Living a holy life

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When I was ordained last September I made a number of promises:

  • to live a holy life and to maintain the truth of the gospel, whatever trouble or persecution may arise
  • to fulfil the duties of my charge faithfully,
    to lead the church in worship,
    to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments,
    to exercise pastoral care and oversight,
    to take your part in the councils of the Church,
    and to give leadership to the Church in its mission to the world
  • as a minister of the United Reformed Church to seek its well-being, purity and peace, to cherish love towards all other churches and to endeavour always to build up the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church
  •  to exercise my ministry in accordance with the statement concerning the nature, faith and order of the United Reformed Church

Of all of these the one that seemed most challenging as I prepared was that to “lead a holy life”, not least because it’s far from clear to me what that means. It’s worth noting that there is no qualification to this. It doesn’t say, for example, “to lead a holier life” or “to lead as holy a life as I can”. I promised to lead “a holy life”.

So what does a holy life look or feel like, now that I’m leading one (assuming that the strength of Christ, on which, following the form given in the Basis of Union, I said I would rely, suffices, and that the the life I am now leading is holy)?

The answer, if I’m honest, is not holy enough. The holy life feels like a struggle. This week in particular I’ve been struck by a strong feeling of not living in a holy enough way precisely because I don’t feel myself to be relying enough on the strength of Christ.

The main way in which this lack holiness expresses itself for me is anxiety. I find myself worrying quite a lot. Am I meeting expectations? Is my worship sufficiently worshipful? Have I visited everyone I should have visited? Have I done enough about this or that difficulty facing my churches? Am I well enough prepared for that event or meeting? Is there anyone I should have spoken to that I haven’t? Will this plan or project come to fruition? Is there more I could do to help it do so?

This worrying does not feel holy. This worrying is not productive. It distracts me from prayer and from pastoral care and oversight. It does not, to me, seem like relying on the strength of Christ. Relying on the strength of Christ would, if one were really to be able to do so, pretty much prevent worrying, I think.

My worries, I suspect, all come from my seeking to control the future and to get a firm grip on my own performance. I want to rely on my own strength and resources. I want the “holiness” of my life, the validity and “success” of my ministry, to be mine. This means first that I need a set of outcomes I can observe and measure so that I know that everything is as it should be. This might be growth in the church. It might be the approval and even affection of those among whom I work. It might be financial, it might be any of a number of things. I want to be able to look and see and say “this is going well”.

The difficulty with that is that having a result I’m trying to bring about means that failure is possible. Depending on one’s approach to goal setting it might even make failure inevitable. How much growth is enough? How much love do people have to show? How many visits? How many services? How much evangelistic endeavour?

This way of proceeding, of setting targets and measuring results, comes naturally to us. Our education system is constructed largely around it and during my years of secular employment I took part, on both sides, of the “appraisal” systems that rely on exactly this structure: set targets, monitor, assess. This was to set an “objective” score of the individual’s performance.

I’m coming to think that a central aspect of the holy life is a break with this. Holiness, it seems to me, must be most of all about repentance, about changing one’s mind, so that one becomes less sinful. And contrary to a widespread view I don’t see sin as primarily moral. Sin, in its essence, I believe, is reliance on one’s self. The primary (“original”) sin is precisely morality itself, the attempt to know good and evil for oneself, to eat of the fruit of the tree.

Holiness is reliance on God, on the strength of Christ. If you’re worried about your holiness (as I am) this is a sure sign that you’re not holy enough (yet) but it’s also, perhaps, a sign that the Spirit is working in you to make you more so. The worrying isn’t the Spirit’s work of course, it’s the way you’re resisting it.

So, this next week I’m going to try to worry less and pray more. Come, Holy Spirit, come!

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2 comments
  1. Many thanks for this, Nick. It came in just a couple of days before I was to be talking about the pursuit of holiness and spiritual disciplines to a group. It fitted so well and the timing made it feel especially meant, so I read a lot of it to them. God bless.

    • Thank you for that, Liz, and I hope your group went well.

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