This post was written by my dear friend, Adam Barker. Adam is getting his Master's in Theology and Mission at Northern Seminary, and he is a thoughtful, brilliant, and well-spoken preacher and church leader. I asked him to write a post for this series, and he suggested this classic Christian cliché used to comfort uncertain followers of Jesus: "When God looks at you, he doesn't see you and your sin. He only sees Jesus."
(Check out other articles in the Silly Things Christians Say series.)
Don’t get me wrong - I understand the sentiment.
Like so many others, I’ve experienced such overwhelming guilt and shame caused by my sin that it was a relief to hear that “when God looks at me he doesn’t see me, he sees Jesus.” I received this as good news because I knew that if God saw me there’s a 0% chance he’d like what he saw (or so I believed). How could he? I know my own sin and brokenness all too well. If I don’t like what I see in myself and I’m unholy, how could God, who is perfectly holy and without sin, bear the sight of me?
Rather than our lives being “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), it's as if we've been taught that they are “hidden in Christ from God.” (Click to share on Twitter)
But what I’ve begun to see more recently is that the problem with this equation is not my sin and God’s disgust at it but my own conception of God’s forgiveness and holiness.
That’s not forgiveness.
Look at it this way: if God can’t bear to look at me, have I really been forgiven? In this scenario where God sees Jesus when he looks at me, my guilt might be covered or hidden but it isn’t forgiven. It’s still there waiting to get punished if my Jesus disguise ever rips or tears. The picture painted is of me entering God’s presence in a Trojan horse and being welcomed only because I’m not recognized. Maybe no one would explicitly say it this way, but it seems to be how much theology functions. It’s as if, rather than our lives being “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), they are “hidden in Christ from God.” The difference is vast.
Here’s where holiness comes in. Certain understandings of God’s holiness have shaped us to become skeptical when we hear talk of God welcoming us as we are. If “as we are” is wretched, depraved, and wicked, we’re told, then God could never welcome us as such because God’s holiness forbids him from being in the presence of sin. This was a central pillar of the Christianity I was raised in, but at this point I think it could be considered another “silly thing Christians say” simply because of the fact that God has taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus and quite literally rubbed shoulders with such “wretched” sinners as you and me.
Whatever holiness is, the incarnation teaches us that it must be something more than simple separation from that which is unholy.
God’s holiness is not what keeps him separate from us but what keeps him coming ever closer to us. (Click to share on Twitter)
Holy is as Holy does
The scenario outlined in Scripture as I’ve come to read it is entirely different. God’s holiness is not what keeps him separate from us but what keeps him coming ever closer to us. As Scot McKnight has argued in A Fellowship of Differents, the positive side of holiness - being devoted or consecrated - precedes and gives shape to the “negative” side - being set apart. “The devotion element creates the separation element, not the other way around.” In other words, we are made different or “separate” (in a way that draws people in, not excludes them) by our devotion to God, but we tend to flip the order and think we should cut ourselves off from culture to prove our devotion to God. After all, if God is holy in his very being and God is eternal, and holiness primarily means separation, then what was God “separated” from before there was anything unholy in existence?
Holiness does not mean separateness for the sake of separateness. It speaks to the reality of being so deeply devoted to one thing as to be separate from other things for the sake of that devotion. Seen in this light, God is holy in that he is so utterly devoted to love in his very being that he is ever moving toward us in love.
And it’s this movement of God toward us that speaks to our forgiveness. Because we encounter this holy God who is wholly love in the person of Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, the “just as we are” is fundamentally and forever changed. Jesus doesn’t hide me under his cloak and sneak me into God’s presence, he changes who I actually am. My sin is concretely dealt with, not just covered up. The guilt and shame I experience due to sin that keep me moving away from God are forgiven and healed as Jesus lovingly turns me back toward God.
With Christ, in God
My life, then, is not “hidden in Christ from God” but “with Christ IN God.” I’ve been so totally transformed by God’s love in Jesus that my life has been subsumed into the life of God. I have, in the words of Peter, become a “participant in the divine nature” (2 Pt. 1:4). This isn’t divinization–me becoming divine–but the restoration of my created purpose and being, God redeeming his “cracked Eikon” or image bearer in the most beautiful way imaginable (see Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement).
So when God looks at me he does see Jesus–standing next to me, urging and encouraging me further up and further in to the place I’ve always belonged, the very life and presence of God. And he sees me - perhaps timid, scarred, and a bit fragile, but nonetheless worthy, and welcomed, and loved.
This prayer from Walter Brueggemann captures this idea well:
We arrange our lives as best we can,
To keep your holiness at bay…
We find your holiness not at bay,
But probing, pervading,
We are your creatures met by your holiness,
By your holiness made our true selves.