The Pursuit of Holiness
The United States Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”
What does it mean that the pursuit of happiness is an unalienable right? Do you think the founders of the United States had the same understanding of the pursuit of happiness as most people do today?
If you stopped a random person on the street and asked them what the pursuit of happiness means, what do you think they would say? I suspect they might say something like, “it means I can do whatever I want as long as nobody else gets hurt in my pursuit of happiness.” But who defines ‘hurt’ and who decides whether or not something is hurtful?
For example, there’s a fairly common statement that “watching pornography doesn’t actually hurt anyone.” Is that true? Maybe in the narrowest sense, it is. But what about the actors who produce the images? Some of them are doing it under the threat of force without their consent. Even if it is consensual, it’s still degrading and leads to women being treated as objects of pleasure rather than unique individuals of immeasurable value. And what about the relationships that are damaged by the abuse that often flows out of the use of pornography?
What about the battered wives and girlfriends who are subjected to violence as a result of men’s perversion? Or what about the fathers who are cut off from their children because their mom’s porn addiction led her into an adulterous or same-sex relationship? Or what about the children who become victims, either of sexual abuse or simply abandonment?
Certainly, our founding fathers didn’t see this as the pursuit of happiness. In fact, later, after the writing of the US Constitution, John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
All of us want to be happy, I think that’s normal. A recent study from Harvard University on happiness asked this question; “why are 18- to 25-year-olds so miserable?” The researchers pointed to two factors. First, on average, high use of social media has negative effects on well-being and mental health. Second, (and now I am quoting directly), “…study after study, ours, and others, have indicated that family life and participation in religious communities contribute across these aspects of flourishing. And participation in both of those are down substantially,” (end of quote).
Well, isn’t that interesting? We could sum up their research by saying that faith in God and family connections are foundational to a meaningful and happy life. That sounds a lot like the recipe the Bible gives us for personal fulfillment or happiness. We humans were designed for relationship: a relationship with God and relationships with each other.
We don’t have a biblical command to pursue happiness, but we do have numerous biblical commands to pursue holiness. I believe that holiness and happiness are closely related. And that’s what we want to explore in our study today, “The Pursuit of Holiness.” Our text is Second Corinthians 6:11 to 7:1. Listen carefully as I read the text.
When you think of pursuit, what comes to your mind? A car chase involving law enforcement, a hunt for that elusive big buck, or something like that? Those are legitimate, but the word has other meanings. One of them is “to find or employ measures to obtain or accomplish.” So, you could pursue a degree in nursing or some other field of study. That is, you would take measures, or steps, as a means to reaching the goal of graduation and certification. This is the meaning we’ll attach to the word as we reflect on the pursuit of holiness.
In the text I just read to you, Paul highlights several important MEASURES you and I can take to aid us in our pursuit of holiness.
The First MEASURE (you and I can take to aid us in our pursuit of holiness) is,
The Measure of Openness
Paul highlights this for us in verses 11 through 13. While it isn’t stated directly here in our text, the New Testament makes it crystal clear that being successful in our pursuit of holiness is dependent on our relationships with others. Let’s unpack that last sentence.
There is a mentality in our world today that I don’t need anybody else in order to be a Christian – I prefer the term Christ-follower. In the words of a song from my youth, “Me and Jesus, we got our own thing going, me and Jesus, we got it all worked out. “Me and Jesus, we got our own thing going, we don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.” In other words, mind your own business, I got this.
But here in our text, and in many other places in the New Testament, it is obvious that the life of a Christ-follower is to be lived in a community with other Believers. Hebrews 12:14 commands us, “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord…” In his letter to the Ephesian Believers, Paul instructs them to “submit to each other in the fear of God.” In James 5:16 we read, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” How do you obey these commands if it’s just you and Jesus?
So, when I say we need a measure of openness to aid us in our pursuit of holiness, I’m looking at Paul’s example in this text. He writes to the Corinthian Believers reminding them of his transparency in ministry to them. He says, and here I think the rendering of the KJV is best, “our mouth is open to you.” We have spoken clearly to you. We haven’t held anything back from you in our presentation of the Gospel and in teaching you about the glory of God! We have freely given ourselves to you without restraint and without compulsion.
