Is God offended by our sin?

Is God offended by our sin? February 2, 2015
"God is angry," Matt Katzenberger, Flickr CC
“God is angry,” Matt Katzenberger, Flickr CC

What is God’s attitude toward our sin? How you answer this question says a lot about your theology. According to conservative evangelical Christianity, Jesus had to die on the cross to satisfy the wrath of God against our sins. Since conservative evangelicalism commits itself to affirming that nobody deserves heaven without Jesus’ sacrifice, that means that God’s moral standards must be defined in such a way that basically decent people who aren’t Christian deserve to be tortured forever. The result is that God appears to be the infinitely picky, uncompromising school principal of the universe. The contemplative Christianity of Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton that has shaped me depicts God very differently as a still, small voice of infinitely patient, unconditional love who is almost always drowned out by the loud noise of our world’s idolatry. In contemplative Christianity, sin describes the actions and attitudes that prevent my heart from connecting with the very delicate signal of God’s love. To boil it down to a matter of verb choice, for conservative evangelicals, sin offends God, while for more progressive, contemplative Christians, sin drowns out God’s voice. So which way of talking about God is right? Or is there a way to reconcile these very different depictions?

Chad Holtz is a conservative evangelical United Methodist pastor whose blog I follow in order to wrestle and be challenged. Chad has a tremendous ministry to men who are suffering from pornography and sexual addiction. While I cannot seem to make myself experience the tough drill sergeant side of God that is so essential to Chad’s theology, I’ve noticed that many people who have been through recovery from addiction come out of it with a hard-ass God. I am learning to respect the fact that some Christians need conservative evangelical theology to survive. I’ve decided to believe that God truly is walking with them and is accommodating their spiritual needs even though he accommodates mine very differently.

In any case, Chad wrote a post recently about the difference between experiencing “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow” in reaction to our sins. He used a very creative metaphorical reading of the Egyptian pharaoh’s hardness of heart in the story of Exodus in response to the plagues that God sent to liberate his Israelite people from slavery. After each plague, the pharaoh would say to Moses that this time he was going to let the Israelites go. So Moses would ask God to do away with the plague, but then the pharaoh would change his mind. Chad compared the pharaoh’s flakiness to the way that many addicts resolve to stop each time they get caught and see the damage done to their families, but when life gets normal again, they fall right back into their addiction. Chad sees the difference between relapse and successful recovery as the difference between worldly and godly sorrow over our sins:

Worldly sorrow is being sorry that I’ve been caught, that my choices have caused so much pain in my life and in the lives of others, and that this situation is extremely inconvenient for all involved.  Godly sorrow, on the other hand, includes all of that but has an additional, essential element.  It’s sorrow that my actions have grieved God’s heart and have put separation between Him and I.  It’s to realize that my sin has offended a holy God and, worse of all, I am making a mockery of the great sacrifice made on my behalf when Jesus shed his blood for me.

I think Chad may have tweaked his post since I originally read it or else I’m just seeing it differently now. I agree with almost everything here, but for some reason, the word “offended” offends my sensibilities, and I’m trying to figure out why that is. Because of the way I have been shaped by the contemplative Christian stream in which I’ve been swimming for the past decade and a half, it’s hard for me to make a statement like “my sin has offended a holy God.” I think it might be because of the way the word “offended” is used in our culture in association with political correctness and people who freak out if someone says “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” To be offended is to have thin skin, and it doesn’t make sense to me to imagine God having thin skin because I really believe and tell people all the time that God “can handle anything.”

But maybe there’s a different way to understand the “offense” of our sin. In Isaiah 6, the prophet Isaiah encounters the fully glory of God in the Jerusalem temple and his response is to cry out in terror, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts.” God doesn’t do or say anything menacing to provoke this response from Isaiah. God doesn’t tell Isaiah how offensive his unclean lips are. Rather, the offense of Isaiah’s sin in the presence of God’s holiness is something that Isaiah experiences. In response to Isaiah’s terror, God sends a seraph to purify his lips with a coal from the altar fire. Then Isaiah calms down and gains the courage to accept God’s prophetic call upon his life. In many years of reflecting on this passage, the best way I can understand it is to say that God is so incredibly beautiful that our sin will make us feel woefully ugly in his presence.

The problem is not that God has thin skin, but that God’s nature is perfect truth. When our lives are dishonest because of sin, it’s torture to stand spiritually naked in the presence of truth. In John 3:21, Jesus describes this in terms of light and darkness. Even though God’s light provides the incredible intimacy and freedom of communion with God, we prefer darkness to light when our deeds and thoughts are shameful. Because God remains unseen in our life on earth, we can come up with all kinds of delusions to justify our sin and make it seem perfectly reasonable to us. We don’t have to live with true integrity on the inside; we can set the bar much lower and satisfy ourselves with living in such a way that we don’t bother the people around us. Of course, the state of our soul will ultimately spill out into our actions and relationships, but we can make do by addressing the symptoms of our sin when they arise instead of rooting out the brokenness at our core. As long as we live without integrity, our relationship with God is going to be a farce. We might say a whole litany of reassuring platitudes to ourselves about God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, but we won’t really believe them and they won’t do us any good.

