From my earliest recollection I remember hearing the ‘gospel truth’ that God is love and therefore loves everyone. BUT he is also holy and cannot be in the presence of sin. In fact, any hint of sin is an abomination to him. This is the reason (so I was told) that Jesus came to earth: to die on the cross and take the punishment–pay the debt–for my sin, so the holy God could justly forgive me and see me ‘just-as-if-I’ve-never-sinned.’
Jesus then arrives on the scene and plays with my ingrained understandings. Here was the one who ‘showed us the Father,’ whose mission it was to reveal the nature of God to humanity. And he ate with sinners, went to their parties, drank with them, befriended demoniacs and prostitutes, and forgave . . . and loved . . . and healed . . . and made us believe that perhaps God wasn’t angry at us after all.
So what about that perfection that God demanded? The commands to ‘Be holy’ and ‘Be perfect’ ring around in my head. Can I ever attain perfection? Moral purity? No. Does God then turn his face away from me because I am a sinner?
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland in their book If Grace is True have this to say:
‘One of the ugliest ideas I’ve heard about God involves his attitude while Jesus was on the cross. I’ve often heard preachers say the reason it became dark at the moment of Christ’s death was because God, in his holiness, could not look upon sin. Jesus was bearing the sins of the world. Therefore, God turned his back on him.’
So God turns his back on his only son in his dying moments, yet looks on us with love? In any parental relationship, one would call it abusive of a parent to disown a son because of sin. This certainly wasn’t the case in the parable which told the story of love, forgiveness and acceptance that we know as ‘The Prodigal Son.’ Jesus himself, who said to the accusers of the adulterous woman, ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ also says that he did not come to call the [self-]righteous, but sinners (Mark 2:17).
God loves sinners. And quite frankly, I don’t think he minds being around sinners. He knows we sin. He understands our weaknesses. He comes to us and joins us in our journey–accepting us warts and all. If indeed Jesus was the revelation of the Father to us, then this must be true. His holiness, in my understanding of it, is not so much about not being able to be in the presence of sin as much as it is to be untainted by that sin–or better yet ‘untaintable.’
So God looked down on his son on the cross and his heart broke in the middle of that darkened day. How could he have turned away and ignored the pain and suffering Jesus endured? He looks down in love today at his creation and is moved with compassion. And he doesn’t turn his face away.