In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Hebrews 12:4
You may not see anything wrong with this. We want to be happy and we try to avoid being unhappy – what is unnatural or wrong about that? In fact, you may wonder, what could be more natural?
And yet Christ calls us to something different. In the Gospels, Jesus often told his followers to practice lifestyles of self-denial and self-sacrifice, naming servant-hood and martyrdom as his highest ideals. He called them to give up themselves for his sake. To put it bluntly, he demanded that they give up happiness for holiness.
Holiness is an unwelcome word to many people. It tends to conjure up images of obnoxiously religious people who think they deserve life’s gold medal because of their self-discipline; or, worse, infuriating hypocrites who harshly demand certain behaviors from others while failing to live up to their own sermonizing. Holiness means neither of these things, and Jesus hated these imitations of holiness even more than we do.
Holiness, simply defined, means to be consecrated and set apart for God. Lived out, it means submitting one’s will to the will of God: learning to love what God loves, hate what God hates, and measure all things in this world by his Word. It looks like purity of heart, mind, soul, and body; humility and the reverential fear of God; mercy, patience, and love toward all people; perpetual prayer and communion with God. Holiness is Jesus’ upward call for the people who love him.
“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
With holiness as the greatest goal of our lives, offenses against it are the greatest calamities – rather than offenses against our happiness. The sin in my own heart is my new archenemy, not the inconveniences, or even the evils, of this world that disturb my life. Evil from without is an enemy, and it can be a terrible one, indeed; but evil from within is a greater enemy still.
Jesus shines a new light on our suffering. With holiness as the chief goal and sin as the chief enemy, a person begins to understand – albeit just barely – what the apostles meant when they wrote of rejoicing at the chance to suffer more for Christ.
Then [after being beaten and threatened] [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. Acts 5:41
Now I [Paul] rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church… Colossians 1:24
Now, we are not slaves to the insatiable demands of God’s law, his perfect standard of moral and spiritual conduct. “We are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code” (Romans 7:6). Nor are we slaves to condemning consciences. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). We are – really, truly, more than the world can ever understand – free.
We must understand, though, that the great part of our spiritual liberation, received only from God, is that utter self-absorption is no longer our only option. We are wonderfully free to no longer think about ourselves 24-7, and perpetually obsess about our own happiness. Holiness comes from turning out and looking up:
And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. 2 Corinthians 3:18
There is a dirty little secret the world neglects to tell us. If your greatest struggle is against unhappiness – if happiness is your highest goal – you will lose. You cannot get happiness by aiming at it.
You can, however, get joy by aiming at God. And when sin is your enemy, when your greatest struggle is against the unholiness inside you, you can triumph o’er your foe with “sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). The battle is brutal. The watch is long. The struggle continues. But the victory is glorious.