True religion according to John Wesley is happiness, and happiness is true religion. It is the necessary integration of the love of God and neighbor, or what he described as gratitude and benevolence. There is no separation of these two. And as we come to love God and our neighbor more fully, the image of God, which is love, is restored in us. This image is deeply Trinitarian: The Father who sends the Son, the Incarnate Son Jesus who bears witness to that Creator and who died on the Cross that we might have fellowship with God and neighbor through the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us and among us.
The restoration of the image of God is the journey toward holiness. It is not a status. It is not a separation from the impure. Holiness is the purpose for which we were created, to reflect the nature of God. And we cannot make this journey toward holiness alone. This was Wesley’s critique of solitary religion, and his affirmation that there is no holiness but social holiness. This means we become more holy as we read Scripture together, take communion together, confess our sins together and respond to human needs through acts of mercy and justice together.
We believe that holiness can only truly happen in our lives, and we are more likely to discover happiness in our lives, as we are accountable for the grace that we have received. This is real gratitude. Nothing is our possession—our money, our position, our church. Everything belongs to God and we are stewards. Accountability in the early Wesleyan movement happened in small groups and conferences, and also as early Methodist people practiced the General Rules.
So, if we would pursue holiness—and here I refer not to perfectionism or judgmentalism, but to the life our Creator intends for us—imagine the life we would intend for our loved ones and friends, even for our children and grandchildren. As you pray and reflect, the following practices might be helpful:
- How can I live out of a sense of gratitude each day? Can I write down at least three specific things each day for which I am grateful?
- How can I become a more loving and giving person? Can I simplify my life and, in the process, give things that I own or have accumulated to others?
- How can I come to the conviction that holiness is happiness, or joy? How can I come to know that happiness is discovering the path that God has chosen for me, and walking in that direction?
- And who can help me to be holy and happy? Can I write down the names of two to three brothers and sisters in Christ who can hold me accountable—who can speak the truth in love to me—for the gifts and grace that surround me?
Were we able to begin to understand and practice holiness in these ways, we would be more Wesleyan, we would be more encouraging of each other, and we would find ourselves happier and more joyful in God, and on a clearer path to holiness. Amen!
I am indebted here to Rebekah Miles for her essay “Happiness, holiness and the moral life in John Wesley”, in The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, Cambridge University Press, 2010, 207ff., and to conversations with Bob Tuttle and Paul Chilcote.