One of my main struggles as a Christian has been the pursuit of holiness. My best attempts at being good or holy or just or righteous are, according to Isaiah 64:6, like bloody sanitary napkins: not merely unclean, but too shamefully embarrassing to even be mentioned in polite company. If I accomplish anything good at all, I'm not the one doing the accomplishing, God is.
Nevertheless, much of the Bible explains just what I need to do to be holy. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is one big to-do list of impossible tasks to accomplish in order to, like him, please God. And the apostle Paul, having revealed the inadequacy of mere rule-following as the way to God, can't seem to stop himself from creating more rules: Don't cut your hair. Don't speak in church. Just put on the armor of God and run that race. I can hardly read his epistles without sweating! How can I reconcile my powerlessness to do good with these perpetual charges to do right?
The story of the bleeding woman who touches Jesus' cloak and finds healing offers one answer (Matthew 9:20-22). She does it on the sly, behind Jesus' back, stealing her cure from the healer. Afterwards, Jesus seems nonplussed but explains that her faith healed her. Clearly she does something right: By seizing his hem, she's rendered physically and now also ceremonially clean. Through an action taken in faith, she's no longer answerable for her secret sin.
What intrigues me in this story, though, isn't the woman's behavior, but Jesus'. How can a healing happen without his intending it would, without his even knowing it would? Jesus is unaware of this woman and her need when he suddenly feels the power "go out" from him.
The story suggests much about the pursuit of holiness. Perhaps holiness—evident in both Jesus' accidental act of healing and the woman's resulting health—isn't something that can be pursued at all, but rather is the natural outcome of genuine faith. Maybe the pursuit of righteousness is much less intentional than I try to make it.
A friend once told me how one summer she'd gone into her garden and walked amid her peach and pear trees, their fruitless branches bushed out, the ground dry around their roots. For the past several springs, cold snaps had killed all the fruit before it passed the flower stage. Since her trees hadn't borne fruit in so long, my friend hadn't bothered to tend them.
I'm just like those trees, she thought. No fruit. Bad times have killed my effectiveness as a Christian. Not only that, but I haven't pruned or watered. No wonder I have no fruit.
Even as she was thinking these thoughts, she looked up into the branches and saw a peach, green and hard, but a peach nonetheless. Then she saw another and another. Up under their bushy branches, the trees were full of fruit she'd never noticed, despite her neglecting to nurture them altogether.
I'm not suggesting we neglect our spiritual development, of course, but rather that we look at it differently. We tend to perceive growth—all growth—as the result of fulfilling requirements, paying attention, and, above all, working hard … something we accomplish. But despite the rules for holy living the Bible and even Jesus offer us, the governing message is this: The yoke is easy because Jesus takes not only our failures but also the impossible task of holiness upon himself. He does it for us.
Holiness doesn't stem from required behaviors or exertion or stress. In fact, it isn't something to be achieved at all but rather to be enjoyed as the natural outcome of faith. If we simply believe, the power will go out from us, whether intended or not.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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