“Being clean is a sign of spiritual purity or goodness … cleanliness is next to godliness.” This sentiment was uttered by John Wesley in a sermon over two centuries ago, yet it is still being espoused today as a virtue worth possessing. But is cleanliness really next to godliness, or is the proverb outdated and even, quite possibly, misleading?
The Origins of the Phrase
It is unclear, exactly, why the connection between cleanliness and godliness ever originated. In 1605, nearly 200 years before John Wesley held his infamous sermon, Sir Francis Bacon wrote, “Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.” This concept maybe came from the Israelites, who were particularly concerned with the concepts of “clean” and “unclean.”
According to Mosaic Law, God’s people are to avoid “unclean” things. However, the scripture does not cite dust, dirt and an unkempt appearance as things that are dirty. Rather, it refers to dead bodies and carcasses, certain types of meat, bodily discharges and leprosy. If a person were to come into contact with an item or substance considered “dirty,” that individual could make himself or herself clean again through elaborate washing rituals. For the Jewish, these rituals were essential to reentering the community and sanctuary of the Lord, and they are considered necessary before one can approach God.
What the Bible Says
Though the Jewish culture places a lot of emphasis on cleanliness, nowhere in the Bible does it state that outward cleanliness has a connection to godliness. In fact, Jesus’s actions in the New Testament seem to disprove the sentiment entirely. In Matthew 7:18-23, the Pharisees — a people who questioned Jesus’s teachings — adhered to the Old Testament, which included requirements and ceremonies much like those detailed in Mosaic Law. When their Messiah came to them, He saw that they had been so focused on their efforts to obtain righteousness that they completely turned their backs on Him. Jesus told them that though they diligently studied the Scriptures, they did not possess eternal life. For all their attentiveness to cleanliness, they were far from godliness.
Jesus Was Most At Home in “Mess”
Not only does the Bible make a case against obsessive cleanliness, but also Jesus’s very actions suggest that one is closest to God when he puts himself amidst the mess of life. For instance, Jesus worked tirelessly through the pain and grit to turn a chaotic people into people of God. He preached in dust-hewn Jerusalem. He met with tax collectors, sinners and lepers — the “messiest people of all,” according to the Bible.
It is clear Jesus was unperturbed by the sweat and grime characteristics of daily life, but what about God? God is most evident when our lives become a mess, because it is He who steps in, He who sees beyond the tangled web of our lives and He who guides us toward miracles. This right here, and the fact that you and other believers turn to God when your life is in upheaval, is evidence that He does not turn His back on the messy.
An Overwhelming Urge To Clean May Be a Sign
If you are overcome with an overwhelming desire to scrub your kitchen floors, clean the walls, organize your closet and declutter your home, it may not be your physical surroundings that need cleaning but rather your soul. If you feel as if your physical spaces are dirty, think about what your soul really yearns for, and look to God for guidance. It may just be that your soul yearns for you to let Jesus in and wash away the filth you didn’t know you had let accumulate.