“To” or “From”? That is the Question

By: Joseph Coleson; ©2002
Christians often think of holiness as something for the sainted few. Non-Christians, if they think of holiness at all, may find it a concept for ridicule or even for censure. Not too many of us think of holiness as something to be desired and sought after. But, as Joseph Coleson explains, everyone is, or is becoming, holy to something or someone.


“To” or “From”? That is the Question

[MOVIEGUIDE ® EDITOR’S NOTE: Joseph E. Coleson, Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, Missouri, and an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church.]

Is a football fan holy? Is a married person holy? Is a passionate gardener, stamp collec­tor, hiker, or jogger holy?

What do you think of when you see the word “holy”? If you are a Christian, do you think of yourself as holy? Is “holy” something you even want for yourself?

In our secularized Western culture, Christians often think of holiness as something for the sainted few. Non-Christians, if they think of holiness at all, may find it a concept for ridicule or even for censure. Not too many of us think of holiness as something to be de­sired and sought after, but the truth is everyone is, or is becoming, holy to something or someone.

So what is holiness, really? What does the word mean, and what does the Bible mean when, for example, God says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, and other pas­sages)? Do we shy away from holiness because we don’t understand it?

If we want to know what it means to be holy, we must look at the concept of holiness in two steps. If Christians, especially, omit the first step, we will fall down on the second, and produce a mock holiness that only repels, never attracts.

Our first step is to notice that “holy/holiness” was a common word in the ancient world of the Hebrew Bible; it occurs in all languages related to Hebrew. In Hebrew, its basic form is qadash (ka-DAHSH). Qadash means, first and foremost, “to be separate.” In the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) and in documents from all of Israel’s ancient neighbors, many things were spoken of as “holy,” “separate,” and “special.”

In the Hebrew Bible, God often spoke of himself as holy. When describing God, holy means transcendent—distinct from the universe of space and time that we inhabit. God is separate from the universe because God existed before the universe, God made the uni­verse, and God does not depend on the universe or anything in it for God’s continued existence. Rather, the universe and all it contains depend on God. When the Old Testa­ment says God is “holy,” it means God is transcendent.

Then, what does it mean for a human to be holy? It means for us, also, to be separate, but of course we are not transcendent. How, then, are we separate?

It will help to notice (if you don’t mind a little detour!) that many things in the world of ancient Israel were referred to as “holy,” or separate. Mt. Sinai was holy; the Taber­nacle of Moses and all its furniture and utensils were holy; sometimes the ground one stood on was declared holy; certain livestock, grains, and other produce were holy; the various Sabbath days were holy. In every case, this means that what was declared holy was set apart, separated, dedicated to the exclusive use of God. (The same was true of things and persons dedicated to the various gods of Israel’s pagan neighbors—they were holy to those gods.)

Humans, too, were/are set apart, dedicated, and made holy to God alone. Within ancient Israel, the priests and Levites were holy—set apart for—the service of God in God’s Taber­nacle (later, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem). Israel as a nation was a holy people, because God chose Israel, first of all the peoples, to be separate to Him.

But, Israel did not always follow Yahweh’s call to be holy to him alone. (Yahweh—pro­nounced YAH-weh—is the Old Testament Hebrew name for God.) Often, Israel chose to mix the worship of Yahweh with worship of other gods, most notably Baal of the Canaanites. When that happened, Israel no longer was separated—set apart, holy—to Yahweh alone.

Why did Israel have so much difficulty, and why do modern Christians often have great difficulty, in being holy to God, totally set apart to God? That question brings us to our second step in considering what “holy” really means. The answer, and the second step, is as simple as whether we choose a two-letter or a four-letter preposition to follow the word “holy.” Are we holy “from,” or are we holy “to”?

Too often, the ancient Israelite and modern Christian alike have chosen to be “holy from” certain things, assuming that shows they were/are holy to God. So the ancient Israelites did not eat pork, for example, and some assumed that meant they were holy to Yahweh, even if they prayed to Baal as well as to Yahweh to bring the rain to water their wheat fields and fill their cisterns.

Too often today, conservative Christians think that if they don’t (pick one or more): drink alcohol; smoke or chew tobacco; play the horses or the casinos; dance; rob a bank—their list of “don’ts” proves they are holy to God. But, all this can prove is they are moral and decent people.

