Goodness and holiness

Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House

A collect prays to the Lord: ‘increase our holiness that our prayer may be heard’ [Year 1, Week 1, Eucharistic lectionary]. Note that the prayer is for an increase in holiness and not goodness – the two should not be confused. Remember this conversation: ‘Good teacher,’ Jesus was asked, ‘what good must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus replied, ‘Why do you call me good? One alone is good.’ The goodness of God is inaccessible to men – so it would seem.

If the pursuit of goodness were the impossible aim of the Christian life, it would seem that the endeavour of Christian discipleship is set up for failure. This would be the case if we were called to ‘goodness.’ Thank God that we are called to ‘holiness.’ There is a profound difference between the two.

God alone is the source of all goodness. He is, as the Orthodox liturgy addresses him, ‘Universal and Total Goodness, You alone are Good.’ Jesus, in his reply, is spelling out the reality of God, who is wholly other and dwells in unapproachable light. It is not possible to be like God: God is God.

However, it is possible to know God in a personal way, to experience the pure light of revelation and become aware of the absolute goodness, truth and love of God, through his gift of grace. This is given in the call to holiness. Despite the claim of orthodox spirituality that it is possible to share the Divine Life through a process of’divinization,’ it does not claim that a Christian can become divine. The divine image in each individual may be restored to a true likeness, but ‘One alone is good.’ There is of course ‘goodness’ that is a fruit of living in the Spirit; this is not the same as being ‘good.’ Thus Jesus makes us aware of the limitations of human spirituality. There will always be a gap; the claim to intimacy and unity with the Divine must always be a guarded one. There is no escaping the reality of Christian prayer -it is hard work. As the Russian Orthodox say, the Christian way of life is ‘wrestling.’ This leaves us with a lesson for Lent.

The struggle of the individual to ‘take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of you’ is not the pointless pursuit of the unattainable. The struggle itself and repeated experience of falling short is in itself communion with the Lord, who ‘was tempted as we are in every way yet without sin.’ Jesus, who ‘knew what was in the hearts of men,’ provides a pattern and an example of total commitment to the pursuit of holiness.

The call to holiness inevitably leads to engagement with the enemies of the soul: the world, the flesh and the devil. We cannot disengage from human society, we cannot abandon all physical needs and appetites, we cannot escape from the objective reality of evil, but God is good and in Christ has given us grace to live in the present, sustained by the things that last forever.