“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.
Thanks for reading! We’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments below! We aren’t easily offended, so have at it.
We’re breaking apart longstanding lies about God and finding Truth in the rubble. If you’d like to join us on that journey, enter your email below and we’ll drop you a brief line whenever we write something new.
Lissandro Farias says
My brothers, firstly, I’m Brazilian and secondly, I must say thatI loved this article you’ve written to launch the blog. I’m sure that GOD is going to use you each day more, and more important that that, may He inspire you! I will continually read your blog, as it was indicated by my favorite American blogger, Jacob McCasland! You are loved by the One! Lord’s peace be with you.
Jacob McMillen says
Lissandro! You’re the man! Sorry the Uncompromised Men posts have been few and far between lately! Thanks for reading and sharing!
Jacob Wright says
Thank you for your kind words Lissandro. Peace be with you also
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
We would have to open a theological forum do present this subject properly. There is little scripture supporting this article.
The fact is, the only way God can look upon us is in Christ. Sin is what separated us, and yes, scripture supports the fact. Habakkuk was not confused at all here.
The violent death Christ suffered on the cross give testimony to the divide sin has made. It makes His sacrifice all the more glorious, because of the divide. What love He has for us to endure the punishment for our sin. This is where we marvel. We in these earthen vessels cannot comprehend this kind of love. It seems to me this is your real struggle, not traditional evangelicalism. One must base his conclusions about God on scripture alone, not on the misrepretations of man.
Stephen Bosh says
As a boy in the ’50s, I was introduced to the concept of a God of punishment. So during a revival meeting I literally had the “hell” scared out of me. Very soon I will be 70 and I am still trying to accept that God loves me just as I am. This lesson helps me see that He is not ashamed of me because I don’t always live like the Christian I promised to be. I bet I’m not the only person who has doubts about my relationship with Christ, not because I don’t believe, not because I don’t try to live a Christ like life, but because much of what I grew up believing was slanted to frighten me into living a life in Christ. This is a very good first lesson, please continue!
Destiny McMillen says
That is an amazing and vital lesson to learn throughout your life, thanks for sharing!!!
Jacob Wright says
Thank you Stephen for being open about your struggle. I pray we can dive deeper into the Christ heart and discover there a Father who accepts us and delights in us. Bless you and be at peace.
Debbie Boutwell says
God love ‘ya…..I hope that struggle just fades away really soon <3
Elaine b. Jones says
wonderful intro to the truth of God our Father
Bruce Wayne says
Great read. It’s refreshing to read an article that reveals the heart of the Father. Will be looking forward to many more that re-examine the lies that we’ve been told.
Jacob Wright says
Thank you Mr. Wayne. And we are extremely thrilled to have the Batman on our side!
Jacob McMillen says
This is a great piece Jacob! I was unaware about the passage in David. That makes so much sense.
Dean Delker says
Great start, Jacob , and from what I know from Facebook you have tons of writings you can publish. I hope your following grows & grows as it helps further the inevitable increase of His Kingdom.
Theologian Dr. C. Baxter Kruger also says the quoting of (Ps 22:1) like Jesus did on the Cross, would have stimulated a mostly oral culture to replay the whole Psalm in their head with all it’s messianic overtones and victorious end. It would be like when we hear “She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” from the hit Beatles song.
Jacob Wright says
That’s absolutely right. They understood the phrase as being tied to the story, so when they heard it, it was as if Jesus was saying, yes, this how it seems and feels now, that I am God-forsaken, but this story has an end that you know full well. The victim is vindicated. Even so, Jesus drew his last breath and committed his outcome to the Father.
Jesse Ireland says
Thanks for the post. I love that you guys are blogging about one thing and one thing only: to show and reveal to the world that God is just like Jesus. It’s about time the world heard the true gospel and not this nonsense we see spewed all over the place. Preach it.
Jacob Wright says
Thank you Jesse!
Steve Nichols says
Jesus laid aside the privileges of heaven when He came to earth. He gave up His life for us and that involved living with us and living as us yet without sin. That meant that He had to live in the presence of sin. there is no presence of sin in heaven.
Sue Darrington says
Love it. Thanks for unpacking a scripture often quoted in relation to sin.
Good stuff. Looking forward to more.
Thanks for this post! I came across this post on Medium.com. I was impressed and checked out the Brazen church site. I like what I’ve seen so far. I’m in a strange place lately where I haven’t been able to get to my local church due to chronic fatigue syndrome while simultaneously cross-examining a lot of my fundamental beliefs. The local church around me – even my loving brothers and sisters in Christ – have difficulty with questions that challenge the standard Protestant Evangelical way of looking at and doing things. I look forward to seeing where your precision and passion leads! I suspect I may have somewhere to belong, if only occasionally according to your posts. Did that even make sense?
