At seminary I was privileged to serve as a Teaching Assistant for Dr. Gordon Fee. It was during a summer school and he was teaching his course on 1 Corinthians. The man himself is both brilliant and careful, and attending to his scholarship has continued to benefit my reading of that book. But perhaps the most profound lesson I learned from him was one casually and unintentionally taught. He was in the middle of lecturing on some section of 1 Corinthians—I don’t even remember which—and as he got excited he built toward using an image to explain something about God and offered the following caveat before speaking it, “I hope you will forgive the irreverence of this remark…” Like most people in the room (there were some seventy of us) I leaned forward. What was he going to say? What kind of juicy quip was going to come from his mouth? Would he swear? Would he curse?
What followed was totally unexpected. He said, “As if God had something up His sleeve.” And that was it. Nothing more scintillating followed. And I was left wondering, was that it? Did he feel like referring to God as if He had a sleeve was irreverent? Or was it the idea that God would hide something? I’m not sure to this day, but Dr. Fee’s comment, casual and, by most standards, completely innocuous, stayed with me. What must this man be like, I asked myself—what must his conception of God be like—that he believes referring to God’s sleeve is potentially irreverent? In what awe he must hold God, with what reverence does he approach Him? And the overall effect, as I reflected on this comment, was humbling to me. I realized that I was sitting in the presence of a man whose sense of holiness cast long shadows over my own life and actions. I didn’t consider God as holy as I ought. I don’t respect Him. I don’t fear Him (in the words of the Bible) as He deserves.
Then I thought about my fellow students in the atrium behind me, whose regular conversation involved casual and not-so-casual swearing. I thought of the people nearby who regularly involved themselves in discussions about the love of alcohol, who casually addressed issues of sex and sexuality. I reflected as well on my own life, my own (sometimes) casual approach to swearing, and I was humbled further. How are we, as a people, honoring the holiness of the God we claim to follow with our lips? The holiness, the complete otherworldliness of Dr. Fee’s comment cast a shaming light upon all our conversations, because we are guilty of not taking God seriously enough.
All this brings me back to a time when I worked in an Italian restaurant outside Chicago. The staff were all Italian Catholics and sometimes working there felt like stepping into a mob movie (there were guns, pasta, and alcohol in abundance). Since I was attending a Christian college at the time, and regularly did homework while waiting between the lunch and dinner rushes, our conversations often turned to religion. I was astonished by the discontinuity in their lives between what they believed, and how they behaved. In short, they believed everything. Jesus is God? Of course! Virgin birth? Of course! Miracles? Of course! But by contrast their lives reflected nothing of their beliefs. As an example of this, at one point while I worked there the staff, en masse, attempted to convince me that having sex with my girlfriend would be a good Christmas present for her. But the moment that crystallized their disjunction for me was when one of the workers, an older man who operated the pizza oven, announced to me boldly and with full confidence that, “I love my F—ing God!” There was no awareness for him that his speech ought to, in some ways, reflect the very holiness of the God he claimed to love.
To believe in a Holy God, to claim to be a servant of a Holy God, ought to mean something practical in our lives. We ought to reflect God’s holiness in our actions and choices. Our speech ought to have the flavour of God’s holiness about it, and not the odour of the sewers of our world. “Imitate God,” Paul says in Ephesians 5, “in everything you do.” And thus, “obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes—these are not for you.” And he points to the life of Christ, whose sacrifice to God created an aroma pleasing to God. And thus we must query ourselves, “What does my life smell like? If my friends were to evaluate my life based on its conduct and actions, would they be led to believe in a holy God?”
Today there is a host of ministers and lay Christians alike whose ‘freedom in Christ’ is merely a cheap excuse to look just like the world. They swear, and sleep around, and in most aspects of their lives look everything like the world. And what is worse, they hold God in contempt—as if He is fooled by an asterisk in “sh*t” or the acronym “wtf;” as if in His ‘benign’ sovereignty He just doesn’t care how we behave; as if the life sacrifice of Christ, the cross of death, the cost of sin, were not something to be taken seriously. They have chosen what is easy and popular rather than what is holy. And, ultimately, holiness is distinctly unpopular. Just mention the word “chastity” in casual company and you will immediately know what I mean. But the hard truth is that truly following God seems to invite persecution, and sometimes opposing the reigning trends of our world feels like swimming up Niagara Falls.
In the end, practical holiness on the part of Christians ought to involve practical discomfort. Reflection upon the holiness of God ought to shame us—but not into despair, but action. When we see God for who He really is, a desire ought to grow in our hearts to change our behaviour, and this is because exposure to true holiness always motivates action (cf. Isaiah 6). And thus, if you are a follower of Christ and are not experiencing some discomfort somewhere in your life, some jarring between your life and the world, then it’s a sure sign you have compromised with the world.
Jesus in Revelation 3 threatens to vomit the Laodiceans out of his mouth—the reason? They had compromised with the world. They no longer bore any distinctive marks of being God’s people—instead, they looked just like the world. And the image Jesus uses to make his point is of hot and cold water. See, Laodicea had no native water source—instead, they got cold water from nearby Colossae, or hot water from nearby Hierapolis. But what was good at the original source lost its character by the time it reached Laodicea. During the journey the hot and cold that made it good, that made it distinct, were lost, and in its place was a tepid, compromised brew. Thus Jesus’ threat. You, Laodiceans, have compromised with the world; I wish that you were either Hot or Cold, but you are neither. You’ve lost what made you different. And now I don’t want you.