The trouble with holiness: It’s not just for saints

As a child, I was often either late arriving for dinner or missing in action. In most instances I was playing with friends outside of shouting distance from the house. Completely absorbed in whatever we were doing, I would lose track of time. Darkness or some other reminder would prompt the end of playtime and I’d head home, wishing I could stay longer and somehow avoid the inevitable scolding.

That calling and interruption of the day’s desired activities parallels a modern-day reality for God’s children. God calls us collectively and individually to be close to Him.

If and when we step away from pleasurable activities, we separate ourselves by responding to His call to holiness.

Separation anxiety

I used to think that holiness at the higher levels went beyond sacrifice to punishing oneself. Holiness gets a bad rap from popular singers including Billy Joel who sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.” Holiness was for ascetics; I remained here in the real world where such status is unattainable and the pursuit of it is a waste of time and energy.

Then I discovered something that put it all in perspective and led me to a blinding flash of the obvious. Holiness, in the root of the original Hebrew word, means a separation, a setting apart. Now I get it.

My reticence to holiness stems from the sense of separation anxiety.

Choosing the better

God calls all His children to holiness as a way of separating them from worldly desires and distractions. He persists in this calling, making holiness a continuous process of separation until we say stop. Because we are given the divine gift of free will, the holiness process pauses only when we close the door.

Another dynamic in this process is that there is no neutral. We are either progressing in holiness or regressing to the crowd and the ways of this world. St. Paul exhorts us to be in this world but not of this world.

Holiness at work focuses us on separating ourselves from the worldliness. It can certainly be much more fun to focus on improving the bottom line to the exclusion of God’s calling. Simultaneously it appeals to the control freak in each of us to stick with the areas where we feel a greater sense of control.

God wants control of our lives, not in a way that we must renounce our work lives in favor of joining a cloistered religious order. On the contrary, we have the opportunity to bloom where we’re planted and be valuable to God’s kingdom right where we are right now. Our openness to holiness, to separating us from our earthly will in favor of adjusting to God’s plan, speaks volumes about the strength of our faith and how willing we are to submit to something so much better than anything we’re able to fathom.

In response to God’s call to holiness, we must become open to the separation from people, situations and things whose gravitational pull on us challenges that of God’s persistent invitation to join Him in His work.

Holiness will never remain truly popular with our family, our friends, even church members, because as we continue on God’s path, He will continue to call and separate us, escorting us to increasingly greater levels of holiness consistent with a singular calling unique among all His children throughout history.

As a result, this call to holiness is a case of good news and bad news: the Good News is that holiness is available to all God’s children. The bad news is that it’s no fun, at least by earthly standards.

John Earl Carroll is a consultant and entrepreneur based in Mount Pleasant. E-mail him at