There’s a fairly prevalent idea out there in Christianity that our sins separate us from God because God can’t be in the presence of sin. But is it true that God pulls back from us because we’re too dirty for Him, or is there something else going on?
The idea that God can’t be around sin is largely based on a verse in Habakkuk that reads, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13, KJV). When we look at the context, though, we see God just told Habakkuk He planned to work with the vicious Chaldeans, and this verse is part of Habakkuk asking God why He would ever associate with such wickedness.
If we accept the premise that Jesus was and is fully God (as I believe we should), then we know God doesn’t shrink back from sin as if scared to get His hands dirty. Rather, He dives right in among sinners so that He can wipe sin away and replace it with holiness. God gets close to sinful people so He can set things right.
But there are also verse that talk about iniquity separating us from God and revealing that God will not fellowship with evil. While we don’t have to worry that we’re so filthy God wouldn’t touch us, if we want a close relationship with Him we need to figure out what’s going on here.
The first verse that comes to my mind when studying this subject is found in Isaiah’s message to Israel:
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear. (Is. 59:1-2, KJV)
God can always hear. But in this case, the Israelites had rejected God’s way of life so consistently that they’d built a separation between them and God and He turned His face away. (You can keep reading in Isaiah 59 to see exactly what they’d done to get to this point.) The phrase “hid His face from you” seems to be the opposite of God making His face shine on you and lifting His countenance up on you (phrases contained in the Aaronic blessing).
The word for face, paniym (H6440), is often used metaphorically to include a person’s entire attention. When the Bible speaks of God turning His face toward us, it typically carries the idea of Him having favor on and accepting us. The opposite, God hiding His face, would mean He does not have favor on nor accept us. It’s not that He can’t be around people who’ve sinned, but that He will not approve of and associate with the unrepentantly sinful.
God chooses not to mix the holy and profane. It would violate His sense of justice and goodness. Things opposite His perfect character are abominations to Him. He’s not scared of or limited by your sins, but He will not build a relationship with you if you refuse to let go of iniquity. When we will not repent of our sin, we’re choosing it over God.
This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7, KJV)
It would be inaccurate to say God can’t be around sin, but it is accurate that He will not fellowship with people living in darkness. We might even say that sin “knows” it should not exist in the presence of God. There are multiple occasions where the Bible recounts an encounter between humans and God that involves the person hiding or expressing shame or being scared because they know they’re not “good enough” to exist in the holy presence (Adam and Eve, for example).
When the Lord appeared to Isaiah, it is Isaiah who says, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Is. 6:5, KJV). After this, a seraphim touches his lips with a coal form the altar and tells him his iniquity was taken away. After Isaiah is cleansed, the Lord initiates a relationship.
Notice the pattern: God makes Himself apparent, the person acknowledges their sin and is cleansed, and then God initiates a relationship with them. That’s what happens with us, too. God will give of Himself while we’re still sinners (Rom. 5:8), but He wants His presence to change something in us. It’s only after we repent and let Him wash us clean that we can truly start building a relationship with Him.
You Need Repentance
God will reveal Himself to sinful people with the desire that they recognize their need for relationship with Him. He’s the light that shines in darkness, even though that darkness does not always comprehend what’s going on (John 1:5). When we’re blind to the Light’s message that we need to walk in His light, that’s when our sins separate us from God.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9, KJV)
We must realize our need for repentance and then take steps to change if we want to know God (1 John 2:1-6). God will forgive us, but He expects us to ask first. And then He expects us to bring forth the fruits that accompany sincere repentance (Luke 3:7-9).
As we approach Passover this year, we need to ask, “Are there sins separating us from God?” If there are, it’s because we’ve been holding on to those sins. Sometimes we do that without even knowing about it, which is why we also need to ask God to examine us. It’s up to us to repent of our sins and ask God to restore a close relationship with Him. He’s there, shining light into the world. Will we live in the light with Him? or slip into darkness and build walls between ourselves and God? It’s our choice.