What’s wrong with the Father turning his face away?


I just had an email conversation with a good friend who is a youth pastor, about some lyrics in a worship song. The song is by Bethel and has the line, ‘heaven looked away’ in it. We’d had a brief conversation some time ago about this lyric and today we fleshed it out some more. Here’s the gist of what we talked about.

The issue with the Bethel line, and Stuart Townend’s, ‘The Father turns his face away’ in the somewhat ironically named, ‘How deep the Father’s love for us’ is that it misunderstands the holiness of God, and it does violence to the Trinity.
Satisfied? Or shall I continue? Ok since you insist.
It misunderstands holiness because it takes holiness to mean, ‘separateness’ or ‘otherness’, which is part but not all of the truth. If God is anything, he is NOT separate. While God doesn’t fit into any categories we have, (here ‘one of a kind’ is a better translation of the concept of holiness) God’s holiness is better understood as ‘other-seeking-Otherness’. God is the other who by nature, shares life with others. Initially and eternally thats the Trinity. If we don’t have this more relational grounding for holiness, we end up with an understanding of holiness that puts God’s nature at odds with being in relationship with us – as if his holiness somehow means he can’t share the same room as anyone who is different. He would like to, but he’s holy, so what are you going to do? God is all about sharing the room with otherness, and not always harmonious otherness either (see Jesus and table fellowship in the Gospels). So, once we get that building block in place we can move on – holiness is relational, and it speaks of God’s uniqueness and God’s nature to create community within and around Godself. Sweet?
If we misunderstand this – which Bethel and Townend have, we end up thinking that God’s holiness is at odds with his love. So we give holiness to the Father, and love to Jesus, so that they don’t have to share – because (since we’re in the habit of creating them in our image) we figure they aren’t very good at sharing anyway. So the Father is distant, otherness, unapproachable glory. And Jesus gets to come close and be our companion. The Father gets to be angry, but Jesus gets to be forgiving. So the damage is well and truly done before we even get to the offending lyric in the otherwise wonderful song. Its that damage that has some Christian’s believing that Jesus has saved them from the Father, rather than for the Father. God’s wrath becomes something that is uncreative, something that vanquishes, rather than part of the redemptive, salvific direction of all God’s working and making, reworking and remaking in the cosmos. God’s wrath becomes antithetical to God’s nature. Now I’m not doubting or denying God’s wrath, I’m simply asking that it be understood as God’s wrath, and not in the category of human rage or anger. It is human to get blind with anger and take our rage out on innocent victims. This is not the way of God. God’s wrath is holy. It is of a different kind to ours. God’s wrath is for us – as much as God’s forgiviness is. In fact, without wrath, forgiveness is cruelty. It pronounces us guiltless without dealing with the root of our brokenness. In this way God’s wrath is the painful side of sanctification. The process of dying and rising with Jesus. Every Christian meets the wrath of God, we are not spared it. We must not be spared it. But it is for us – and so we are not destroyed, instead we are remade. Changed from glory into glory.
Nearly got sucked into a tangent there. So, this brings us around to why these lyrics are problematic. St Paul tell us where the Father is when Jesus is dying on the cross.
‘For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.’ 2 Corinthians 5:19
There is no fracture between Father and Son. If there was, how could Jesus pretend to be the remedy for our own fracture with the Father? Instead he invites us to share in his intimacy with the Father – our participation in Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.
The notion that Jesus got himself into a state that meant he was too horrible and sin-riddled to even be looked upon by God the Father fails to realise the way this family works. Can you imagine a state your child could get into (particularly when he was the victim of a situation, and not the villain) where you wouldn’t rush to embrace/protect/weep over your boy? I can’t. And if we can…how much more our Father in heaven? How can we trust this Father who turns away from his beloved son, is this the same father Jesus tells us about in the Prodigal – who rushes forward to welcome home the scheming thief? The truth is the Father doesn’t turn away. Its not scriptural. Its not sound theology. Jesus dies, and the Father and Spirit go with him into death. The New Testament is utterly singular on one key point, that Jesus didn’t raise himself from the grave. God did, the Father and the Spirit. How? I guess we have to assume that they were down there with him. ‘All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell with him’ – wherever he was dwelling (Psalm 139). One of the best things about the novel, ‘The Shack’ is that the Father bears the wounds of the cross too. The Father doesn’t do this to Jesus, the Father is the victim as well. The Father is incarnate and present in Jesus (if you have seen me, you have seen the Father).
Of course, many will quote Jesus’ own quoting of Psalm 22 from the cross as proof that the Father looked away, or abandoned him. Wrong again. Jesus quotes the first line, well known Jewish practice for bringing to mind the whole Psalm. The later part of the Psalm states:
22 I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.”
I will praise you among your assembled people.
23 Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!
Honour him, all you descendants of Jacob!
Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!
24 For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.
    He has not turned his back on them,
    but has listened to their cries for help.
So Jesus is saying, ‘Abba I can’t see you. Spirit I can’t feel you. But I know you. And this is who you are, and who you will be, for me and all those I’m bringing with me. You do not turn from the needy.’ Jesus’ prayer speaks of a profound depth of love, not an absence of it. A father who did turn from his needy children would not be worthy of such
So these songs are not just wrong, they’re not just a little off the mark – but abhorrent and despicable, because they make us love Jesus at the expense of the Father. And they fracture (ideologically) the only community in all creation to never be fractured – the place Jesus goes to prepare for us is nowhere other than within the Trinity. But based on this solitude model of holiness, the civil war between Jesus and his Dad rages on (‘I wanted to destroy them’ – ‘yeah well I wanted to save them’ – ‘boy if I didn’t love you so much I would wipe them out’ – ‘yeah fair enough, but you do love me, so deal with it’) – do we actually want to go there? For eternity? Or would we rather a mansion that is apart from the being of God, in heaven for sure, in the neighbourhood – but a safe distance from the Big Guy with the temper.  
These songs are doing real damage to people’s ability to trust the goodness of God, and to allow themselves to be loved by God. That’s serious.


