Do You Want To Be a Saint?

Do you want to be a saint?

How you answer that question is probably a pretty good indication about what Christian tradition you hail from.

If you are a Protestant the question makes no sense. Do I want to be a saint? I'm already a saint! All Christians are saints, right?

But if you are a Catholic then the question makes a lot of sense. Not every Catholic is a saint. Sainthood is aspirational in Catholicism, something attained after a lifetime of spiritual excellence.

To be sure, if you want to be a saint in Catholicism we might wonder about why that might be the case. Such aspirations might not be healthy and good. Sainthood probably shouldn't be a behavioral goal. God should be the goal, sainthood should be a by-product, even an afterthought.

Regardless, there is a difference between Protestantism and Catholicism in this regard. In Protestantism everybody is a saint. In Catholicism sainthood it is something the church might aspire to.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that I wonder if Protestantism doesn't suffer from its democratization of sainthood. Because if everyone is a saint then no one is a saint, at least as Catholics see it. No one steps forward or is put forward as a moral and spiritual exemplar that we might emulate.

More, Protestants don't see holiness as an aspirational goal. Few, if any, Protestants strive to be more holy. But Catholics think like this. Not all Catholics of course, but striving after holiness is a part of the Catholic experience. By contrast, as a Protestant I don't think I've ever woke up wondering how I might become more holy. And if I asked people at my church if they were trying to be more holy I figure I'd get a lot of odd looks.

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32 thoughts on “Do You Want To Be a Saint?”

  1. Drat! 

    I was quite set on becoming a saint. You've blown a big hole in my "to do" list for this week..

    (And yes, as Catholics, even very ordinary people such as myself really do aspire to sainthood.)

  2. God should be the goal, sainthood should be a by-product, even an afterthought.

    I like that.

  3. A few minutes ago, I was reading an excellent post by Morgan Guyton ("Mercy Not Sacrifice" blog) about communion -- open vs. closed.   He stated:  "I'm a hopelessly Baptist Catholic averaged out into Methodism."

    This is me to a 'T'.  In general, the Methodist doctrine and tradition feels most "at home" to me...  Not perfect, but an amalgamation of all the best from each tradition that influenced me most (Baptist and Catholic).  It has been (and still is) a strange journey...  But it's mine.  :-)

    More to the point of today's post, my answer to the saint (or sinner) question is......Both.  The Methodist idea of holiness, if I understand it correctly, is one of progressive sanctification.  I know that there has been controversy around the notion of attaining perfection in this life.  A wise mentor from my church put it this way:  "If you're not moving toward perfection, what are you moving toward?"

    We do our part to obey the law of love (God + others).  Certainly, the grace of God has much to do with our "progress."  My pastor doesn't place so much emphasis our increasing "holiness" as in saintly status; he often uses the terminology of "God's healing grace" -- wholeness and freedom to live out of a sense of spiritual abundance.  The idea of holiness as *wholeness* and healing is one that I can relate to.  Being a super saint, not so much.

    There is a song by Third Day, "This Is Who I Am" that, like my Baptist-Catholic-Methodist religious makeup, expresses my feeling about where I fall on the saint-sinner spectrum:

    I'm a saint and a sinner
    I'm a lover and a fighter
    I'm a true believer, with great desire
    I'm a preacher of grace, prophet of love, teacher of truth
    I've fallen down so many times
    But here I stand in front of you

    Take me as I am,
    but please don't leave me that way
    'cause I know that you can make me better than I am today

    This is who I am!


  4. Steve Brown put it this way, If holiness is the goal then few will ever obtain holiness. If Jesus is the goal then you get holiness along with him. Christ in you the hope of Glory, with glory being the manifestation of God in this world.
    I think one of American Christianity's biggest problems is that we don't believe what God says about us. If He says I'm holy, then I'm holy. If He says I'm a saint then I'm a saint.

  5. What does the word "Holy" mean when you use it?  I've got some thoughts on your article but I'd like to know if we are even talking about the same thing first.

    BTW also loved the line, "God should be the goal, sainthood should be a by-product, even an afterthought."

