Interview: Jackie Hill Perry Talks ‘Holier Than Thou’ and What Christians Often Get Wrong About Holiness

“The thing about holiness is that it’s holy to be humble. Humility comes, I believe, through self-awareness and complete honesty about what you see.”

Jackie Hill Perry
(Photo: Courtesy of B&H Books)

Jackie Hill Perry is a poet, Bible teacher, hip hop artist, and writer. She has written and spoken on the topic of Christianity and homosexuality and its intersection with her own faith journey and struggles with same-sex attraction. Following the release of her Bible study on the book of Jude, Hill Perry wrote Holier Than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him.

In the following Q&A, Hill Perry shares the heart behind her latest book and common misconceptions about the holiness of God. The transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

You have written several books now for a Christian audience including Gay Girl, Good God and a Bible study on Jude. Why did you decide to choose to write a book on the topic of God’s holiness?

Curiosity, really. It’s a topic that intrigues me. It’s a conversation that has often discouraged me. And so I wanted to know, if I investigate God’s holiness from the lens that I think it should be seen in, what will I find? As I was reading a lot of books around the topic of holiness, they all seem to just land on sin a lot and God’s moral purity, which is a factor and a big deal. But I’m reading these books more introspective and disheartened by my inability to please God than I am captivated by the beauty of God as seen in His holiness. And so I just wanted to take it from another angle, which is: I think holiness is much bigger than a conversation just about my sinfulness and God’s righteousness.

Looking through the footnotes of your book, you reference several great historical works on the topic of God’s holiness. Can you explain who you had in mind when you were writing this book? Who did you think would be picking up your book and reading it, and how did that shape your writing process?

Holier Than Thou

Everybody! I want to say everybody, but realistically, I did not have scholars or academics in mind. I think I just had regular Christians who want to know about God and want to trust him more and want to love him more. I think if I got even more narrow, I think I thought about those who are intimidated by the Word and the concept of holiness, but also those who have a misconstrued perception of what that is, and it’s led them to be afraid of God. Not in a reverential way, but literally like scared of God where they’re approached in their prayer life and even their failures just have way more baggage than need be. I think I thought about them a lot where I wanted this book to be a bomb, and I wanted this book to encourage just some deep, deep worship.

What are common misconceptions about God’s holiness that people have, both within and outside the church? Why is it important to have a correct understanding about His holiness?

That’s complicated because I think there’s a lot even depending on the region. I guess one is that in secular culture, I don’t think his holiness is even esteemed much, not as much as his love is or his mercy or his kindness. And so I do think that there’s a misconception seeing that his holiness permeates all of his ways in all that he does. And I wish there was more of a conviction in that — my brain is flat because I’m pregnant! I just wish there was more emphasis on that, right?

I think within the church, there’s a ton. One that I address in the book is that God’s holiness is not just simply His moral purity or his inability to sin, His righteousness. But it’s also His transcendence, the fact that He is unique, that He exists differently than everything that exists. And I think that widens the conversation of holiness a ton because it’s not just that we’re dealing with a Being that cannot sin, but we’re also dealing with a Being that is not needy. We’re dealing with a Being that is independent. We’re dealing with a Being who is powerful to the nth degree and will never need anyone to regain it.

And so, I think that already does something to your faith, when you realize, I’m dealing with a God that only needs Himself to be Himself.

Can you share a story in your life about how God’s holiness became real to you, more than just a theory or a concept you assented to?

I thought about this because I feel like there’s been a lot of mini moments, you know, even while writing this book. But one that really defined my walk was [when] I was a new Christian, I was in L.A., and by “new,” I mean maybe a Christian less than six months. And anyone that knows me knows that I deal with same sex attractions. And so, I had met this girl at the church, and me and her start to talk, and I just kind of made it up in my mind, “You know what? I’m gonna just be gay for a couple of weeks.” That’s literally what I said to myself. I would just kick it with her and do what I have to do, and the woman that I discipling me got a bunch of the leaders together because they found out what was happening and they confronted me about it and challenged me on it.

