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.