Afraid to Be Holy

Holiness, being set apart, is exactly what most of us don’t want. It is scary, lonely, hard, and subjects us to all manner of injury. Yet God commands us, in company with our brothers and sisters in Christ, to be holy. 

By Mark D. Harris

This morning I mentioned to a member of my Bible Fellowship class that we would be studying holiness. Like many people, he asked if I meant “morally good or ethical.” “Actually,” I replied, “to be holy is to be set apart to God. Morality is only part of holiness.” To be holy, we must be morally like God, but we must also be different in non-moral ways from the world around us. Ancient Israel is a good example. Circumcision confers no moral benefit, but God required it of His people nonetheless. Following the dietary and hygiene laws in Leviticus results in better health, but not in claims to greater righteousness.

The ancient Hebrews were afraid to be holy, and one example of this fear was that they demanded that God give them a king. 1 Samuel provides a good case study. Our lives are little different.


The Philistines had subdued the Israelites for many years and had themselves been struck by a terrible plague when they captured the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 4-6). After the Philistines returned the Ark, Israel repented and then prevailed in battle.  As a result, the Hebrews enjoyed relative peace throughout the days of Samuel (1 Samuel 7). Towards the end of his life, Samuel installed his sons as judges. They behaved poorly, however, and the people rejected their leadership. As a result of this crisis of succession, the Hebrew people asked for a king instead of a judge, so that they could be like all of the nations around them (1 Samuel 8).

After the conquest of Canaan (Joshua), God had instituted a system of governance in Israel in which He selected and then acted through a human judge to lead the people. Gideon, Deborah, Barak, Jephthah, and Samson were notable examples, and Samuel was the last of this line. The judge led the people in war and established justice, as a king would, but the role of judge differed from that of king in important ways:

  1. Under a judge, God was the acknowledged and immediate ruler. Under a king, God’s rule seemed less direct.
  2. The main duty of judges was to administer justice. They sometimes led armies in war, but were not responsible for the material well-being of their people. Governments led by judges were small and minimized hierarchy. In serving God and each other, the people were responsible for their material success.
  3. The main duty of kings was to ensure a prosperous kingdom, and this often meant war; both preparation and conduct. Kings administered justice, but did much more. Governments led by kings were large and hierarchical. Citizens increasingly looked to the ruler and his ministers for material success.
  4. Judges’ had little claim on the wealth of their people (1 Samuel 12:2-4), but kings exacted a heavy toll in taxes and other resources (1 Samuel 8:11-18).
  5. Overall, kings had far more power than judges.

God chose Israel to become a holy nation; a people separated to Him. His plan called for the Hebrews to be distinct among all of the inhabitants of the earth. They were to have a special Law, to be physically different (circumcised), to worship differently (no idols, one God), to behave better, and to have a key location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Israel was to be directly led by God and not by a king, at least at this stage in their history.

Afraid to Be Holy

Despite the obvious disadvantages of having a king instead of a judge, the people of Israel wanted a king. They denied this crucial part of God’s plan for them. They were afraid to be holy. Why?

  1. They wanted to be like the other nations around them (1 Samuel 8:5, 20).

The Israelites were afraid to be “holy,” to be the “set-apart” people of God. We humans are herd creatures who constantly check the opinions of others to confirm our own worth. Being different from those around us denies us such affirmation. We continually hope we are better but fear we are worse. Being different also hinders our ability to affirm those around us, because they are as insecure as us.

Having a king allowed Israel to compete with their neighbors. If Israel had a stronger, smarter, and more handsome king, they could use that as “proof” of their superiority. The same goes for a more beautiful queen, a more spectacular palace, more awesome fortresses, and a larger army. Compared to those around them, the Hebrews could be the same, better, or worse, but at least they would be in the competition. Being different, such as having a judge and being governed directly by God, would just make them strange.

My friends and I used to joke in high school that everyone, whether nerds or jocks, wore the same clothes and did the same things. Even the pot-smoking “non-conformists” looked alike. What was true in the 1980s remains true today. For the same reasons as the Hebrews, we are afraid to be holy.

  1. They wanted the king to take care of them, judging them and defending them (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

It is hard to take responsibility for yourself. The people of Israel willingly sacrificed freedoms and resources to have a king who would take care of them. A visible king, not an invisible God, would lead them into battle. A sinful man that they could understand, not a mysterious and holy God, would guide the nations. A mortal that they could threaten and partially control, not an immortal far beyond their power, would be to blame if they suffered and failed.

Modern politics revolves around endless promises from would-be leaders to their would-be followers. Politicians assure voters that they can keep them safe and prosperous, eliminating crime and terrorism and maximizing jobs and welfare benefits. The electoral victor is the one who promises the most and then seems to be able to deliver.

  1. They did not want to trust in the Lord to take care of them (1 Samuel 8:7-9).

The Hebrews were creatures of the earth, as we all are, and believed what they could see. It is far easier to trust in mighty warriors, close alliances, towering fortresses, and fat treasuries than in an unpredictable God. Trusting in the Lord seems passive and even foolish. We are told that “hope is not a strategy” and ridiculed for waiting on God.

The other problem is that ultimately, man’s goals and God’s goals are different. We wish for peace, prosperity, power, and popularity, and do whatever we can to get it. The Lord wants love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) in His people. God’s goals are not our goals, and if our goals are actually correct, it is perfectly rational for us not to trust Him.  Our goals, however, are incorrect. We do not request what we need, or even what we would actually want if we saw reality clearly. We ask for things that we think we want; a certain job, a certain wife (or girlfriend), a lot of money, widespread fame.


God’s people, from ancient Hebrews to modern Christians, are called to be holy, to be set apart to the Lord. We are to look like Him, to act like Him, and to love like Him. But we are afraid. We intentionally distance ourselves from His Spirit and then wonder why we live powerless Christian lives. We want to be like others, to have people take care of us, and to reject the care of God. We, like our Hebrews forebears, are afraid to be holy. Despite the Israelites’ sin, God promised to love and help them (1 Samuel 12:14-25). The same is true for us today. Though we are faithless, He is faithful, for He cannot deny Himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

One thought on “Afraid to Be Holy

  1. Mark, I find the question on the description of holiness by the bible study member interesting. Paul’s letter to the Galatians (among others) addresses the false gospel of morality vs. the Gospel of the Cross. Galatians 1:6-9 reads
    “6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! 9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!”

    This is Paul’s reaction to the Judaizers, or people within the church insisting the Jewish law had to be followed if the believers were going to be perfect before God.

    Al Mohler’s thoughts on our propencity to substitute moralism for the grace provided on the cross should also be heeded:
    “…Indeed, one of the most insidious false gospels is a moralism that promises the favor of God and the satisfaction of God’s righteousness to sinners if they will only behave and commit themselves to moral improvement”

    As you rightly noted, we should strive to be moral, but not because it imparts holiness or because it is the total sum of what it means to be holy, but because it is but a reflection of the nature of God our creator.

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