So if I were to modify Chad’s statement a little bit, I would say that our sin is offensive in its contrast with the beautiful holiness of God. I don’t think that God loves us any less or wants communion with us any less desperately. But we put a wall up between us and God when we live without integrity. It’s not enough to basically get along with the people around us. That bar is the “worldly” level of understanding sin. When we live merely on that level, the plagues will keep coming back as our inner disquiet provokes us into harmful behaviors. We cannot address sin symptomatically. The “godly” attitude about sin that Chad describes is to have your life shaped by a desperate longing for communion with God. To put it in my contemplative terms, our one life goal around which everything else revolves should be to synchronize ourselves to the voice of the Holy Spirit and beg God to crucify anything about us that interferes with that synchronicity. Sin is not only that which harms others directly, but anything which tunes us out of hearing God’s voice. Living in synchronicity with the Spirit, all of our earthly actions and relationships will become godly.

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  • karlkroger

    I appreciate your attempt to articulate a more holistic understanding of the consequences of sin. I would add that sin also disrupts and causes harm to our relationships (with self, others, God, and creation). To echo Chad, this is what grieves the heart of God. And it’s this disruption of relationship, particularly with God that makes it more difficult to hear God’s voice. I agree with you, that God does not get offended by our sin; that would be a petty response to our brokenness.

    I continue to be perplexed by the effectiveness of creating a mean God. And while I’m thankful for some level of diversity in the Body of Christ, and in people’s approaches to growing in faith, I can’t help but believe that even when justification and discipleship occur as a result of fear-based tactics, that’s not the approach we should be taking, and that’s not the God we should be revealing. That’s not to say progressives can’t grow a backbone, and actually name sin for what it is, and tell people to stop grieving the heart of God.

  • Karen

    Brennan Manning suggests that fear of the Lord, in Hebrew Bible speak, means “radical amazement, affectionate awe, and silent wonder at the infinite goodness of God.” To read offense into God’s desire, if fear is that context, suggests to me, almost a lament, on the part of God, deep sadness that one has not yet tapped in to the profound connection which is Holy, and which is wholeness. We fear “offending” God–because Love of that capacity and caliber is absolutely deadly. It reorients all that we are and all that we have.

  • GaryLyn

    The whole idea of sin offending God…to me, it goes completely against the arc of the biblical narrative. Over and over, God’s response is not offense; instead, God strives to woo those who have chosen against him. From the very beginning…God says if you eat of the tree, you will die. They eat of the tree but they don’t die; instead, graciously provides clothing. After the flood, God decide that never again will he act this way, even when humanity continues to reject him. The whole story of covenant is God making a commitment of passionate fidelity to people he love. In Hosea, the prophet speaks of the struggle in God’s heart: my people have turned away from me, they deserve my anger, but my love keeps me from doing that. Yes, there are statements of God’s anger, but most of them are not about an offending honor, but the hurt/grief of a betrayed covenant partner.
    So I don’t get the whole offended God storyline. As one of my religion professors would say from time to time: That’ll preach. It’s not true. But it will preach!!

  • > a desperate longing for communion with God.

    “Desperate” is a pretty accurate description of the longing for an imaginary friend.

    “…Christians have strong incentives to delude themselves into believing.”

  • Eric

    God being personally angry with my sin?
    I’m less convinced about that, given that He gave Judah 400 years and countless prophets to turn them back to Him… The counter-argument would be that God got angry at Moses (Who met with Him “as a friend”) when he struck the rock instead of just speaking to it (the second time around), but that would be eisegesis of God’s heart condition since the text in Numbers 20.12 doesn’t say that God was angry (God’s not shy about saying when He is angry, esp. to His prophets, so I can’t see God holding back, here.)….

    A different definition…:
    God *does* have “thin skin”, but only as that means that God feels everything, since God is completely vulnerable, not petty or finicky. If God feels so much when someone afflicts one of His children [Zechariah 2.8b states that when someone hurts His children it’s as if someone poked him in his cornea (apple of the eye)], I would imagine that it would feel just as much (if not more) if someone hurt him (even though that hurting would not change Who God Is essentially.).

  • Mark

    Another excellent post. I’m new to your writing and am finding it very helpful. Thank you!

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    The greatest wrath we can ever feel is directed against those we love the most when they are being the most self-destructive. Such wrath is not in conflict with love, but is an essential part of it. If you will the good of another, what could you hate more than the beloved perusing his own destruction? God’s wrath is a real and serious matter, but it aims at redemption rather than damnation.