Pursuing a Pattern of Personal Holiness (Mar-Jun 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

by Rick Presley
March – June, 2010

PatternismWhen I was eighth-grade class president, one of the responsibilities of my position was to plan the Junior High Dance, placing me in a dilemma. I signed up for the clean-up committee, but how was I to know when the dance was over since my religious upbringing prevented me from attending?

I decided that a fitting course of action would be to attend the dance but not to participate so as to maintain both my responsibility and my Christian testimony. My father told me after the event that I had made the wrong choice since it sent a signal that I approved of dancing and I had compromised his stand against evil and wickedness in our small town. From lessons like this, I learned early that I needed to model my life according to a biblical example.

I diligently applied the lessons from church, Sunday School, and youth group to personal practices that I felt contributed to my pursuit of holiness. My parents’ attention was not wasted because I continued to pursue the same sort of personal holiness when I left home to attend Bible college. Some years after graduating college, I learned that the pattern I was following not only contributed to a personally satisfying level of holiness, but followed a biblical pattern for religious devotion.

Religious Devotion

Christians are often admonished to pursue excellence, holiness, and godliness in the area of their prayer life. I could not count the number of sermons, devotionals, radio programs, and articles devoted to the topic of prayer. In nearly every one of them, Christians heard that they needed to pray more. I decided to pursue more time in prayer. I would pray before every meal, pray in the morning, pray in the evening, pray while in my car, and on multiple occasions during the day.

Not content to just reform my private practice of prayer, I worked hard to improve my public prayers as well. I would keep in mind long lists of things to pray for – missionaries, church ministries, individuals, state and national concerns – and would make sure to mention them, fearing to forget even a single one.

Not only that, I despised the routine language that characterized so many prayers and worked to improve the quality of speech I used when addressing our Father in heaven. No more was I satisfied with the “Dear, God” salutation of my youth. Now prayer begins with a more elegant, “Our Most Gracious Heavenly Father.” I felt that “thee” and “thou” in prayer was presumptuous, so I used contemporary language, but made sure that my sentences never fell into a dull routine that sounded like I was reading a checklist. Following the biblical pattern of Matthew 6:5, I worked hard to make my prayers a thing of beauty worth listening to.

Another area of conviction was tithing. Preaching on “tithing” was seen as legalistic, but at the same time the truly spiritual Christian regarded the tithe as only the starting place. Truly devoted Christians were people who gave over and above the tithe regularly. However, that was not what convicted me the most.

Sermon after sermon admonishing me not only to tithe of my treasure, but also of my time and my talents, went deep into my heart. I examined my life and looked for a way to give God 2.5 hours of every day, or 17.5 hours of time every week. I calculated the amount of time I spent in church, the two hours on Sunday morning, the hour and half on Sunday night and the hour on Wednesday night. That still left 13 hours unaccounted for!

For a while I was careful to tally the amount of time I spent in devotions, prayer, Bible study and various other activities. On weeks my calculations fell short I felt bad, but on weeks that I met or exceeded the 13 hours of non-church “God time” I felt pretty good about myself.

It did not take long before I learned to use some “creative accounting” methods to tally the hours. I used drive time as prayer time, so that counted as “God’s time” shaving five hours a week in commuting off my 13-hour requirement. And just to make sure it was really “God Time,” I kept the radio on Christian stations.

Soon I was able to set up a routine that accounted for all my “God Time,” so I no longer had to perform the weekly calculation of my tithe. This too, was in accordance with the biblical pattern of calculating tithes on non-monetary assets (Luke 11:42).

Another religious practice that contributed to my personal holiness was fasting (Luke 18:12). Most people tended to view fasting as refraining from food, but I was told from many different pulpits and on a variety of radio programs that fasting encompassed a broad range of activities. Once I discovered that fasting was simply self-denial, I found a great deal of fasting that I practiced as a devout Christian.

Obviously, I fasted from the consumption of alcoholic beverages, as well as fasting from the establishments where those beverages were sold, whether it was a bar or a restaurant that served alcohol. I fasted from worldly entertainments like movies, rock-and-roll music, and cable television. Had I been truly devoted, I probably would have gotten rid of the television altogether.

Not only did I fast, I made sure that others knew of my religious devotion by telling any who would listen my convictions on these matters. At the time, this was one of the most satisfying patterns of godliness that I followed.

Religious Doctrine

I also followed the practice of maintaining a high view of Bible doctrine (Matthew 15:9). I held firmly to the truths of God’s order of decrees, the eternal destiny of the wicked, and the fine points of eschatology. Not only did I learn them and defend them, but I taught them to others (Matthew 23:4), sometimes stridently but always passionately.

There were people who sought to “enlighten” me in some areas, particularly with regard to my practices of fasting. They would say that the Bible did not actually teach the levels of abstinence that I was advocating. I pointed out to them that the Bible often represented the principles that we are to follow, while it is our job to interpret the practice of those principles. I would argue that they risked compromising the Word of God by their liberal teachings (Mark 7:5, Matthew 12:2). I felt that I should take a “better safe than sorry” approach to practices of personal and corporate holiness, setting standards that were stricter than the Bible when necessary.

I preached a doctrine of separation that kept me uncontaminated from the world because I refused to associate with the kind of people who would harm my witness or compromise my godly stand (Luke 15:2). Once more, I discovered later on that this too was a fulfillment of a biblical pattern outlined in Mark 7:13.

Religious Character

I cultivated a heart that was grateful that God saved me and make me a child of His (Luke 18:11-12), redeeming me from the sinful attractions in the world. I was grateful for the faith that had been handed down by my parents and their parents before them (Matthew 3:9). I learned all the right words to speak (Mark 7:6) and how to maintain the appearance of personal holiness (Matthew 23:24-36), taking offense at any who would speak ill of the practices I advocated so stridently (Matthew 15:12).

Religious Conviction

Was I following a biblical pattern? Indeed I was. I had been raised and trained to “pattern my life” after the Bible. However, it was not until I started studying the Bible – really studying the Bible on my own – that I discovered whose pattern I was following. I would encourage you to go back through this article and look up the passages I cited. You will find that these verses refer not to practices advocated by Jesus and his apostles, but rather they are exactly the kind of pattern set by the Pharisees who were opposed to the ministry of our Lord.

You see, I had embarked on a study to find out who the Pharisees were and why it was that they were so deeply resentful of the ministry of Jesus Christ. I wanted to know why they reviled him and eventually nailed him to the cross. What made them so evil that they could not tolerate the Truth from the sinless perfect Son of God? It was precisely because they had established a righteousness of their own rather than following God’s righteousness that they deemed Jesus an enemy to their cause.

This made me reflect on my own ministry. Had I actually become so much of a Pharisee that if Jesus were alive today, I would not recognize him? If Jesus chose not to become a member of our denomination (and actually joined a “competing” church or even no church at all!) would I still recognize him as Messiah? If Jesus not only refused to adopt my religious practices, but actually opposed them as he did the Pharisees, would I still name him my Christ?

It was the answers to these questions that brought me to the stunning realization that indeed I was following a biblical pattern, but the wrong biblical pattern. Ever since then, I have been repenting of those Pharisaical tendencies I find in myself and working to establish a righteousness that is not my own, but is a godly righteousness found in Christ Jesus.New Wineskins

Rick PresleyRick is currently an instructional designer for a major not-for-profit humanitarian organization. He is a former Christian school teacher and bi-vocational church planter in the Columbus (Ohio) area. He currently resides with his wife of 30 years in rural Ohio, with four of his five children still remaining at home.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1581 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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