“God is too holy to look upon sin.”
If you grew up in the Evangelical church, or are otherwise familiar with mainstream Evangelical theology, you have probably heard this statement at one point or another.
It is plucked from the book of Habakkuk and often excluded from its context, typically with the goal of instilling in people a sense of distance from God – as if he is too good to even look at them.
“God is too holy to be around sinners,” they say.
The idea is that God’s holiness entails a powerful disgust and anger with humanity and a general inability to corrupt his pure eyes by even looking upon us, so vile are we! He must avoid us like the plague.
It’s as if God in his perfect Heaven hasn’t built up an immunity to a fallen world. He can’t even be around that stuff! It could contaminate or corrupt him! If you are God, you just can’t be around a fallen world!
The problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that God threw himself into this fallen world in Christ. There was no special protection that God-in-Christ had when he assumed our flesh. God was conceived and born from the flesh of our humanity, grew up in the midst of our sin, reached out and touched us in our most corrupted, demon-oppressed states, and took our sin and infirmities upon himself all the way to death.
But never mind Jesus, we’re talking about Habakkuk. I mean, it says it right there! “Your eyes are too pure to see evil, and You cannot look on wickedness” (Hab. 1:13).”
That Moment You Keep Reading…
The only problem is, if you don’t stop right there in mid-verse, but keep reading, you end up getting a very different idea from this passage. Habukkuk continues, “Why then do You look on those who deal treacherously?”
Hold on. What did he just say? This next question implies that God actually does look at sinners. Is this the actual conclusion of the verse?
Habakkuk 1:13 is actually expressing Habakkuk’s confusion as to why God is NOT behaving according to his beliefs about God.
Habakkuk is saying, “God! You’re too holy to look upon sinners! So why do you?”
How many of us have been taught that God is too holy to look upon sin? This perspective hinders us from truly seeing God in the face of Christ and relating to the God whom Jesus came to reveal – to Abba, our Father.
Those who believe “God is too holy to be around sinners” have missed the point of the entire gospel. You know, that part about God becoming flesh and dwelling in the midst of humanity. That’s a really, really important part. What’s more, Jesus actually went out of his way to spend time with drunkards, thieves, and prostitutes. He was called “the friend of sinners.”
Either God lost his holiness when he came to earth, or the idea that Gods holiness is allergic to sinners doesn’t hold up to inspection. (Hint: it’s the second one).
The Pharisees were “too holy” to be around sin, but not Jesus. God is like Jesus, not like the Pharisees. Sometimes when describing God’s holiness, people end up describing an omnipotent Pharisee rather than the God we see revealed by Jesus. God’s holiness is not the holiness of the Pharisees. His holiness is wholly Christlike.
The incarnation obliterates this idea of distance between the sinner and a holy God. God has shown himself to be united to humanity in Christ. This was not something that began in 0 AD. It has ALWAYS been true, and it was revealed in Jesus.
The incarnation reveals God to be among us, in us, for us, and one of us. God’s holiness is Christ, and it shines all the brighter in its purity and love when blazing in our darkness, relentlessly pursuing humanity to bring redemption and restoration.
My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?
So the question is always asked, “What about when Jesus said ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ when he was on the cross (Matt 27:46)? Didn’t Jesus say that because he was taking on the sin of the world and so God had to forsake him because God can’t be near sin?”
To that, I want to make a quick point. Jesus was God. He was “the fullness of God in bodily form.” Jesus said that if you see him, you see the Father. When you see Christ on the cross, you are seeing the Father, not seeing the Father’s absence. You can’t separate Christ from God because you can’t separate Christ from Christ. Does that make sense?
The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one. They have shared this fellowship throughout eternity and can never be separated. Paul tells us precisely where God was located at the cross. Not absent of Jesus, rather “God was IN CHRIST reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
So why did Jesus cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Let’s remember not to separate Jesus from his divinity. It’s easy to picture Jesus down here and God up there when we think about this, but remember, this is God in the flesh crying out. The place to identify God is the broken, bloody man on the cross, not elsewhere.
With this context in mind, we can see that God-in-Christ was actually quoting King David, as he did so often, in this instance from Psalm 22:1.
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me
The cross was a device of torture. It was designed to make breathing difficult. When Jesus summoned the remainder of his strength to proclaim this single line, every studied man there would have known immediately what he was referencing.
King David wrote these words as a victim, in the anguish of his enemies gloating and triumphing over him. David felt forsaken by God, like there was no justice or vindication in the world.
That is what Psalm 22 is about. It is about victimization, which the systems of the world are built on. King David DID NOT write these words as a theological statement about his sin separating him from God. In fact, just 3 verses later, he proclaims:
In You our fathers trusted;
They trusted and You delivered them.
To You they cried out and were delivered;
In You they trusted and were not disappointed.
The cross is the way that Christ takes in order to receive all power and authority. He is trampling down the systems of this world to become King.
But how does he do it?
Jesus became King by becoming the victim of it all.
This is the way God takes to become the worlds rightful King. Not the way of violence and subjugation (the normal way of power which creates victims), but rather, God takes the way of becoming the victim of violence and subjugation.
A God Who Identifies With The Victimized
This is the subversive power of the gospel of the Kingdom, the power of God that puts the rulers of this age to shame. God is King of the world because he lays his life down in solidarity with the victims of the world. There is no other rightful universal King of love who will bring the world to justice than the one who empathizes with all victimization, violence, and suffering.
The world displays power and authority through dominance and subjugation. Jesus did so from the cross.
So the question is, in David’s unjust victimization at the hands of his enemies, did God actually forsake David? Of course not! The Psalm itself ends with David declaring that God has not turned his face from the victim but has vindicated him, just like he did with Christ.
You who fear the Lord, praise Him;
All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him,
And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel.
For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from him;
But when he cried to Him for help, He heard
So put in the context of the cross, Jesus cried these words showing that he was taking upon himself the sufferings of the victim. Jesus’ whole life is in solidarity with the marginalized, the outcast, the least of these, and the cross is no exception. Executed as an outcast criminal for unjust purposes, Christ becomes King and is given all power and authority. He is given the right to bring history to justice, because he fully knows the depths of the human experience.
This is what King David’s words were about: victimization – the apparent absence of God in the face of the meaningless injustice of the world. We all experience it to a degree. The absolute rape of meaning.
It’s baffling. Where is God? Seemingly nowhere. But Christ shows where God is. Not absent of the victim, but IN the victim.
God never forsook Jesus, but Jesus did drink the dregs of the human experience in all its suffering, which included all of our desperate cries as we felt hopeless and abandoned.
It is here that we find the the truth about how God views “sinners”. Not only is he ABLE to look upon us in all our dysfunction, but he actually came and dwelt among us, identifying and experiencing the weight of our suffering – a suffering inflicted upon us by both ourselves and others – so that we could be made whole.
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