When I was a new Christian in my evangelical youth group, I vividly recall singing the praise song, "Holiness": "Holiness, holiness is what I long for / Holiness is what I need / Holiness, holiness is what You want from me." It is clear from the Bible and Christian tradition that this song (however lyrically uninspiring) is correct: holiness is what God wants from us and holiness is what we need. But, what does "holiness" really mean?
I think the predominant understanding of holiness is something like moral perfection or a substantial lack of sin. I know for sure that's what I thought of holiness in my teen years. Holiness was about what you're not doing: not having sex, not doing drugs, not drinking, not smoking, not cussing, not wearing immodest clothing, etc. In the youth group, a holy person was a person untainted by the "world" and its many sins (especially sexual sins).
If I'm really honest, I have to admit that as a married adult with two young children, my view of holiness hasn't really changed much. It is still about what you're not doing, though I've added more mature and socially conscious things to the list: not taking advantage of those who work for us, not consuming more than we need, not thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, and more. There are also things that we do now, too: treat each other with kindness, intentionally instruct our children in the faith, participate in prayer and worship with God's people, pursue our individual vocations, and open up our lives and homes in hospitality.
I don't think any of the above is wrong. These are all good things, right? But, I wonder if that's really what holiness is all about. Is it really about what we're doing and not doing? This seems to fly in the face of the teaching of Jesus, who often emphasized who we are (i.e., the good tree vs. the bad tree) over what we do. In this way, I'm inclined to think that holiness is actually about who we are in Christ and not necessarily the sins of commission or omission that we battle on a daily basis. (Even though that battle is right and good.)
In his book on marriage, The Sacrament of Love, Paul Evdokimov has the following to say of holiness: "Holiness is nothing but an unquenchable thirst, the intensity of the desire for God." Later, he goes on to say, "[T]he saints are souls of longing." I really, really like this definition of holiness. Here, holiness is depicted as a state of being, rather than a list of things one is doing or not doing. A holy person carries within herself an all-encompassing desire for union with the Trinity. Though sin befalls us and our flesh fails us, the person who desires God above all else is a person of holiness. Certainly, citizens of the Kingdom of God, members of the New Covenant, will not fail to present good works as proof of the Spirit's work in their hearts and lives. But, it seems to me, even in the absence of moral perfection, a passionate desire for union with God is the mark of a holy life.
Doesn't this work better in light of the stories of our faith, too? How is it that David can be called "a man after God's own heart" when he performed and allowed so many heinous things? He was a man of violence and murder, adultery and neglect. How is it that he is a hero of the faith? How is he really any worse than Saul, who was rejected by God? I think the key is the posture of the heart toward God. The key is that he was a "soul of longing."
And, the same is true of so many people in the story of God: Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Samson, Ruth, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and more. We could speak of the countless saints beyond the pages of Scripture, as well. Again, sin is never winked at in the Bible or the tradition. The failings of women and men of faith are real and not to be applauded. But, it seems that these people were still people of holiness: they possessed a desire for God that transcended their daily failings--even when they were failings with enormous earthly consequences.
In this way, a holy person is not one who longs for holiness, as such. (What the old praise song from my youth claims.) We are not to desire holiness, as such. Instead, a holy person is one who responds to God's abiding love in Christ with a deep desire for union with God--a desire that is never quenched or abandoned, a desire that grows and grows until it fills every corner of one's existence, so that even when sin occurs, repentance is swift and reconciliation is as certain as it is sweet.
And so, in pursuit of holiness, I must desire God above all. In this regard, I find a prayer from Saint Teresa of Avila particularly helpful. I think these words echo the brutally honest sentiment of many Christian hearts who long for real holiness--an unquenchable desire for God: "Lord, I do not love you. I don't even want to love you. But, I want to want to love you."