  6. I like who you are, Susan, and who your journey has made you to be. Our journeys do, indeed, shape us. I also "did my time" as a Baptist, and emancipated with a short stint as a Methodist, which sort of fizzled out (the church itself folded, but that's its own story). I don't know if there's a term for what/where I am now, unable to trust so much of Christian/church culture, because so much of what passes for Christianity strikes me as antithetical to Christ Himself. All the talk about "unconditional love" and "community" and "freedom in Christ" translates in real time into something very opposite.
    The song kinda reminds me of an old song from the (?) '60s/70s ... "I'm a picker, I'm a grinner, I'm a lover, and I'm a sinner ..."

  7. I see that. My worry in all this is that when many Protestants say "Jesus is the goal" they have a sort of emotional intimacy in mind--a warm fuzzy feeling that Jesus is my "best friend"--rather than Jesus being something like a moral exemplar. With the consequence being that the Christian life becomes preoccupied with creating feeling-states rather than on hard practices like those found in the Sermon on the Mount.

  8. Holiness, as I'm using it here, is the imitation of Christ, increasingly displaying the fruits of the Spirit in my life as the years pass.

  9. I am reminded, immediately, of O'Connor's "A Temple of the Holy Ghost," where the little girl wants to be a saint because it's the only job you can have where you know everything. A delightful fallacy she starts to unravel through the lens of the Eucharist by the end.

    I think the lack of saint culture in the whole of the Church has led to ideas of secular sainthood -- Lady Gaga's fantastical as a substitute for miracles, for instance -- because you're exactly right, if holiness is a blanket achievement, it's really little in meaning. That said, I think we are then tempted to turn then to an artificial fantastic.

  10. the "balance" of Methodism is the first thing this made me think of as well - though sadly most Methodists (and even a lot of the "holiness" denominations that come from the Methodist tradition - the Wesleyans and Nazarenes) don't seem too concerned with this anymore...

  11. I tend to think of saints as being from the Celtic church (before Catholic or Protestant where I'm from).... so St Ninian, St Columba etc.

    For me "Do I want to be a saint" equates with "do I want to be sanctified" ..... my protestant background is big on sanctification .... shorter catechism Q35 and all that!  I want to be sanctified .... absolutely (in my best moments)... but its a work in progress, and a messy one at that, and hurts sometimes!  So sainthood/ sanctification is aspirational for me as a protestant too.

  12. So let me throw Eastern Orthodoxy into the discussion. Here sainthood is even more rigorous as is the title of "theologian." Sainthood is achieved by those martyred for the faith and those who have achieved theosis or union with God. God is definitely the goal but you don't become a saint just because you work out your salvation unto union with God. There is no "A" for effort.

    That the Reformed tradition especially has reduced sainthood to baptism is a travesty. When we participate in the Liturgy we participate with the entire church throughout history and the saints help us through their personal sacrifices to become unified with God. It's rare and something that deserves our honor and respect.

  13. Just a gut reaction (and no offense to Catholics), but I don't think any form of institutionalism should be a gauge for what we should aspire to as believers.
    At any rate, it wouldn't be self-effort or self-will that would get us there anyway. That's part of the whole point of the Gospel and the New Covenant...

  14. Well, I think you hit the nail on the head. As a Methodist minister, this is a great question we should continue to ask ourselves....are we moving on in holiness?

  15. "Saints" is used in eg Acts 9 to refer to what we might equally call "believers", whereas the Roman Catholics have added to scripture, of dead people who have gone to where Jesus went (if I understand correctly). So is this just a matter of nomenclature?  
    A Church of God Overseer of my acquaintance recognizes "sanctification" as a step beyond the ordinary justification by faith, involving adherence to a "holiness" tradition, a very strict personal morality of separation from "worldliness" ... no dancing, no watching typical movies, no cursing, that sort of thing. Many are saved, but few are sanctified. Sanctification is something that is true of and recognized in living people. Personally I don't feel called to this kind of law-based separation from the world. I agree, a call to "be more holy" has bad echoes.

    But our church would be very surprised at the suggestion that we aren't expected to grow in the spirit, to advance in actualizing the gifts in our personal lives and in our community. I think of this under the category of "healing", becoming the people we were originally meant to be, which is the continuing and never-finished activity of grace.  Undoing the damage caused by the Fall. I don't believe in marking out strict category boundaries because all believers are joined in Christ as one body ... 1 Cor 12:12-19. But most definitely yes, we should be struggling continuously to be better people.

