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Divine Alienation: When and Why God Turns His Face Away

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The book of Amos contains a truth that is as unpalatable today as it was in Amos’s time: when God’s people begin to look and act like a culture that is defined by moral perversity, material prosperity, and religious hypocrisy, they will become alienated from their creator God. Persistent, unrepentant disobedience will lead to His judgment (Amos 3:13–15; cf. Rev. 2:12–29). Instead of living in the joy of fellowship with Him, those who profess to be God’s people will experience God turning away from them because of the sin they treasure.

This message is not unique to Amos. Joshua’s armies took plunder that God had told them not to take, and they fell to their enemies (Josh. 7:1–12). The psalmist remembers that the wilderness generation was disloyal and faithless, and God rejected them and allowed destruction to come upon them (78:56–62). Isaiah reminded God’s people that He listens to and saves them; nevertheless, their sins separated them from God so that He would not hear them (59:1–2). It is a consistent biblical teaching that sin drives a wedge between God and His people.

Divine alienation is a hard teaching, especially for those who have been taught much about God’s grace and perhaps not enough about why such grace is needed and how it must not be abused. And because it is so difficult to grasp, we need to devote all the more attention to understanding it and heeding the Bible’s warnings.

Does God Still Judge His People Today?

When we consider a passage like Amos 3, for example, we may be tempted to say that it is no longer relevant now that the work of Christ has been completed. But the pattern we find in Amos, Joshua, the Psalms, and Isaiah appears in the New Testament too. Consider Christ’s words in the book of Revelation addressing one church’s idolatry, lack of discernment, and sexual immorality. Speaking of a false teacher in their midst whom He calls Jezebel, He says to His people: “I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Rev. 2:23). Whether two thousand years ago or today, God’s people are subject both to certain blessings which attend obedience and to negative repercussions that attend disobedience.

The difference the cross makes is not that God will no longer punish persistent sin; it is that God both forgives sin and empowers ongoing obedience through the Holy Spirit’s presence among His people. Those who are united to Christ by faith can be assured of God’s forgiveness as they experience the fruit of repentance in their lives. Yet it is also true—though often overlooked—that God so cares for His people that He will not tolerate rebellion; that He must chastise them for their indifference; that He must discipline them as a good, loving father does with his children.

As Alec Motyer writes, “We have forgotten that our God can turn and become our enemy (Is. 63:10) and with all our talk of taking care not to fall into the power of Satan we have become blind to the much more dangerous possibility of falling out of the power of God. We dismiss it, ignore it or forget it to our peril.”1 It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Why is it, though, that these teachings are so uncomfortable? At least some blame can be attributed to poor teachings on and understandings of grace in recent decades. This has led to an unbiblical view of God as a sort of cosmic Santa Claus who is only ever benevolent. “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), indeed—but it is precisely because He loves that He will not tolerate the corrupting and destroying power of sin. In a word, “the Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Heb. 12:6). Yet when God disciplines His people, it is always with the purpose of drawing them nearer to Him in love.

The difference the cross makes is not that God will no longer punish persistent sin; it is that God both forgives sin and empowers ongoing obedience through the Holy Spirit’s presence among His people.

Three Reasons We Might Experience Divine Alienation

With all that in mind, we can learn much from Amos’s warning that God would hand Israel over to their regional enemies to be plundered and destroyed. It’s sobering to realize that we who profess to follow Christ will face a greater judgment still if we ignore God’s warnings and abuse His grace. As the author to the Hebrews says, “How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?” (10:29).

Each one of us needs to be aware of the danger of divine alienation so that he can “take heed, lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). And because the events of God’s people in the past happened “as an example … for our instruction” (1 Cor. 10:11), it is helpful to consider the roots of divine alienation in the Bible so that we can remain on guard and seize the way of escape that God provides (1 Cor. 10:13). With the prophecy of Amos as our particular example, three factors are worth our attention.

1) An Absence of Righteousness

God said to Amos that the people no longer knew “how to do right” (3:10). They had stopped asking themselves, “What is the right thing to do?” Instead, they had begun to ask, “What is the most profitable thing to do? Which decision will lead to the best material outcome for me?” Specifically, we read that the people became blatant transgressors by oppressing the poor and by engaging in sexual immorality, idolatry, and hedonism (2:6–8). Their sin led to a moral blindness so that they could no longer even judge between good and bad.

