Last week, I enjoyed (hijacked?) the discussion that followed a friend’s Facebook post. My friend is a pastor, who often asks open-ended questions in public to help him prepare for his various sermon series. (Not that he doesn’t already have an answer but because he wants to be able to assess his audience before teaching.) In this case, the question was “What Does Holiness Look Like?”
It was the sort of discussion I enjoy because I could hash out important theological and practical concepts with other likeminded ministers, some of whom are friends I haven’t seen much since college. I also enjoy reading different answers and evaluating the doctrinal assumptions behind them. With a topic like holiness, there were sure to be some loaded answers, and this discussion did not disappoint!
The most interesting answer by far was “Jesus.” That is, “Holiness looks like Jesus.” This was the response from some of the most conservative and some of the least. While the former sought to uphold the highest possible definition of holiness, the latter sought an answer different from the legalistic “do’s” and “don’ts” that often populate a discussion such as this.
I confess that this was not my answer, though I almost gave it. After reading lots of different answers, I just tried to say something that hadn’t been said yet. (As others had done.) Still, I thought, “Jesus” has to be the best answer to the question.
Is “Jesus” the worst?
But as I thought more about this, I thought that “Jesus” might not be a very good answer, after all. Worse, if we keep giving answers like this to questions like this, we might actually make it harder to look like Jesus! The reason is obvious: while we can easily say, “Holiness looks like Jesus,” who among us can say what Jesus looks like? Of course, soon enough, someone will answer, “Jesus looks like holiness!” That’s after “love” and “joy” and “God” and “humility” and…and a bunch of abstract nouns that can all be described by saying “________ looks like Jesus!” This results in everyone going around the circle again, patting ourselves on the backs for such biblically astute answers, and going on in complete ignorance of the change that God intends to make in each one of us.
This is because God’s work in our lives is as specific as we are; because our sins are specific, so are the ways in which he conforms us to look like Jesus.
Some Birds Walk
Sometimes, I think, we have become so adept at not “missing the forest for the trees” that we content ourselves with a panoramic view of life that fails to take in all the intricate details. To be sure, this is a needed skill; some of us, and sometimes all of us, need to take a “larger view” of things. This is especially important when faced with setbacks or when making strategic decisions. But when we are dealing with people, each one a unique individual, we are no longer dealing with generalities but with specifics.
In his lectures on the “Dynamics of Biblical Change,” David Powlison summarizes the challenge of change and, indeed, of ministry by saying that we need to move from the “panorama level” of general truth to the “street level” of specific details. After all, we sin specifically! We sin in specific situations against specific people in specific ways with specific motives and specific thoughts.
Consider the person who has a problem with worrying. What does she worry about? What time of day or night does she worry? When she worries, what does she do, eat, drink, read, watch on TV? Does she worry more after reading the news or talking with her mother or balancing the checkbook? Does she treat people differently when she worries – is she short, irritable, moody, abusive? In what ways? What words does she say?
These are the specific ways her worrying manifests itself, and it is in precisely these areas that God’s grace may be applied. And in precisely these areas, we who love this person should seek to minister, and she herself should be seeking help, prayer, counsel, etc.
But is this how we minister? We can preach against worrying. We can pray, “Dear God, please help __________with her worrying; help her to trust you, Lord.” We can ask her, “How’s your worrying going?”
Sometimes, bird’s eye ministry is all we know how to do and all we know to ask for. But I’ve dealt with enough geographically-challenged people to know that a map of the county may not be enough to help them find 33476 West Oak Lane.
Raining on the Just and the UnJust
Let’s be clear: there was nothing at all wrong with my friend’s question. It was, and is, a good question. In ministry, and in our own Christian lives, we should be asking this kind of question often. But we also need to learn how to answer it; our answers should be as specific as our questions.
We can begin by getting rid of one word, “just.” As in, “Just stop worrying” or “Just trust God more” or “Just give your problems to God” or “Just say a quick prayer.” I realize we use this word to make complex issues appear simple, but we also misuse this word to offer general solutions to specific problems. We think we’re being helpful, but it’s really no different than your doctor (probably a specialist) sending you to the pharmacist with a prescription that reads, “Just give this person some medicine.”
Which medicine? How much? Taken how often? These are not unimportant questions because their very specific answers might mean the difference between life and death.
Spiritually, it’s no different. The Gospel is more than “Just believe in God;” it’s a very specific, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” And all of Scripture is dedicated to explaining exactly what that means. Holiness looks like Jesus, I’ll grant (it’s absolutely the right answer in some contexts!), but what does faith in Jesus look like – here, now, in me? Those are the questions we should be asking and answering if we are to step where the Master has trod, if we are to appropriate the grace of God that conforms us to look like his own Son.