What does it mean to be holy? How do we practice holiness before the Lord ?
I can very much relate to your question. I tried for decades to find an answer that settled well with me. The challenge, you see is in the definition. Ask what it means to be “holy” and you’ll hear circular synonyms: it’s something that’s sacred (synonym), or consecrated (that word uses the same root as sacred) – and both of these terms are defined with respect to holiness. I don’t know if these words were created by programmers who found the word “recursion” too bland or by mathematicians trying to teach English majors verbal algebra!
The Bible Dictionary (“holiness”) provides a definition that I find understandable and yet profound.
“According to the Old Testament, things or places were holy that were set apart for a sacred purpose; the opposite of holy is therefore common or profane (1 Sam 21:5; Ezek. 22:26; 42:20; 44:23; 48:13–15).”
Ignore that word sacred for a moment and focus on the rest. To be holy is to be set apart. As Latter-day Saints we have lots of experience with this. Our missionaries are “set apart” in our terminology as ministers to preach the gospel. The phrase itself means they are different from regular members, and so they are expected to act differently, speak differently, even to be different. They are holy. This applies to all our callings as well when we are set apart. The Relief Society instructor is set apart from the other Relief Society sisters in that she is the one who prepares the topic of discussion and is blessed with the capacity to fill that measure. She is holy. In contrast, think of a time when you’ve moved into a new ward and a friend asks what calling you have. “None,” you may reply, “I am only a member.” Only a member! That’s it! You aren’t holy like those with callings – you’re not set apart – what you are is just a common member. And you’ll see that here I’ve used the antonym of holy – common (“profane” here is probably better matched with our modern “secular”). (You actually are holy, but I’ll get to that later).
The Law of Holiness
In the Old Testament, we find an entire people that were set apart to be a holy nation. They were given the Law of Holiness, which is found throughout the book of Leviticus.
“And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine.” (Lev. 20:26)
Israel showed they were set apart by living the Law outlined in Leviticus. The intent of this law was to reflect the way they were set apart spiritually.
The Israelites were set apart from other nations, because they were the Lord’s nation. As such, they were commanded to behave differently from other nations. They ate differently from other nations; they maintained their hygiene differently from other nations; they marry differently; they worship differently; they even maintained a different economy with respect to debt and interest (see the chapter headings for Leviticus). Even among themselves, there was a select group that was set apart from these holy people – the priests.
“Thou shalt sanctify him therefore; for he offereth the bread of thy God: he shall be holy unto thee: for I the Lord, which sanctify you, am holy” (Lev. 21:8).
The priests were holy among the holy (wrap your mind around that). And yet the purpose behind their holiness was the same as that of the congregation (you’ve probably guessed it by now).
“Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2).
The God of Israel is holy (I guess that’s what Nephi was getting at). Jehovah is not like other Gods. You are not to create an image of Him for worship, for He has already created in His own image; you need not worry that your prayers will go unanswered because He will send His angels to aid you – and where His angels are insufficient, He Himself will be your aid; in a head-to-head competition against other gods, He wins! Have any other gods delivered you from slavery?
Not only is the God of Israel set apart from other gods, but we’ve learned that God the Father is also holy.
“Behold, I am God; Man of Holiness is my name; Man of Counsel is my name; and Endless and Eternal is my name, also.” (Moses 7:35)
We are instructed to live a similar Law today.
God is a Holy Man. He is set apart from other men. His judgment is just; His judgment is merciful; He is filled with power; He is filled with wisdom; He is love. Have you ever met such a Man?
This character, then, helps us to understand that definition we found in the Bible Dictionary. Something that is holy is set apart for a sacred or godly purpose. We should find in holy peoples godly characteristics “for I the Lord your God am holy“. The purpose of the Law of Holiness was for the outward marks of distinction to settle in to create a new, inward character reflective of God’s own character.
The Law of Holiness Restored
Enough of the past – what of today? The restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been commanded:
“And thus ye shall become instructed in the law of my church, and be sanctified by that which ye have received, and ye shall bind yourselves to act in all holiness before me—” (D&C 43:9).
We have our own Law of Holiness (and thus are a holy people). We are different from other peoples, because we eat differently; we marry differently; we worship differently. We are set apart from other peoples (and even other Christians) because we recognize that our God is different from others. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught:
“Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.
Talk about man creating God in his own image! Sometimes—and this seems the greatest irony of all—these folks invoke the name of Jesus as one who was this kind of “comfortable” God. Really? He who said not only should we not break commandments, but we should not even think about breaking them. And if we do think about breaking them, we have already broken them in our heart. Does that sound like “comfortable” doctrine,easy on the ear and popular down at the village love-in?” (The Cost and Blessings of Discipleship, April 2014 General Conference).
It is not enough for our actions and our God to be holy, but we ourselves must also let this holiness seep into our very beings. We must be holy. The ideal was captured in reality in a city so holy, it was named for it. “And … [Enoch] built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even Zion” (Moses 7:19). As a people, Latter-day Saints are striving (like Enoch’s people) to have God’s own name (Man of Holiness) placed on us by having His character place in us. We have temples that have been set apart to the Lord (Holiness to the Lord) that invite us to be holy. We have the charge to be a Zion people, set apart from Babylon, Idumea, or the world (D&C 1:36, D&C 133:14, see also D&C 133:5).
This starts in the home, for “only the home can compare with the temple in sacredness” (Bible Dictionary –“temple”). The home is a place set apart from all other worldly institutions where the gospel is modeled. Finally finding God’s character in ourselves, and God’s will in our homes, we can branch out from there into our own communities and in our work. It will reach the point where “in that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, Holiness unto the Lord” (Zech. 14:20), because even those things that we today consider common will be set apart for the glory of God.