Unfortunately, this still happens in churches today when people cease to look for the right thing to do and instead tolerate sin because of the benefits and pleasures it brings. God has made His will known to us in the Scriptures, and so often, we simply ignore it, thinking that material blessing is a sign of divine approval. But whenever we find ourselves saying yes when God says no, whenever we display bitterness in place of forgiveness, lust in the place of purity, doubt in the place of trust, greed in the place of generosity, grumbling in the place of thanksgiving, we darken our own vision of right and wrong and drive a wedge between us and God. When we live in obvious contradiction to God’s revealed will, whatever pleasures it may bring, we will not know God’s blessing and favor.

2) An Empty Show of Religion

The people in Amos’s time hadn’t ceased from their religious activity. They were busy carrying on the business of religion. They held feasts to God and solemn assemblies, they sang songs of worship, and they offered sacrifices (Amos 5:21–23). Nevertheless, God promised to destroy the very altar with which they worshipped (3:14). They supposed that they could justify themselves before God with religious enthusiasm, but they showed contempt for God through their disobedience. In the process, they lost their concern for loving God and seeking justice.

We must ask ourselves: “Do I have a concern for spiritual matters?”—not “Am I signed up for this committee and that duty?” but rather “Are holiness, prayerfulness, and communion with God my heart’s desire?”

Isaiah tells us that God looks on the one “who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (66:2). It is all too easy to feel justified by our religious activities, but we are called to seek God Himself—to cling to Christ Himself. Religious activity apart from this sanctifying knowledge of God will only continue to underscore the divide between God and His people.

When we live in obvious contradiction to God’s revealed will, whatever pleasures it may bring, we will not know God’s blessing and favor.

3) A Compromised Theology

Israel’s worship in Amos’s time denied a central doctrine that God had revealed about Himself: that He is transcendent and invisible and cannot be represented by manmade images. But in an attempt to wean the people’s affection away from David’s dynasty in Judah, Israel’s King Jeroboam had set up golden calves as images to God so that they no longer had to travel to Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:26–28). Jeroboam clearly felt that the circumstances demanded this move—but the result was that the invisible God had been replaced with a visible god. God had given His people instruction all the way through His law, but as their circumstances changed, they decided that God ought to change with them. They were practicing religion on their terms, having decided for themselves who God was and what He wanted.

We face the same issue today when God’s people look at His Word and start to edit, innovate, and distort in an effort to adapt to the climate of our times. Many feel they are doing right by making these moves—that God must be this way or that way, or He wouldn’t be good or true as they understand it. The result is an approach to Scripture which makes it subject to our passing whims and fancies in the realms of science, politics, or ethics. When we try to define God by what we think or want rather than submitting our thoughts and desires to what God says about Himself, we widen the gulf between Him and ourselves.

The Son of God, Judged for Us

Divine alienation is an unpalatable but vital truth. It is the only satisfying explanation of Calvary. The message of the cross is, in a sense, that God plundered and looted the life of His Son in judgment so that we in Christ may not know the plundering and looting of our lives in eternity. While the scene at the cross certainly ought to stir our hearts, God doesn’t want us to feel sorry for Jesus; He wants us, by His power, to repent of the sin that made it necessary for God go to such an extent to save us. The cross has made it possible for us to know and draw near to God through faith that overflows in obedience, and it displayed God’s commitment to free us from the power and influence of sin.

This is a watershed for a rising or falling church: either we will be those who increasingly live in obedience to God’s Word and know His hand of blessing on our lives, or we will be those who repeatedly turn our backs and experience a growing estrangement from God’s glory, the loss of His sheltering hand, and a withering of our own spiritual usefulness.

On which side of the divide will we find ourselves? Will we prove to be those whom the Spirit is sanctifying by God’s grace, as evidenced through repentance and faith? Or will we prove to be those who fall away because they do not know—or choose to dismiss—the power of God’s Spirit in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Jesus’ charge to His disciples is just as true for you today: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). As you walk in obedience, Jesus promises that you will not be alone. You will experience the Father’s love as the Holy Spirit helps you to obey. In this way, you will experience the smile of His benediction upon your life.

  1. Alec Motyer, The Message of Acts: The Day of the Lion, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1974), 79. ↩︎

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