The Purpose of Holiness and Morality

The December 2 entry for Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest stood out to me when I read it, particularly one line: Chambers’ statement that “The emphasis of holiness movements is apt to be that God is producing specimens of holiness to put in His museum.”

Why should we strive to be holy, or, if you prefer, moral people?  Is it so that God can put us into a museum to showcase to others what God can do, or to enable us to be inspiring examples to others?  That may be a reason, but I doubt that it’s the only reason.  It only pushes the question back.  So we’re supposed to advertise to others what God can do and live lives that inspire people to strive to be righteous and holy.  Why?  So that they can be righteous and holy.  But that only brings us back to our original question: Why should people strive to be righteous and holy?

I think that an obvious answer is that righteousness makes for an orderly world.  The world is a better place if people respect one another and live in peace with each other, maybe even love one another—–for the world would be a pretty cold place if people merely respected each other but did not care how others were doing.  Moreover, theistic religions hold that it’s important that we believe in a power greater than ourselves, God, rather than seeing ourselves as the sum of all things.  A theme within Christianity is that the world got to be out of whack on account of sin, and Christ came to earth to heal the world.  When we are holy and righteous, we are participating in the orderly world that God is creating.

That should be good enough—-that we should do what’s right because it’s right and thus has positive consequences.  But there are people who believe that there’s more to the issue than that, that there are other reasons that we should cultivate holiness and righteousness.  I once heard a religious author interact with a question: What exactly is the Christian life preparing us for?  When we practice for basketball (or, more accurately, when others practice for basketball, since I’m not particularly athletic!), we’re preparing for a game in which we can use the skills that we are practicing.  Is the same true with the Christian life?

I suppose that one can say that we’re practicing morality so that we can meet the greater moral challenges, the times when it’s especially difficult to be moral.  There’s wisdom to that.  The answer of the religious author to his own question, however, was that we’re practicing love now so that we’ll be able to love people from different backgrounds in the new heavens and the new earth, which Christ will set up after his return.  I once heard an Armstrongite preacher argue along similar lines, only he used another apocalyptic example: he said that many Christians, during the time of their eschatological persecution at the hands of the Beast, will be in close quarters when God is protecting them.  During that time, they will have to love one another, otherwise how will they live with each other?  It’s kind of like what Jack said on LOST: “Live together, die alone.”  That may explain why people who live in the time of the end will need to be moral (depending on if you accept that eschatological scenario), but not exactly why people who lived before that time needed to be so.

But, overall, Armstrongites have another explanation for why we need to build character: that we will become god-like beings, part of the God Family, perhaps even ruling our own planets.  We’re building character in order to be moral rulers, in short.  I wouldn’t exactly phrase things in the extreme fashion that Armstrongites do, but I agree with them that there is a New Testament expectation that the saints will rule (II Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6).  Not just anybody can rule, for a person needs moral character to do so, lest he or she become a tyrant.  Rulers need to be like Mufafsa in the Lion King, sensitive to balance and the circle of life and what is good for the community, rather than like Scar, who was out for power and did not care for the community. 

There are Armstrongites who tend to look down on Christians who lack the expectation that the saints will rule in the millennium and the new heavens and the new earth.  These Armstrongites characterize such Christians as people who think that God regards people as pets rather than future rulers, who look forward to sitting on a cloud with a harp, and who do not posit any real purpose for the Christian life.  I can somewhat understand where these Armstrongites are coming from.  I am seriously doubtful that many Christians expect to be sitting on a cloud playing a harp, but it does seem to me that a number of them lack a belief that they will rule.  Rather, my impression has been that they present heaven and life after the resurrection as a time when they will worship God and spend time with their families, friends, and loved ones.  I’m not against that, for I expect that, too, but, like Armstrongites, I’d like for there to be more than that for us in the time of eschatological hope—-projects that we can work on, unlimited possibilities, opportunities for us to put into practice our knowledge and creativity, etc.  

That doesn’t mean that I look down on Christians who lack this sort of hope, or feel that I can learn nothing from them.  For one, if they teach and practice righteousness, then I can learn from them, for righteousness has practical value in this life, in that it makes for an orderly society and hopefully makes us into orderly individuals, rather than people who are continually hitting our heads into brick walls and suffering bad consequences from our action.  Second, while the Bible does talk about the saints ruling, my impression is that it does not seem to offer a whole lot of specifics, or even to harp on the issue as much as Armstrongites do.  Consequently, I think that people who believe that the saints will rule should be humble, not looking down on those who lack this eschatological expectation.  God has worked with and through people who lack this hope, and my opinion is that God still does so.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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