  16. Hello Dr. Beck and friends, I've never commented but I read your blog consistently and really appreciated your book Unclean.  

    I had a couple thoughts about holiness.  One is just an image of holiness.  Eugene Peterson talks about professional athletes and dancers: their skill and grace, the amazing control they have over their bodies.  He says holiness is like having that kind of beauty and skill, but more with respect to what is going on inside.  I guess another way to see it is that holiness means living a fully alive kind of life.

    My second thought was that it seems good on the one hand in the Catholic tradition to have 'saints' to emulate, people besides Jesus who can show you what a 'holy' life looks like, but I have a couple reservations.  One is often then people get stuck thinking 'they could never be a 'saint', putting the saints on a pedestal they could never hope to reach.  The second is that some of the saints did bizarre things that I don't think have much to do with living abundant life (not eating enough, refusing certain material comforts, etc.)  

    I get the concern about Protestants not being concerned enough about becoming holy because of the 'democratization of sainthood', but I think the New Testament emphasis really is on the fact that all of us are called to great and glorious lives, and it can be dangerous to elevate others too high if it causes us to discount our own potential.

  17. As an ex catholic recalling my youth I was never taught that the Saints that you have in your Saints handbook were the only saints.  It's not an exclusive list. Instead its a list of the "confirmed" saints.

    Basically everybody in heaven is a saint. There's nothing definitely wrong with saying Saint Mum or Saint Uncle Boris. However the Church keeps a question mark over everyone's salvation. Even a child may not know what secret sins their mother has.Maybe she hated God in her heart? Maybe she's not in heaven?

    We "know" the saints in the handbook are in heaven because investigations "show" they committed no sins after their last confession and because miracles have been occurring in their name. 

    Of course in reality political expediency has led to canonisation as much as anything. St. Brigid is an old pagan god for example. And countries can get Saints as big morale boosts and in the middle ages as drives for pilgrimages. However the church is not making saints in theory but confirming them. Technically there are no less Saints in Catholicism than in Protestantism. We are all unconfirmed saints in the church.

    This isn't to detract from the more interesting point about holiness and its place in Christian life. I would think you would find a better distinction on the matter between Wesleyan Methodists and Calvinists. Or a better example of a humble holiness than the following very protestant writer;

    “Remember! – It is christianity TO DO GOOD always – even to those who do evil to us. It is christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace.”
    -        THE LIFE OF OUR LORD written especially for his children by Charles Dickens

  18. As a Latter-day Saint I feel obliged to comment!  In LDS theology Jesus is the man worthy of emulation, inasmuch as he is like his father.  In practice, many of the church leadership over the years have been viewed as especially worthy of emulation (Brother Joseph, Brigham, etc.), however in recent years as many of the unsavory details of these men's lives have been made very public, Mormons have had to revise what they think about prophethood and sainthood.  I think the lesson many of our more traditional Christian brethren can take away from this is that saints "fall hard."  When people find out a "saint" may have done morally questionable things, sainthood  can backfire.  I don't think that's right, but it's reality.

    But I feel much more inclined towards Eastern Orthodoxy in recent years so perhaps I'm not one to speak for Mormonism anymore.

  19. I think it really comes down to this question.  Does Jesus care more about having "believers" or having "disciples"? Or, should there be no visible difference between those two?

  20. PS - My actual blogging name is "Syphax" and I run the Value of Saintliness blog (I should have changed this comment to reflect that).  A note to Dr. Beck: do you teach a psychology of religion course at Abilene Christian?  If so you'll find a link to a survey on my website that you should participate in - it's a survey of psych of religion courses and how they are structured.  Thanks!

  21. Hi Jordan, Thanks for commenting (and for reading Unclean).

    I definitely see those points. And you're right about the too high a pedestal. The requirement the Catholics have about saints needing to have miracles attached to their story is an example of this (thought the miracles don't have to be done by you in your lifetime; miracles of intercession after your death count; still...).

    That said, what I like in the Catholic worldview is the uneven topography of holiness, the sense that there are places to go and people to imitate or inspire you. There's a flatness in Protestantism in this regard. We're so hesitant (even phobic) to elevate anyone that we can struggle with Paul's advice to "imitate me as I imitate Christ." I think imitation is easier among Catholics than it is for Protestants because of how they see the topography of holiness.