I was at a church where I was already exalted to a position of like a communicator. And it was only because I was gifted, but my character was not in alignment with what I was saying yet. And my discipler said, “You’re on your way to being a very famous hypocrite because you do have an ability to speak well and people will believe that you are living in a way that you’re not.” And after that meeting, I went outside, and I looked at the sky, and I looked at the stars. And for some reason, it looked real big to me. It just looked grand. And I remember saying to myself, the God that is calling me to a higher standard made this and He made this to get me. And so, it wasn’t purely conviction, like “Ah, God doesn’t like what I’m doing.” It was, no, God is calling you to a measure of righteousness that you’re not used to, that you’re uncomfortable with, but he is big enough to be with you in it. So I think that moment when I was 19, it did something to my entire Christian faith where it was like God is real. God is big. He’s serious. But He’s also faithful.

How can you encourage people to move from an intellectual understanding to a personal and intimate understanding of holiness?

I think one, you should ask God to help you. You should say, “Hey Father, this stuff makes sense up here, but my heart isn’t changing.” Or, “God, this stuff is kind of starting to make sense, but I want my heart to change. Can you please move it down into my heart so it’s something I believe, it’s something I live, it’s something I know?” And because we’re dealing with a person, we’re not dealing with just these ideas and these frameworks. These frameworks introduce us and explain God. And so that would be my first advice is to talk to God and beg Him through the power of his Spirit, to use the words that you are learning about his holiness to make them real life to you. And I trust and believe God wants to do that. And He will.

In your book, you talk about how people become so used to the idea of God that we treat Him as commonplace. the Bible also encourages us with the immanence/closeness of God, and especially the nearness of Jesus. How can Christians hold both truths together, and how can we tell if we have teetered too far one way or another?

I’ll answer the second, which I think will answer the first. I think one example of someone treating God as commonplace is Uzzah in Samuel, where the Ark is about to fall, Uzzah reaches out his hand to try to keep the ark from falling on the ground, he touches it, and the Lord strikes him dead. I think what you see there is someone who became too familiar with the things of God, and in becoming too familiar with the things of God, he disobeyed the Law of God. The ark was [supposed to be] put on poles on your shoulders to carry it. But they put the thing on a cart, so you’ve already set yourself up for failure! But the crazy, sneaky thing is him reaching out his hand to try to keep the ark from falling looked like faithfulness to many people, I’m sure, even people reading the passage now. It’s like he was just trying to help. And it’s like, we’re using terms that the Bible doesn’t use. The Bible says he was in error, right.

And so I think one end is not treating Gods so familiar in such a way that you actually start to believe that you can disobey His law and He’s okay with it. That’s one. I think the other side, which you see a lot in the church, are those who are very familiar with the Scriptures, very familiar with the transcendence of God, but their faith looks dead. There’s no joy there. There’s no power there. There’s no intimacy there. And I think they have forgotten that they are dealing with a true, immanent, living Being that is not only present among them, but in them. So I think that’s how you, you tier it. God is big and He does have a law and he does have a standard that should be obeyed and he is transcendent. He is above and beyond. But He also was close and near and he wants to know me. He speaks to me and He wants me to speak back. How do we tether that? I don’t know. Maybe faith? Say, “You are big, but you are close, and I need to love you and navigate that all at the same time.”

The Bible on many occasions has the logic that because God is holy, His people should be holy too. Where do Christians commonly go astray as they try to pursue holiness, and what is the corrective?

It would really suck to be pursuing something, and actually not be pursuing it at all, you know? To get to the end of your life and realize, oh, you were actually pursuing legalism. You were thinking that doing x, y, z, 1, 2, 3 was good enough. But it wasn’t because you can’t be good enough, right? Like Christ had to be good enough for you. And so I think the order matters.

...they were teaching me “how to be holy” by teaching me all the right things to do. But they were failing at pointing me to a Person. Click to Tweet

This is something that I experienced going to a super legalistic church for a season, and they were teaching me “how to be holy” by teaching me all the right things to do. But they were failing at pointing me to a Person. It wasn’t even a Person really. It wasn’t about pursuing God. It was about make sure you read your Bible. Make sure you pray. Did you witness today? Oh, you had a bad thought? Did you cast it down? It just became a super joyless Christianity. I think Hebrews tells us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Corinthians talks about how by beholding the glory of the Lord, we are changed.

And so I think the Scriptures actually put emphasis on looking at God. And as you look at God, your affections rise, you see how trustworthy He is, how good He is, and He’s not a liar, that He’s good, that He died, that He rose, and by seeing Him, you begin to trust Him. And so by trusting Him, you read the Scriptures and you say, “Man, even if they don’t even make sense to me, even if it don’t feel right, I’m gonna believe this thing, I’m gonna do what He said because it’s a good thing to do.” And by doing what He said, you then start to see that you become holy, and you weren’t even thinking about it. You were just looking at God.

