Can the desire for holiness be a distraction? Or to rephrase the question: Can one's quest for personal or communal holiness be so intense that it is actually detrimental to the Christian life? Before the question can be answered, we must address a presupposition to the question; namely, that holiness isn't God's ultimate aim in this present evil age. In other words, in order for holiness to be a distraction, there must be something besides holiness that could get shafted by the pursuit of holiness. In spite of the many verses concerning God's will for our holiness, I think that the pursuit of holiness can be, though by no means has to be, a distraction for the Christian. I'll lay out this argument point by point.
1. The aim of the Christian in this present evil age is to find his place in the making of disciples in all people groups. There is such a thing as the gospel and it is to be proclaimed to all creation and then the end will come. Jesus, Paul, Peter and John clearly connect the mission of gospel proclamation and the second coming of Jesus. Scripture promises the return of Christ when the elect are called out from all people groups in the world. Jesus didn't promise his return when a certain number of people stop drinking or eating too much cake or scratching off tickets or wearing bikinis.
2. If Jesus' primary aim for the Christian in this present evil age is personal holiness, then he would take the Christian out of this present evil age where he will forever be perfect in Heaven. Notice that I'm not saying holiness isn't a goal or a worthy pursuit. And I'm certainly not saying that holiness doesn't have a place in actually fulfilling the great commission. We must be a light so that others see the shining. But I am saying holiness is not the ultimate pursuit or priority here and now. Mission is.
3. Therefore, anything that stands in the way of mission is a distraction from the ultimate goal of the Christian life.
A. For some folks, sin will distract from mission. Lust and greed and ambition and sloth get in the way. For example, some are so enamored by pornography and the consequent guilt that they can't get out of the house long enough to make a disciple. Christ's mission will have to wait until they overcome their passions. Others are so smitten by success that they can't stop thinking about work long enough to focus on God's mission. So sin keeps them distracted with things that don't matter. The devil has these Christians right where he wants them - on the sidelines so captivated by their own sinful desires that God's real mission isn't even a blip on the radar.
B. On the other hand, folks are distracted by the pursuit of holiness. For example, some men are so worried that they might lust that they can't even talk to the cute girl next door long enough to be an ambassador for Christ. They feel like they've accomplished something for God by just avoiding her altogether. Let someone else reach her. And some women are so concerned with modesty that they fret over whether the blue eyeliner looks more trampy than the beige and feel like they've accomplished something for God when they finally throw the immodest makeup and shirt and shorts and shoes and slacks in the trash. They feel good about selfishly spending all their money on themselves if the clothes they buy are modest. Others fret over whether they can drink a beer or not, eat a piece of cheesecake or not, listen to Jay Z or not, watch Harry Potter or not, read The Shack or not, play poker or not, buy a car or not, homeschool their children or not, have non-Christian friends or not and the list goes on. Just like the sinful folks, the devil also has these Christians right where he wants them - on the sidelines so captivated by their own pursuit of holiness that God's real mission isn't even a blip on the radar.
4. Sin and the pursuit of holiness do not have to distract from the Christian life.
A. Those caught in the vicious cycle of struggle... sin... shame... sequester... struggle... sin... shame... sequester... need to realize all the shame and solitude in the world is not going to atone for the nasty people they are. Christ came to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14). So when people succumb to their particular lusts, they need to repent of their sin - if hourly, then hourly, if daily, then daily, if yearly, then yearly. Repentance is not so much turning from committing a sin to not committing that sin, but rather turning from self to God's mission. So the man who looked at porn for the 500,000,000th time after swearing yet again to never do it again needs to fall on Christ, swear yet again, and then GO MAKE DISCIPLES. What other option is there? Reserve himself for hell and just give up?
B. Those caught in the vicious cycle of thinking that God left them here to see how well they could fight against their lusts in the privacy of their own homes need to realize that Christ knew their nastiness when he called them. Christ came to perfect for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14). So when people delude themselves into thinking that taking up their cross is giving up watching Modern Family, or trading in a two-piece suit for a one-piece, or trading in sugar for Splenda, or giving up bowling for sitting at home on the couch, they need to repent of their righteousness. Taking up the cross is about trading a selfish agenda - one that loves sin or one that loves trying to avoid sin - for a missional agenda where spreading the gospel shapes the Christian's priorities.
For those who think I'm off my rocker, I give you Jesus: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." He told us his priority loud and clear. But it is easier for us to sit at home debating whether chicken is more holy than steak or Spongebob is more holy than Family Guy than leaving both off to go and tell someone else about Jesus. Or enjoying either for a time of relaxation between telling people about Jesus. Or watching them with non-Christians while telling them about Jesus during the commercials. There is joy in Heaven over folks who fight sin. BUT there is more joy in Heaven when a sinner comes to Christ than when a righteous person makes yet another righteous choice. So why do we spend so much energy debating with ourselves and others a secondary cause of joy to God when he has told us what really floats his boat? Could we be distracted by holiness?