  22. I think of sainthood as someone who is willing and able to give up their own needs to fulfill the needs of others.  Most human beings are capable of giving up our desires for others needs and desires.  This is good and this is love.  But greater love is being able to give up our needs (food, sleep, belonging, etc) to provide for the needs of others.  I am yet incapable of this kind of love.  I get resentful and angry.  So at the moment I have to decided to put sainthood aside and strive for the lesser love and living well.  Maybe sainthood is something I will aspire again for at another time, but for now I am content to seek Life.
    (I'm curious, what kind of Christian Tradition do you see me hailing from?)

  23. "...Playin' my music in the sun...I sure don't want to hurt no one."  :-)

    Thanks, Patricia.  I do understand the reasons for your distrust of religious institutions.  They are altogether valid objections to the typical dynamic of Christian worship and community.  I was talking with my small (women's) group a few weeks ago about the diversity represented in our church.  To be sure, several subgroups exist.  The hopeful thing to me is that even the polar opposite groups have managed to cohere and coexist, peacefully.  By some miracle, I fell into the group which I needed most right at the beginning.  I suppose it is hokey of me to attribute this to God's grace, but I guess because I can see so many ways this could have gone down badly, I feel grateful for an Invisible Hand guiding me through the proverbial minefield.

    I like you, too, Patricia.  I'm grateful for your kindly presence, wise insights, and friendship here at ET.  In your journey (and mine), we are *here*, together, at this blog...holy ground if I've ever stepped foot on such an earthly space.  Do you know of Anne Lamott?  She has had a very "unusual" faith journey, but writes of it with breathtaking honesty.  I just love her.  (Makes me feel better for my perceived weirdness.)  ~Peace~

  24. I think both you and Patricia are pretty awesome. I always look forward to your comments.

  25. In reading through all the comments this morning, I see the concern of some about legalism.  I "get" this sense of caution.  I also see Dr. Beck's clarifying response on his definition of "holiness" which I *really* like:  "the imitation of Christ, increasingly displaying the fruits of the Spirit in my life as the years pass."  For some crazy reason, a hymn that I only recently learned in a UMC worship service comes immediately to mind:  "Lord of the Dance."

    It's mildly hilarious that I loved this song at first hearing.  Everyone knows, after all, Baptists don't dance!  :-D

    Follow the Leader...

    "I'll live in you, if you'll live in Me --
    I am the Lord of the Dance, said He."

    I never knew how much I could love dancing (with the right partner.)  :-)  ~Peace~

  26. Hi Susan, I've seen you mention Ann Lamott and quote her, but I haven't read her. She sounds interesting, though. I'm currently reading Authenticity of Faith. It's, admittedly, a harder read for me than Unclean was, and having read the blog posts before reading the book certainly helps me grasp it better.

    Yesterday morning the doorbell rang, and it was a lady from our previous Methodist congregation (that disbanded). She and her husband were really the only friends we found there, and they were the most senior (I hate to use the term "oldest") couple in the church. She brought us an apple pie! Wish I could share with you and our ET community here.

  27. Yeah, that preoccupation with creating feeling-states is something that still cripples me; my lifelong inability to produce them, and my attempts to fake it in fellowships and worship services, made me feel for a long time like I was only a fake Christian. That imposter syndrome hasn't gone away. Maybe it will one day. In the meantime, I'll try to fake those hard practices, and in the process I might just follow them.

  28. Once a Catholic priest said to a friend "You Protestants are very good at telling people where to go, you just never tell them how to get there". And this is probably one of the reasons why I became an Anglo-Catholic from a Baptist. I find great comfort and a lot of motivation and guidance in the lives or sayings of the saints and the fathers. Examples are necessary. I felt quite deserted, when after my baptism I was congratulated and left to fight on my own — no matter how many bible study groups I went to or revivals or conferences I attended, there seemed to be no real progress. 

    I also think sanctification is a different concept in Protestantism and Catholicism anyway. Does it mean never ever drinking a beer again, or does it mean getting rid of anger and impatience? Is it giving up cigarettes, or is it living in the service of a people that nobody ever heard about in a country many wouldn't be able to place on a map? I think there's a huge gap between how protestantism / evangelicalism and catholicism thinks about saintliness.

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