Some of the things on this or any other list do not prove even that. Most human beings are generally moral, decent, kind, and good people, whether or not they worship God. Most atheists and humanists pride themselves on being morally equal, or even superior to most Christians, both in their actions and in the sophistication of their moral judgments, without the “crutch” of an irrational belief in an unprovable God. Being separate “from” things, habits, vices, attitudes, or anything else that may be harmful, or that even only hinder one’s best efforts, is a worthy goal, ambition, and attainment. But, the worthiest, most complete separation “from” anything—or everything—says nothing, in and of itself, about our separa­tion “to” God.

In fact, separation “from” things, in its worst form, is legalism and hypocrisy, and has been responsible for more children, raised in Christian families, rebelling and leaving the faith, than any other single cause. Some of us were/are “holy from” movies in the cinemas, but will watch anything on our cable channel or on video. Some of us can become so focused on being “holy from” the things we outlaw that we become snobs, even become vicious and hateful toward neighbors, fellow church members, or even family members, who do not share our convictions on our hot-button issues.

Holiness defined as separation from a set of external behaviors or possessions is, at best, healthy self-discipline. At its worst, it is self-delusional, relationship-destroying, dead­ening, and deadly legalism and hypocrisy.

But, separation “to”! Now, that’s another matter! Every sports fan knows the pleasure of being separated “to” his/her favorite team. Every hobbyist knows the elation of dis­covering something new, acquiring some new piece or accessory, or reaching a higher level of skill, in his/her favorite pursuit. Every newlywed knows the exquisite joy of being with the beloved new husband or wife, and the chafing impatience of the times of separation, however short.

And, that is what true holiness is with respect to God as well. Holiness is not separation “from” anything, however praiseworthy, helpful, even lifesaving, that separation may be. True holiness is separation to God. It is entering into and progressing in a relationship with God that makes God increasingly one’s Best Friend. It is separation “from” things only because they harm or hinder one’s relationship with God and God’s people, and hinder one’s ability to demonstrate to others the awesomeness of the God who loved us enough to die for us.

Another signal of what we are holy to is the amount of time, energy, thought, and wealth we spend on the person, object, or activity to which we are holy. The “holy” golfer will be found on the golf course every possible moment. The “holy” collector will fuss over, add to, and brag about the collection at every opportunity—no journey is too long, no check too big, to add the last pieces that finish the collection. If you are still “holy” to your spouse, the idea of a romantic date with someone else holds no real attraction for you.

This same attitude and practice signals our holiness to God. Do we like the idea of being around God, of having God with us, of being with, worshipping with, and having fun with God’s people? Do we want to know more about God and God’s history with God’s people? Do we want to know what God wants? If the answers are “yes,” that’s a pretty good indica­tion that we are (or at least are becoming) holy to God.

The final thing to notice about holiness is that we come to be like that to which we are holy. The more “holy” a sports fan is to his/her team, the more clothes, pennants, books, photos, autographs and other souvenirs s/he will have, all to identify more closely with the team. The more “holy” a fan is to a favorite player, entertainment personality, or other hero, the more s/he will want to learn about, and sometimes to imitate the attitude, the talk, even the walk, of his/her idol.

Again, the same is true of the one who is holy to God. Christians are not holy because we are moral, ethical people. We are moral, ethical people because the God we love is the God of justice, righteousness, lovingkindness, mercy, grace, and truth. God’s people take on God’s moral, ethical character.

Western culture glamorizes and praises people who are “holy” to entertainment, to sports, to making money and flaunting their wealth, to a host of other human interests. Perhaps, the church will recover influence when once again people see that Christians are holy to God, in the process of becoming like the One with whom we have fallen in love.

So what about you and me? Are we only holy “from” some pet list of sins we inherited from our religious tradition? Or, are we banked inside with the pure fire of separation to, of holiness to, of all-consuming love for, God who loved us enough to create us, and then to redeem us when we had turned away from Him? When we are holy to God, everything else falls into its rightful place. To be holy to God is the greatest adventure and satisfaction anyone can know. And, when Christians start being seriously holy to God, we will again be lifting up Jesus so that all will be drawn to Him. Then, and not until then, will we start to influence our culture again.

Don’t be satisfied with being separate “from” a few things, and calling it religion, or even holiness. In every area of your life—family, work, church, finances, recreation, entertain­ment, everything!!—start being truly, deeply, thoroughly, passionately holy to the God who loves you!

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