of action. Reverence and holiness are urgent especially when other social emergencies arise.
The Allure of Knowledge
In times of dissension, there is a strong desire to speak with authority, to offer insight for chaotic situations. In the West we equate authority with knowledge, but knowledge is not synonymous with authority.
In several places of the Bible, primarily in Wisdom writings (which is no coincidence), holiness is not equated with knowledge.
O Yahweh, my heart is not haughty nor my eyes arrogant. And I do not concern myself with things too great and difficult for me. Rather I have soothed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like the weaned child is my soul with me. O Israel, hope in Yahweh from now until forever. (Psalm 131.1-3, LEB)
In Ecclesiasticus, one hears a caution against the desire to comprehend difficult, perplexing things in the world.
Do not seek what is too difficult for you, and do not question that which is too strong for you. Ponder these things that have been assigned to you; for some secret things are not a concern for you. (Ecclesiasticus 3.21–22, LES)
Job is not given answers at the end of his suffering; he encounters God in the awesomeness of his glory. Job’s response is not a continued pursuit of answers and knowledge. Job repents
Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further. (Job 40:4–5, ESV)
The wise sayings of Old Testament sages were simply variations on the theme set forth in the story of the Fall: the tree of knowledge cannot save or heal us. Healing issues from the presence of God, not human knowledge.
In the Bible, it’s also important to note that healing often means wholeness. Notably, the Greek verb “to save” is commonly interchangeable for the verb “to heal,” as in Mark 6.56. When reverence for God’s majesty is discarded for knowledge and human power, is it any wonder that we inherit strident and violent divisions in our society? Reverence—the humble pursuit to encounter the triune God in his wholeness—is the beginning of healing. Psalms and Proverbs both begin with the same principle: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 1; Proverbs 1).
Three Qualities of Holiness
Holiness, then, means wholeness. The glory of God is the manifestation of all his attributes. To be sure, the pursuit of holiness is a lifelong effort. Yet we must make a good beginning. Here are three beginning principles of holiness to seek for such a time as this: wholeness, beauty, and humility
God is not fragmented. We worship one God in Three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s holiness is wholeness.
To worship God in the beauty of holiness means we cannot oppose one attribute of God against another. We cannot make our own Jesus. We are baptized into Christ, not Christ baptized into our ideas or agendas.
Yet in our age, we are given false choices. We measure virtue by single issues not by wholeness. Are you committed to justice or worship? Are you committed to evangelism or serving the poor?
Yet think of Paul’s appeal for wholeness in the Corinthian church. Paul appealed for unity–wholeness–among the members of the body of Christ.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4–7, ESV)
In our divisive times, we have a disjointed vision of the work of Christ’s body. To improvise Paul’s imagery of the body for our times, let not the servants of gospel justice respond to the work of worship saying, “I have no need of you.” Let not the saint seeking spiritual holiness disregard racial and economic inequities saying, “I have no need of you.” God does not favor personal holiness more than collective holiness. God is not more concerned about justice than personal holiness. God does not look favorably on a believer who prays fervently yet discards the poor.
To bring healing in the midst of strife and conflict, one must begin to see events and conflicts from the perspective of wholeness. The only possible way to acquire a vision of wholeness is seeing all things in Christ. He is the head of the Body. Christ is ‘the firstborn of all creation,’ the Wisdom of God, the one in whom “all things hold together.” Christ alone holds together his Church and his creation. And he holds the world together through the power of his cross.
When violent acts are committed, either with words or weapons, it is often a sign that we have refused the cross of Christ, which is not only a rejection of suffering, but a rejection of God’s Wisdom. The Wisdom of Christ is his cross. The cross of Christ is the key to seeing the world in greater wholeness. The cross of Christ reveals the power to reconcile enemies; to redeem a wounded soul; to unite the members of Christ’s Body; to unite heaven and earth.
In the West, particularly in the past few hundred years, we have separated the realm of action from the life of the spirit. We honor productivity and effectiveness more than beauty. The corrosive discourse that has grown in our culture may be attributed not only to the decay of relationships and institutions; we have become harsh and hateful because we have cast transcendent beauty aside.
If your eyes are constantly watching the world’s ugliness, your soul will become cynical and prone to despair. The despair of the world becomes your meditation. That is very different than being informed of events in the world. It is one thing to be informed of current events, it is another thing to be addicted to news; to constantly meditate on current events in thoughts and conversation.
The wise soul has a much different pursuit in a world of ugliness. We hear that desire in Psalm 27:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to meditate in his temple. 2
The wise soul fixes her gaze on the beauty of the Lord. She desires to “worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” more than she seeks knowledge and explanations of perplexing events.
Another psalmist entered the beauty of God’s holiness in the temple, exhausted by wickedness all around. Asaph could not comprehend the increase of evil in his world. And then he finds his bearings in the place of beauty—the Temple—and he’s no longer alarmed.
When I thought how to understand (these things), it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I discerned their end.3
When you come into the holy presence of God, you are no longer wearied by the desire to comprehend all things. You encounter the glory of God and, in a way that surpasses knowledge, you see that God still reigns over all nations, that in Christ “all things hold together” in heaven and on earth.
Our gaze determines who we become. Our soul has a strong impulse to imitate that which–or who–we see continually.
Choose carefully where you will fix your gaze.
In a time of strife and conflict, our world needs saints gazing on the beauty of Christ. One of the best ways to bear witness for Christ in these times is praying silently with eyes open in front of an icon. Gazing upon Christ reorders the soul to Christ. Christ becomes our standard, not the disasters around us.
I believe in this hour the Church needs many saints who will fix their eyes on icons of Christ. Especially for such a time as this. In my prayer room, I look upon an icon called Christ the True Vine. Before I enter the events of the day, I see an icon of Christ and his apostles. Christ is the Vine, the apostles are the branches, and I see on the limbs growing fruit. The fruits are signs of goodness, justice, righteousness, mercy, godly worship–holiness.
The final quality of holiness needed for such as time as this is humility. Reverence requires humility. The origin of the word itself is striking. Humility is Latin for ‘humus’ meaning ‘ground.’ Humility requires living low to the ground.
Compare the original meaning of humility with the spirit of the age, especially in America. We are so self-assured, so sure that we are right. The widespread sin of our nation that is being laid bare right now is our pride and hubris. Remember what St James says about the proud in heart: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”4
In baptism our hubris dies. In humility we are clothed with the holiness of Christ. The humble do not come into the Lord’s presence trusting in themselves or their own righteousness. But when the humble approach the Lord, here is what they find: the awesome, never-ending mercy of God. God looks upon the humble with tenderness, gentleness, and the strength of his love.
That is the paradox of the fear of the Lord. Only those who fear the Lord acquire the strength to comprehend “the breadth and height and depth, to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”5 The humble will not only be exalted, they will behold the beauty of the Lord.
The Beginning of Holiness
Wholeness, Beauty, Humility. This is not the fullness of holiness, not even close. But seeking these ancient paths make for a good beginning. And pursuing these virtues of holiness may be just what the Church and our nation needs for such as time as this.