The following post is taken from Ralph Martin’s first talk for Renewal Ministries’ The Fulfillment of All Desire Advent Mission, which is available on our YouTube channel. It also appeared in Renewal Ministries’ February 2021 newsletter.
One of the main points I want to make is that holiness is not an option. We often think holiness is for special people, and that we are just ordinary people. God clearly reveals in Scripture that holiness is essential. We must strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14).
Holiness is essential for ending up in heaven. We must have allowed the Lord to bring our whole being into perfect harmony with his will and to impart to us his own characteristics of love, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, power, love, and self-control. That’s a lifelong process, but we have to allow the Lord to do that in us, and the sooner it happens, the better, because the more we’re transformed, the more we’re under the lordship of Christ, the more we’re going to be a blessing to other people, and the more able we’ll be able to fulfill the purpose for which we are created.
Scripture says, you must be holy because I am holy (Lv 20:26). God’s not going to change, so if we want to have communion with God, we have to become holy. In Exodus 33:20, God says, “You cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live.” God’s purity, righteousness, power, and holiness is so great, there has to be a transformation of our soul. We have to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4)—we must become like God in some way appropriate to human beings.
This verse very much connects with the journey to God: “Therefore, gird up your minds, be sober, set your hope fully upon the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pt 1:13). That’s a strong exhortation. It continues,
As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves and all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you invoke as Father him who judges each one impartially according to his deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. Through him you have confidence in God. (1 Pt 1:13-21)
The Importance of Scripture
We’re going to be talking a lot about confidence in God, because this is humanly impossible. Thankfully, Jesus said, “With man it’s impossible, but with God all things are possible” (see Mt 19:3-26)—even you and I becoming holy and transformed because of our confidence in the power of God and in the precious blood of Christ that was shed for us so that we may end up in the kingdom of God rather than in the kingdom of Satan.
When people start reading the mystics, they often think it’s a special thing, but everything they teach flows from Scripture. This call is biblically based. We were created to be one with God. We were created to be holy—that’s the whole reason we’re alive, because God is working to bring us into fuller and fuller union with Himself to make us holy. That’s the only reason He created human beings—what a tragedy if we don’t fulfill our destiny, if we never become one with God, if we never allow Him to purify and heal us.
God the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, before He created the universe, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:4-5). If you have a chance, read or meditate on John 14-17. It’s the offer of the most intimate personal friendship with Jesus.
Definitions of Holiness
What’s a good definition of holiness? Sometimes we think about external practices or disciplines, and that’s part of it, but that’s not the essence. Jesus says the law, the prophets, and the Psalms are about loving God with your whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself. It’s about growing in love. St. Teresa of Avila says you can never separate love of God and love of neighbor, so holiness isn’t something we do cooped up in ourselves. It’s not just personal spirituality; it’s transformation of our lives. It flows into greater and greater love for those who are closest to us: our family members, our literal neighbors, our neighbors in our parishes. Ask Jesus, “Who’s my neighbor?” The answer is, whoever we run across is our neighbor. Love of God and love of neighbor go together, and if you separate them, there’s a distortion in spirituality. Spirituality isn’t self-centered; it expands our heart and our minds to love God more and more radically.
A lot of times today, people say, “He’s a good person.” Jesus said, call no man good (Mk 10:18). Just being a nice person doesn’t save you. Not to love God, not to thank Him, not to worship Him is tremendously offensive, it’s tremendously blind. That’s why God gave us the commandments, and the First Commandment says our primary obligation is to worship God. When we don’t worship God, or thank Him, or adore Him, darkness comes into our lives and minds.
Romans 1:21 says they knew God but they didn’t worship Him. God has revealed Himself to every human being. Through creation, you can know God exists, and you can know about his divinity and power. Romans 2:15 says God gives a light to every person’s conscience to help us know basic right from wrong, and if you don’t respond to that light and seek God, bad things come from that. Their minds were darkened, they were without excuse, they knew the truth, but they suppressed it. Disorder comes into people’s lives when they don’t thank God and worship Him. Loves dries up, and there is rebellion and disobedience. To grow in holiness is to grow in love.
Teresa of Avila gives another definition of holiness. She says to grow in holiness is to bring our will into union with God’s will: love what He loves, hate what He hates. The only thing God hates is sin. God hates whatever separates his beloved creatures from Him. God hates when people do things that block their union with Him and damage other people. God hates sin, because sin objectively wounds people.
Therese of Lisieux defines holiness this way: Perfection consists in doing his will, and being what He wills us to be, resisting his grace in nothing. Sometimes we think holiness is a burden God is placing on us, and we groan. But holiness is not a burden; it’s a gift. It’s a blessing, a freedom, coming into our true selves. It’s saying “yes” to whom God created us to be. We will never be happy unless we say “yes” to God’s plan, which is for our infinite happiness.
What Hold Us Back?
