I had a congregation member in a previous congregation who lived with the dreadful fear that one day she would fall out of favour with God. She lived in a constricting unhealthy marriage that was oppressive. Her husband was controlling and emotionally abusive.
Inside, her heart was crying out space to breathe, to be herself, to flourish and to grow. For years she had tried to make the marriage work with great resistance from her husband, and even denial that there was even a problem. She had got to the point where she could not live in the marriage any longer. But she was struggling to go through with her desire for a divorce, because she had this deep deep fear that God would reject her, that God would turn his face away from her, and withdraw his approval from her. And so her faith and a deep fear of losing God’s approval, kept her trapped in a controlling, oppressive and abusive relationship for many years, even when she felt she could no longer live like that.
Does God ever turn his face away from us?
That phrase is found in the hymn that we have just sung. It is one of my favourite hymns: It is partly the moving melody. But it is also the poetry of the words and the picture of God that it expresses: A God whose love for us goes beyond our ability to comprehend and grasp. A love that is infinite, beyond our ability to measure:
How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast, beyond all measure.
In the hymn we see that it a love so great that it is willing to empty itself give itself away, expressed in the dying crucified Christ who gives his life away in an act of love and sacrifice for the sake of others and for the sake of the world. This is not a carefully measured out love, it is an extravagant, overflowing love.
How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast, beyond all measure.
That he should give his only son to make a wretch his treasure.
Secondly, It is also a hymn that expresses something of our own human experience:
It expresses our human experience of sometimes feeling utterly wretched at times. Sometimes we do and say things that have the ability to cause un-told harm upon others... our capacity to be unkind, cold, calculating indifferent to the feelings of others, to be self-concerned and completely self-seeking. There are times when I think back on things that I have done or said that make me really want to cringe. Feeling wretched. Did I really do or say that? Did I really let that person down in that way? And yet, in the hymn, we hear the promise and hope that God still claims us as his treasure.
The words of the hymn are also powerful because they express something of the excruciating pain we experience as human beings, living in this world. There are some things in this world that have the ability to absolutely break our hearts and leave us feeling crushed and broken. The hymn writer, Stuart Townsend suggests that inexplicably, God, the infinite source of life and love somehow shares in that experience of excruciating loss and pain. In the 5th line we hear the words: “How great the pain of searing loss”.
But there is one line in this hymn that I have always battled with: “The Father turns his face away”.
Does God ever turn his face away from us? Did God turn his face away from Jesus on the cross?
The reason I battle with it is because there is a whole theology of the atonement that is expressed within that line that I battle with.
The theology behind this line suggests that because God is holy, and therefore cannot bear to look upon sin, when all of our sin had somehow been transferred onto Jesus, God therefore had to turn his face away from Jesus because God could not bear to look upon our sin that had been transferred onto Jesus. In other words, our sin was so ugly and detestable on Jesus, that God could not bear to look at him any longer.
Where does this idea come from?
Nowhere in the New Testament is there mention of God turning God’s face away from Jesus. At the most, one can say that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus last dying words one the cross were: “My God my God why have you forsaken me.” It could be said that in that moment, Jesus felt forsaken by God. But that is not the same as saying that Jesus was forsaken by God or in that moment God had withdrawn himself or his love from Jesus.
Those who have this interpretation of the cross, of God turning his face away from Jesus, because Jesus had become sin for us base it on Habakkuk 1:13 “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.”
But you cannot base a whole theology on one verse in the Bible that is taken out of context. When we look more closely at Habakkuk and read that verse again, we see that ironically in the passage, somehow, God does tolerate sin, wickedness and evil. In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet Habakkuk is in fact complaining against God.
The first complaint is that Habbakuk calls out to God for help and God does not listen.
The second complaint, If God is holy and pure, then why does God tolerate evil.
I don’t have an answer for that question today. To do so would take a whole sermon on its own. But it does show how we can pull out one verse, in this case verse 13, and build a whole theology of the cross with it, but all along, we have not read the verse in its original context. We have not understood it in the flow of the text.
If we really want to understand God’s relationship to ourselves, and our sin, we need to look at Jesus. As Jesus says, if you have seen me, you have seen the Father. In other words, Jesus is the best place to look if you want to come to an understanding of what God is like. But in the Gospel stories, we see time and time again, how Jesus chooses to spend most of his time in the presence of sinners. Jesus seeks sinners out. The Pharisees even complain that Jesus spends too much time with sinners.
Jesus does not turn his face away from sinners. And if Jesus reveals to us who God is, the Infinite Source at the heart of life, then we discover that God does not turn his face away from Jesus on the cross. And the good news that God will never turn his face away from us either.
Jeremy Myers writes: “Sometimes we get this crooked view of God where He cannot look upon sin or be near sin because sin would somehow taint His holiness. Such a view gives sin way too much power and gives God way too little. God is not like a pristine white couch upon which no one can sit for fear of it getting soiled.”
Indeed, many of us are brought up to believe in a perfectionist God who is SO perfect that God cannot stand to look upon imperfection. But interestingly, the only place in the New Testament where God is spoken of as being 'perfect' is in Matthew 5:48, and in the verses that follow that one, we see that in fact it is the perfection of love. A love that is even willing to embrace the imperfect, the sinner and the unrighteous.
One of my favourite John Wesley hymns has the following line in it:
“O Jesus full of truth and grace. More full of grace than I of sin. Yet once again, I seek your face. Open my heart and let you in.”
Does God ever turn his face away from us? In my best understanding, I believe that the good news that Jesus brings us, is that God never turns his face away from us, but comes seeking us out. Jesus reveals that God is constantly seeking to find and save the lost.
What then do we do with this line in the hymn?
In the last fulltime church where I ministered in in Edenvale, just east of Johannesburg, we changed the words. It was easy to do because we had a projector. Instead of singing that "the Father turns his face away", we sang “The Father’s heart is broken.”
That’s not easy to do when you sing out of hymn books.
At times for the sake of singing with a little more ease, I have tried to re-interpret that line. Sometimes I just sing the line just as it is, and in my mind there is just a little question mark that I mentally put there. At other times, if you read my lips while we are singing, sometimes I change it and simply sing that the Father’s Heart is Broken.
But there might be others for whom that original line does have meaning. Maybe you have a completely different take on that line than how I have interpreted it today. And that is one of the great gifts of being a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian. You don’t have to subscribe to everything that the minister says from the pulpit. Neither do you have to necessarily have to agree with every line that you sing in a hymn. Because even hymns themselves are human poetic attempts to express to do our best to express devotion to God. And in the end, all of the words we use fall short in some way.