And so I do think there’s a way in which our attention just needs to be diverted back to God. And I think that it makes the whole thing a little bit easier. It don’t mean it ain’t hard. It is terrifying and excruciating to obey God. It is. Because God tells you to let go of things that you love. God tells you to let go of things that you want, like if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. Obviously a metaphor, but that obviously speaks to the hurt that obedience can be. But at the end of the day, either I believe that God is good in what He said, or that my ideas of what obedience should be like are better. And that’s the tension.

One of the reputations that Christians may have, ironically, is a “holier than thou” attitude, where they look down on other people who seem less “holy.” How would you counsel Christians to pursue holiness without coming across as judgmental or self-righteous?

Well, I think there’s a difference between looking self-righteous and being self-righteous. So we have to acknowledge that like, in this society, there are there are ways in which you speaking against certain things is going to automatically look judgmental, and so don’t avoid the perception; avoid the being it.

The thing about holiness is that it's holy to be humble. Humility comes, I believe, through self-awareness and complete honesty about what you see. Click to Tweet

The thing about holiness is that it’s holy to be humble. Humility comes, I believe, through self-awareness and complete honesty about what you see. I think prideful people are people that are living a delusion. You believe you are better, greater, smarter, more morally superior, more wonderful, I guess a better version of image bearer than everyone else. And that’s not reality, right?

And so I think the humble person is the person that says, “You know what, I was deserving of death too, and it’s only through the grace and the mercy and the power of God through His Spirit that I received this grace and believe it and keep believing it. I am still very needy, I’m still very dependent.” And I think that positions you in a way where you just don’t see people as less than. You see people as the same. Everybody is made in the image of God. Everybody deserves dignity and honor. It doesn’t matter what they believe in. If they believe differently, they deserve respect in the inward parts. And so that’s what I would council. Be honest with who you are and what you are, and by doing so, you will be humbled.

You dedicated this book to your children. Thinking of this, how do you think the church should try to instill a sense of the holiness of God for the children in our midst?

I’m not super experienced in this part, so I don’t know because all of my children under six. So a lot of what I do is trying to correct what I’ve observed in my friendships. What I mean by that is, I wasn’t raised with Christian parents. I wasn’t even really raised in church. But I have a lot of friends that were in it. When I have conversations with them, it seems as if one of the biggest deterrents to their own process with holiness is seeing hypocrisy in their home. And so I assume that that will be a super baseline thing, and teaching kids about the holiness of God is to actually show them and actually be it.

But I think as a parent – and this is me processing – I think as a parent, I’m still walking through and figuring out it, even just trying to get counsel on how do you show your children and teach your children that God is holy, while at the same time making sure that they can trust that he’s approachable? I just want them to love God from the heart and seeing that as a holy thing too. If you find out, send me a book, and I’ll read it!

Speaking of books, you’re on a roll with writing books. Do you have anything kind of marinating in there, a next book or next project that you’re thinking of?

I’m taking a break, if you want to call it that, because now I’m in school, I’m pregnant with my fourth, I’m working on an audiobook with Crossway. And so I’m trying to chill out, but I do want to do a Bible study on Leviticus. I did one on Jude. I like doing the books that people are afraid to get into. It will be hard, but it’d be fun. I also think it’d be beautiful to show Jesus through this book that is often avoided. And so yeah, I just think we would we would appreciate the atonement on a different level if we actually studied it.

That’s all the questions that I have for you. Is there anything else that you wanted to add?

Yeah, I guess I’ll just add that my entire heart for the book is that people will read it and walk away impressed with God. But not only impressed with God, where it just is in your brain, but impressed with God to the point that it transforms your faith. And by transforming your faith, you just start living holy because you trust Him, you know? That is really all I want, is people to trust God more.


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Written by Timothy I. Cho

Timothy Isaiah Cho is Associate Editor at Faithfully Magazine. Timothy’s bylines have appeared in Religion News Service and Reformed Margins, and he has been interviewed for several podcasts including Truth’s Table and Gravity Leadership Podcast. He also runs a personal blog on Medium. He received a Master of Divinity from Westminster Seminary California and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from U.C. Berkeley. Email: timothy.cho (at) faithfullymagazine.com

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