“Your sins have separated you from your God, and they have hidden his face from you so that he will not listen to you.”Isaiah 59:2
There are at least two ways to view this verse.
- One would be to view God as too pure to be around anyone or anything that is sinful, so when we sin God reacts to the presence of sin by distancing himself and plugging his ears. It almost seems like God would be or could be somehow damaged or corrupted by sin if God doesn’t keep a safe distance from it.
- The other is that when we sin, the barrier or separation is caused not by an automatic Divine defense mechanism, but by us, in which we understand God as always facing us, always wanting to listen to and engage in relationship with us, but us choosing to distance ourselves.
I think the latter best expresses the truth of the God who we see fully revealed in Jesus. And here are a few lines of thought as to why.
In the earliest depictions of sin in the Bible, it is not God that hides from Adam and Eve, but the other way around. Instead of hiding from the sinful humans, God goes looking for them and calling to them. This is a theme that is quickly repeated with Cain (see Genesis 4:8-16) and sets the tone for the rest of Scripture.
God is like a doctor, and it would be a pretty poor doctor who hid from the sight of blood. God is like a light, and it is the very nature of light to illumine and overcome darkness. John’s gospel says that light (see John’s intro for who the Light is!), rather than cowering away from the world, “has come into the world”. Humans, John continues, “loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.” It seems that if ever there is a problem in the communication with or distance from God, it’s not God that built the wall – it’s humans.
There is a verse in Habakkuk which says “your eyes are too pure to look upon evil”. This is a complaint from Habakkuk. He’s protesting God’s apparent patience with evil people. In the very next line he questions why God continues to “look on those who deal treacherously”. Why does God do what Habakkuk thinks he shouldn’t do? Because God is not only more holy than we can imagine but more loving than we can believe.
So it really is important and life changing that God’s basic and consistent orientation towards his children is that of loving desire for relationship. God is not vulnerable to being corrupted or thrown off balance by sin. His nature is to encounter it, to forgive it, to bear it, to heal it and to enact a victory over it.
I think there is more to be said about this however…
God’s faithful determined presence with us in spite of sin does not mean God’s indifferent posture or benign acquiescence to the tragedy of sin. That’s not the case in Genesis, John, Isaiah, Habakkuk or anywhere. God stays for a reason. God pursues us for a purpose. To transform us.
When we sin, it doesn’t send God running for safety but it does something. It doesn’t change God, but it does affect us.
So having established that God is not the kind of God who hides from sin, we can ask, how does God relate to sin? How does God seek us out to deal with our sin?
Starting with the Garden and going forward, the God who is present with us in spite of our sin, still warns us, often through other people or other means, of the ways in which sin will harm and beat us up if we don’t take it seriously. Warning someone doesn’t mean shaming them or blaming them. It can indeed mean loving them. If you do that, it will hurt! Keep away from that! Those are words of love.
A second way that the ‘God who is present in spite of our sin’ responds to our sin is to discipline us. If words of loving warning don’t work, then loving discipline may. I think often times this discipline comes in the form of allowing us to encounter sin’s consequences. Whether it be the Babylonians, losing a job, a friend or your freedom, painful consequences can drive us to the point of being willing to do what I need to do to change.
Another passage in Romans 1 reveals that God at times will eventually “give us over” to our sin if we persist in it. This too, doesn’t suggest for a moment that God’s basic nature and inclination towards relationship and love has changed one bit. It’s not that God hides from us when we persist with sin to the point where it is engrained in our lives. No. The point here is not that God ‘gives us over’ to sin in order to keep a safe distance from us, but rather that God ‘gives us over’ to it because that may be the only way we will come to our senses. There is a distinction here between God ‘leaving us’ and God ‘leaving us to it’. If we consistently fail to listen to God’s warnings, we may need to be left to our own devices to encounter the consequences of our sin. I think of the Prodigal Son story here. The Father’s love for both his sons is consistent. He waits for the younger brother to return, and he goes out and pleads with the older brother to join in the welcome home party. But he does not follow the younger son. Instead he seems to ‘give him over’ to his plans, all the while looking, watching and waiting patiently for him to come to his senses and come back. This is not a picture of a God who is indifferent or angry, turning away in disgust. This is a vision of a Father who consistently longs for reconciliation. This may be a helpful way to understand the words from Isaiah 59:2 about God not listening to us. It’s not that God doesn’t desire to listen. It’s just that the distance created by us means that God can’t listen.
So hopefully this reflection is helpful, not only to have a bedrock conviction about the steadfast love of God who seeks out and saves sinners, but also to take sin seriously enough to avoid it and run away from it, into the arms of the Father who is present and waiting for you in spite of it.