What holds us back from a wholehearted, unreserved “yes” to the call to holiness? I often hear people say, “I’m just a lay person.” That means you are created in the image of God! What a tremendous dignity every single human being has! Are you a baptized lay person? Christ shed his blood for you, and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are dwelling in your soul! You have an indelible mark on your soul—you have been claimed by the Lord, and unless you turn away from your baptism and reject, bury, and forget it, the Lord’s never going to let go of you.
The only thing that could separate us from the love of Christ is ourselves if we push ourselves away from Him, deaden our consciences, and give ourselves over to disorderly desires and the foolish nonsense of the world and culture. No longer say, “I’m just a lay person.” There is no greater dignity than to be created in the image of God, to be redeemed by the blood of Christ, and to be destined for eternal life. Having the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit dwelling in us is so special is that that the Lord says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Cor 3:16-17). The Lord is jealous for his people and their holiness, and the wrath of God is breaking out against all those who dishonor the creation and the body of Christ.
Other thoughts holding us back from wholehearted surrender are like these: “I’m not the heroic type. I’m selfish. I’m comfort-oriented. I’m lazy. I’m undisciplined. I’m distracted. I don’t think I have spiritual inclinations.” Those are lies that the devil has put in our minds to keep us from the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God. You may be selfish and all of those things, but the Lord stands ready to deepen his relationship with you, if you’re willing to do your part. Don’t accept those lies; you were created for holiness. With God, all things are possible.
Sometimes, although we know we are called to holiness, and we even get glimmers of the possibility of a deeper union with the Lord on a retreat or during a moment of prayer, we think we are too busy, or we have other problems to deal with right now. We are under the illusion that there is going to be some better time in the future for us to make that unreserved commitment to pursuing the path to holiness—that unreserved surrender of ourselves to the Lord with the practical decisions needed to make it real.
What is Needed
Each morning, we must wake up and try to put prayer time first. Even if we’re really busy, even if there’s a lot of stress in our life, there’s no better time in the future. I talk to retired people, and sometimes they say they’re busier now than when they were working. There’s always going to be something trying to distract us from seeking first the kingdom of God.
When I was engaged to be married, I only had a part-time job, and I was sitting on the floor of our sparsely furnished apartment, thinking, “How can I support a family?” The Lord gave me a Scripture passage that’s been foundational for my marriage and my work at Renewal Ministries. It says unbelievers are always worried about what they’re going to eat, what they’re going to wear, and what the future is going to bring, but seek first the kingdom of God and his holiness, and these other things will be yours as well, because your heavenly Father knows you need them. (See Luke 12:22-31.)
This is not the prosperity Gospel. It’s a solemn promise that God the Father knows what we need to fulfill the purpose for which He created us. If we put first things first, the secondary things are going to take their proper place in our life, but if we put the secondary things first, it’s going to cause a lot of stress and distortions, because the secondary things will never provide us what we’re seeking. They’ll never provide us with the security, peace, confidence, freedom, or love that we’re seeking. The only place we can find that is in God, and the other things that we need will then take their rightful place. I can tell you that this is the basis of my life, the basis of my wife’s life, the basis of our marriage, this is how we’re trying to live in Renewal Ministries. I encourage you to try to seek first the kingdom of God and his holiness and let the Lord provide what you need to carry out the mission that He’s called you to.
Four Principles and Two Decisions
Below are four principles that govern the spiritual life and two decisions to put us on a good path. These are from St. John Paul II’s Novo Millennio Inuente, where he said holiness is not just for a few special people but for everybody.
1. The spiritual journey is totally dependent on God’s grace. You can’t make it yourself.
2. Our effort also is necessary. We’ve got to do our part to dispose ourselves for the action of God in our soul.
3. There are painful dimensions to the purification process. St. John of the Cross said something that hopefully will take away some fear about this. He says God purges more intensely and quickly those who have more considerable capacity and strength for suffering, but the purgation is less intense for those who are very weak, like most of us. He lessens their temptations and frequently refreshes their sense to keep them from backsliding. St. Francis de Sales says the slow cure is the best cure. I’m on the slow cure path, and I’m excited about it. So, painful purifications are part of the process, but don’t be afraid of them.
4. Even though the journey requires effort, and even though there’s painful dimensions to the process, there is no journey more worth undertaking. Even if we make a little progress, it’s the most important blessing that could happen to our life. It brings us into a greater realm of freedom, a greater realm of love, and we can become more the person God created us to be.
St. Thomas Aquinas said there’s a difference between wishing something to happen and willing something to happen. Wishing something to happen without practical decisions is wishful thinking, and it will never happen. Willing something to happen, in order for it to be real, has to have some practical decisions connected to it. Here are two practical decisions I want to propose to you:
1. Believe the Word of God that you are called to be holy and that it’s impossible for you but it’s possible for God, if you do your part and cast yourself upon his grace and mercy.
2. Strive for that holiness without which no one can see God.