— Stumac (as in Stuart McDonald – but everyone calls me Stumac, and I like it).
Jacob McMillen says
Makes perfect sense Stumac (epic nickname btw).
There’s a lot of really great people in the Church who simply don’t feel the freedom to question. Psychologically speaking, the way most Evangelical Christians raise their kids can have long-lasting consequences in this regard. Here’s a very insightful piece on the topic – http://www.salon.com/2014/11/01/the_sad_twisted_truth_about_conservative_christianitys_effect_on_the_mind_partner/
We’re happy to have you with us on this journey!
I’ve enjoyed the read as well as the comments. The direction you went with the topic was different than I expected and was really a new revelation. “But Christ shows where God is. Not absent of the victim, but IN the victim.” Thanks! As I read the title I was anticipating the indwelling of the Holy Spirit inside sinful man discussion. Recently resolving my own personal struggles with that topic I was eager to jump into reading and discussing- only to realize that I was far from where you were. Ha! Looking forward to more
…and Stumac so glad you shared how you got the nickname so we all could enjoy your epicness…
Awesome post! I’m so glad I came across your website, as I share most of your views. (I just wish the font wasn’t so faint, as I have poor eye sight and it is hard to read for me.)
I think the key is that “God is like Christ” (and in Christ). I never quite heard the interpretation that Jesus cried out as a victim, but it makes sense. Powerful! Keep up the good work.
Jacob McMillen says
Hey Ingrid, I apologize for the font! What browser are you using? I can make you a little instructional on how to zoom in so the font is bigger if you’d like.
The font used when quoting scripture is a light grey and blends in to the background too much. Hard to read. maybe could go darker.
Jacob McMillen says
Hey Joe, thanks for mentioning. I agree. I should be able to change it.
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It seems as though the major storyline of the bible is the redemption & reconciliation of mankind/all creation to God Almighty. In order to accomplish this in the person of Jesus, God had to be the initiator. He has done that ever since redemption was necessary. To take one verse out of context in order to support a certain atonement theory is unfortunate. The reformed/neo reformed camps which make these types of theological moves with the holiness of God really slander his goodness in the process.They tend to create a picture of God where his transcendence swallows up his immanence. Instead we should look at Christ, especially Christ on the cross, where God’s transcendence is defined by his immanence. You have done a good job of pointing this out in this article. Thank you
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Love this article! It was only probably within the last year that I realized how backwards this kind of thinking is. If Jesus reveals God, then God is always moving towards sinners. If Jesus reveals God, then God couldn’t have killed Jesus because of our sin. Why? Because Jesus is God! Lately I’ve realized how desperate some our to hold onto this belief system. I mean they literally become furious when you question them about it. I’m not sure why yet, but it’s sad. I’m glad to see that more and more people are starting to question the traditions of fundamentalist evangelicalism. Thanks for the post Jacob!
You shared this on Twitter and asked what he thinks when he looks at me. I can imagine a face palm, and him wondering where he went wrong with this one. I just think there’s such a thing as too far gone. I’ve disappointed him more times than I can count. No, he doesn’t make mistakes. But add humans, we sure as heck find ways to.
(Resubmitted with correct email)
You shared this on Twitter and asked what he thinks when he looks at me. I can imagine a face palm, and him wondering where he went wrong with this one. I just think there’s such a thing as too far gone. I’ve disappointed him more times than I can count. No, he doesn’t make mistakes. But as humans, we sure as heck find ways to.
Finally! I am so relieved! I am a very old man (81) and I have carried the weight of misunderstanding the “My God, ….” phrase for at least 60 years. I recall the sermon when this bible quote was explained just as you have written … “God cannot look upon sin” way back then and wondered how God knew I was a sinner. I knew it. I was and am sure God has always known it, so an unnecessary conflict was born in me regarding God’s Word. Why I never made the connection to Psalm 22:1 is beyond me. I have known it was there but lacked the understanding. Somehow, I was faulting our Father for forsaking Jesus in His time of need and carrying another Satan induced doubt all this time. What a waste!
Thank you so much for the work you do. God has gifted you with a wonderful ability to convey the Truth of His Word. God bless you and your efforts!
Thank you Jesus for your sacrifice and always being with us, for our Father’s plan of salvation and for Holy Spirit’s guidance, companionship, and advocacy. Amen.