Then, he expands the picture by saying “our heart is enlarged,” or our heart has been opened wide to you. Paul had just listed for them a host of things he suffered for the sake of bringing the Gospel to them. He had, as we say, “bared his soul,” to them.
I’ve heard Joni Erickson Tada say, “suffering is best put to use when it enlarges your heart, making it bigger – a bigger reservoir for God’s grace. Suffering is like a shovel. A painful shovel that uproots sin and selfishness. But that’s okay. It means God is making room for his overflowing grace. So, I am not about to waste my suffering. I’m asking God to put it to work by stretching my soul for his many graces. Oh, friend, do not view your suffering through a keyhole. Ask God to use it to stretch your soul, making you largehearted for Jesus.” That was the apostle Paul, too.
The language of verse 12 in the KJV is archaic and a bit confusing so I prefer the ESV rendering, “You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.” Or we could render it like this, “we are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding your affection from us.” This is basically a restatement of the thought in the previous verse. Not restricted is another way of saying enlarged. Some of the Corinthian Believers had evidently restricted their affection toward Paul based on the accusations of his critics. They were pulling back from their previous love for him and openness to him.
But Paul wanted them to be as open and as loving with him as he had been and was with them. We already noted numerous times in this second letter how gentle and gracious Paul was in dealing with issues in their church fellowship. And so, he says to them, “Now, as a fair exchange (I speak to you as children), open wide your hearts to us also.” Paul was their spiritual father, and just like a physical father, he wanted his children to confide in him, to open their hearts freely.
Brothers and sisters, if you and I hope to make progress in our pursuit of holiness, we will need to cultivate this same kind of openness among ourselves, especially in the context of the local church. We all have areas of need in our lives that we are prone to hide or cover-up. But that will not help us advance in our pursuit of holiness.
So many times, we rob ourselves of spiritual growth and blessing because we close our hearts to each other. I have experiences in life that will help you and you most likely have experiences that will help me, but if we’re not free to share we’ll never discover those things. We’ll go in thinking that we’re the only one who struggles in this particular area and Satan will encourage our thoughts of isolation.
If you and I are truly serious about the pursuit of holiness, then we must develop a measure of openness with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Next MEASURE (you and I can take to aid us in our pursuit of holiness) is,
The Measure of Discernment
Discernment is the ability to see things as they really are, not simply seeing things as they appear to be on the surface. Proverbs 14:12 states it this way, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” If you and I hope to make progress in our pursuit of holiness we will need to develop a measure of discernment.
In these next several verses, Paul uses five words in a question format to help us discern or distinguish the contrasts. The words are fellowship, communion, accord, part, and agreement. We’ll take some time in a few moments to look at each of these.
Paul begins this section with an emphatic command, “Stop becoming unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Evidently, some in Corinth were already being compromised. It seems obvious that Paul was appealing to Deuteronomy 22:10, “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.” We might wonder about the reasoning behind this prohibition.
First, an ox was designated as a clean animal, and a donkey was unclean. In addition, you couldn’t plow a straight furrow with these two. Their temperament, natural instincts, and physical characteristics made it impossible. Evidently, God cares about straight furrows!
As in the natural world, so in the spiritual. Paul is teaching us that it isn’t right to join in a common spiritual enterprise with those who don’t have the same nature as we do – the nature of Christ. Having the nature of Christ doesn’t make us intrinsically better than others, but it does make us different. To involve unbelievers in the work of Christ will only result in frustration. This prohibition is often cited in reference to marriage, but other entanglements are possible. Think business, politics, labor unions, and more.
Now, certainly, Paul isn’t forbidding contact with unbelievers. Paul explained that in his first letter to them. “I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.”
The idea here is to become “mixed up” with them. Incidentally, the prohibition against using an ox and a donkey in the same yoke is bookended by the prohibition of mixing seeds in the garden and two different fibers in a garment. I think that helps us understand better the idea of becoming too “mixed” with unbelievers. In the context of what was happening at Corinth, there were the factions in the church and the surrounding pagan idolatry.
To illustrate further what he means, Paul asks several rhetorical questions. Rhetorical questions are often used in the context of persuasive arguments in order to confront people and make them think. And they are often asked in such a way that the answer is clearly known, and the questioner isn’t really asking for a verbal response.
But those questions will need to wait until our next visit because we’re almost out of time for today’s program.