  • Andrea Grant

    Interesting Malcolm. I’ve never seen it that way. So I looked up mr Google and asked what Bible verses go with the song title and found this by Tom Schultz:
    His reference to “the father turns his face away” is “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” (Mark 15:34) and “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53: 3-4).

    After looking at that one I found more (of course) and they differ – some say the Father did turn his face, others say he didn’t.
    Whether it be the quote of Psalm 22 in Mark, it is our perception that he was forsaken or he was truly forsaken to take our sin, surely it needs context. Otherwise the enemy niggling in our ear makes everything abhorrent. It was abhorrent that Jesus took on the pain of the entire world of sin. The overwhelming evidence is of God loving us and as you say God in Christ. Gives us something to explore in the light of God’s LOVE. And God so loved the world “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”
    This guy quotes Luther (https://www.unlockingthebible.org/the-day-god-turned-his-face-away/) Luther says, “God forsaking God. What man can understand this?” (Martin Luther, cited in C. H. Spurgeon sermon, “The Saddest Cry From the Cross,” #2803, Jan. 7, 1877 http://www.spurgeongems.org/vols46-48/chs2803.pdf) apparently – I haven’t checked it myself.

    Has been interesting looking deeper – thanks for raising it 🙂

    March 11, 2014
  • Andrew Nicol

    Thanks Malc and Andrea I have found some of these carefully thought out points very helpful. The phrase does seem to me to be unhelpful, especially, as you state, where it contributes to confusion about whether the trinity is really on the same page regarding the crucifixion. Even so, I think we also need a way to talk about (not necessarily de-mystify) the power of Jesus’ prayer in the garden and even where we understand that Jesus is part of the triune life to talk about the human angst of doing the triune will. I think we need to be careful about statements like the Father was incarnate. There is no deicide here. Is the crucifixion simply done to God?.

    March 12, 2014
  • Kayla Meyer

    Malcolm! My husband and I ran across this article and we are so taken aback by the profoundness! I was trying to explain this whole idea to someone and I found this and you said it so wonderfully. So thankful for these words!
    Also, who are you?? haha We know Paul Young and go to Theology Conferences that him and others like Baxter Kruger and Donald Miller are also at. Email us!
    Do you know of The Open Table Conference? http://opentableconference.com/

    August 9, 2014
    • Thanks for your encouraging words! I met Paul and Baxter through a retreat over here in NZ at the beginning of the year. Great to hear from you.

      August 15, 2014
  • Damien

    I like your article and find it helpful. However, when I first heard the specific lyrics that are the subject of this article, I was actually very moved by them. Jesus had to do something horrifying for the redemption of mankind. The picture in my mind was that Heaven and the Father Loved Jesus so much that they had to turn away momentarily because it was too painful to watch. The connection that Heaven and the Father had with Jesus was so strong that looking upon Jesus during that timeframe was basically like experiencing it Themselves. Not saying this is what actually happened and I’m not trying to make an argument for the theological correctness of the lyrics but this is how I pulled some meaning out of them for me personally.

    January 27, 2016
  • Susan Lockard

    All people are (reformed theology) truly depraved. So, we are completely at odds with the Holy God. That fact is what made Jesus’ life and death the necessity and the saving grace that it is.

    August 31, 2017
  • The idea that God abandoned His Son on the cross is terrible theology.
    Please see my book, “Lamb of God: Rediscovering the Beauty of Atonement”

    July 25, 2018
  • Allen McDaniel

    I truly am a no body in theological circles. In fact, I’m only a truck driver. I totally love the Lord though. This whole subject came up with my wife and I. So I went searching. What I believe the Lord showed me through His Word was this.
    Remember this psalm was probably written by David. And understand when the Hebrews, Jewish people, would refer to scripture they would typically reference the first sentence or thought. Being a psalm they would reference the first line of that psalm. Now follow me on this thought path. David may have been writing, although hearing from God, maybe believing he’s writing from his own thoughts. If this is true? It is possible the first part of Palm 22 is simply David crying out to God and Jesus simply referencing the psalm. I understand I’m no scholar as probably you all are; and I’ve never went to seminary. Yet I truly believe Jesus wasn’t crying out to God at all! (Exclamation for emphasis not yelling lol) He was proving to those who may be discerning that everything they have just witnessed was written about long ago. To me, when I come to this understanding I was amazed!
    Anyway, I’m not trying to debate, I simply wanted to share what I feel the Lord has shown me. Much love in Christ Jesus!!!

    December 27, 2018

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