Holiness does not lie on the other side of temptation; it is to be found in the midst of temptation. It does not sit waiting for us on a level above our weakness; it is given us in weakness, or else we would elude the power of God that is operative only in our weakness. . . It is only in our weakness that we are vulnerable to his love and power. Accordingly, to continue in the situation of temptation and weakness is the only way for us to connect with grace, the only way we can become miracles of God’s mercy.
In my observation, it seems there are two categories of people in church. There are those who believe themselves to be holy because they feel themselves to be morally flawless, and there are those who believe they will never be holy because they struggle with temptation.
Those who equate morality with holiness are generally hard folks to be around. They see Christianity as a list of rules to be followed. If you follow the rules, you are good; if you come up short, then you are unacceptable. When one lives this way, they find it hard to have compassion for others who don’t measure up to the standards they deem important. And it’s not at all Christlike, for Jesus didn’t limit access to himself based on who followed rules. On the contrary, he spent more time with those whom we might judge to be morally deficient.
Morality, however, is not the measure of one’s holiness. Holiness is not about being correct, saying the right words, doing the right things, or following the right rules. Holiness is about knowing who we are—that we are subject to temptation and that God is with us in the struggle, whether or not we succumb to temptation. God’s grace comes to us when we are able to accept that we are weak and in need of God’s grace. If we are so certain of our moral purity, then we really don’t acknowledge a need for God’s grace.
Julian of Norwich is one of my favorite Christian mystics. She offers us a gracious image of God, as both strong Father and nurturing Mother. She even says that when we fall (succumb to temptation) it gives God occasion to care for us, to show us mercy and forgiveness. It’s not that we try to fall, for we don’t really have to try. It’s going to happen because falling is simply part of our nature (and those who don’t think they are falling are fooling only themselves).
When we can receive the gracious love and forgiveness of God for our own falling, we actually are more closely connected to God than when we feel ourselves morally correct. And those who know themselves as ones who fall receive the strength and compassion of God for themselves, and are likewise able to share God’s compassion with others who fall. A church full of compassionate souls who fall is a beautiful expression of the body of Christ.