My pursuit of holiness has been a dynamic and complex process of rising and falling, a process to which I committed right before my 13th birthday.
Back then, I would have described this pursuit in terms of being a good person and doing the right thing. There’s a scripture that says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” and that was me. I started reading my Bible beyond Sunday mornings, thinking about the meaning of worship songs, and sharing my faith with others.
By high school, several kids had deemed me “the church boy,” one of whom I will call John.
John and I both entered 9th grade together. We had the same homeroom, and we both took a lot of art classes together throughout high school. He and I had many conversations about all kinds of things, and sometimes we would talk about religion and faith.
Thing was John was not a Christian. He was undecided about what he really believed. I knew he had some interest in Christianity as well as Islam—beyond that, I just knew he was what he was.
Over time, our friendship grew, and I recall a defining conversation in our relationship. Upon graduating from high school, John said some really nice things to me. I can’t remember all of what he said, but I feel like he said that he looked up to me, admired me, and was grateful that we’d become friends.
I vividly recall him telling me two things: 1.) I was his brother and 2.) he had decided to be a Muslim.
I preface that there are not many things that I regret in my life, but my response to him is one of them.
For some reason, my 17 year-old self couldn’t sit with him calling me “brother” and simultaneously being Muslim. I think I was really sensitive about whom I regarded as family then, and I still kind of am. As hurtful as it must have been, I let John know that we were not brothers. I tried to be kind about it, but I basically rejected him. Our friendship pretty much ended then and there.
While in college, something brought John to my mind and heart, and I lamented how I had rejected him. I sent him a Facebook message and asked him to forgive me for treating him as wrongly as I did. He wrote back to me pretty promptly, happy to have heard from me, and he confessed to me that my rejection, in so many ways, had confirmed to him that Christianity was not for him.
My heart sunk.
After a series of messages, we made peace as well as tentative plans to meet up once we were in the same city, but it never happened. And every now and then, I wonder what my relationship with John would have been like if I had replied much differently to his genuine gesture after we graduated.
At the time, I thought I was standing for righteousness and setting myself apart for holiness. I thought I was doing the right thing. I write those words and shake my head.
I don’t think that my initial pursuit of holiness was completely wrong. Admittedly, it wasn’t entirely right either. Though I understood that all of these rules and regulations I was following were out of God’s love, I didn’t have it in me to love John where he was as he was.
This experience really illustrates why I don’t just want to be a good person or do the right thing anymore, what I mean when I say that love and holiness should go together. I know that there are a lot of Christians who are on their own dynamic, fluctuating processes of trying to be holy. I imagine that sometimes they make decisions for the sake of righteousness and unintentionally harm people in ways that can be deep and lasting.
I know this is true because I have been John too. I’ve been hurt pretty badly by some Christians, and as hurt as I have been, I have done my best to not judge anyone’s intent or discourage anyone from being holy.
Altogether, it makes me wonder what people, especially we Christians, think about when we think about the word “holiness.” I wonder what it would mean if we thought that being holy meant more about loving someone like John rather than rejecting and disconnecting from him because he believed differently.
I know that God has forgiven me for what I did to John and that I have forgiven myself, and I genuinely hope John has forgiven me.
Similarly, I hope that I keep on extending grace and patience to Christians who do to me what I did to John. Not only is this what I would want for myself, but it’s what Jesus has done. Jesus forgave the people that hurt Him as they did it, knowing they didn’t really know what they were doing.
And to a certain extent, there are always moments when we don’t really know what we’re doing even when we think we do. Such is life.
Love Love Love,