Does Sinning Bring Us Closer to God?

Borrowed Light
Does Sinning Bring Us Closer to God?

“The only time daddy ever seemed to pay attention to me was when I was doing things that embarrassed him.” As soon as Sara said those words to her counselor all the unraveled threads in her life slowly began to weave together.

Her father, a pastor, was dedicated to the church. He was loving to his family, but he was deeply distracted. Sara never felt as if she had her father’s heart or his attention. It felt to her that the only time she had her father’s eye was when it was a glare, the kind of “stop making a scene” glare that parents give their kids. Somewhere along the way, a few wires crossed and Sara began to believe that if she wanted attention, it would have to be through negative attention.

Now here she was in counseling. She had been clean for three years this time around. She had started to settle into some sort of “normal” for one of the few times in her life. She was back in church, even beginning to teach a kindergarten class. But it all felt empty. At first people noticed the changes that she had made. And it seemed that with every positive step she made in rebuilding her life, the gaze of her heavenly Father was strong. She was swimming in the deeps of grace.

Then things became normal. Too normal. The more “clean” she became, the less she felt like she was being flooded by God’s grace. She did not know how to relate to God in this way. Would God pay attention to her in the shallows? Would she still have his gaze when things weren’t falling apart? Could she keep his attention if she wasn’t desperate?

Sara had no idea she was asking these questions in her heart. All she knew was that somehow the pull of addiction became increasingly strong. When that combined with her feelings of not having God’s attention, she crashed. She did what she had not done for three years. And she began the downward spiral once again. How did she get here? Again?

Many things had contributed to Sara’s battle with addiction. But, as it is with most every addiction, there were a few foundational lies which she believed that kept her coming back. One of these was a belief that sinning actually brought her closer to God. On the face of it, such a belief is clearly ridiculous. God is holy. He hates sin. Sin is a destroyer; it is a mocker. God will never take pleasure in that which wreaks havoc upon humanity and rebels against His kingdom. Even a quick perusal through 1 John 1, Galatians 2, Romans 6, among other places should put to rest any notion that sinning gets us closer to God. But the notion, at least emotionally/relationally speaking, isn’t as far-fetched as it seems.

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Jesus’ Pursuit of Sinners

Shepherd kissing a lamb

Consider Jesus.

“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners,” says Jesus. Our Lord was called a friend of sinners. And a quick jaunt through the New Testament will show that Jesus seemed to spend more time with the outcasts, the downtrodden, those marked off as “sinners” than he did with the religious elite. He certainly seemed to eat more meals with sinners and tax collectors. Is it so ludicrous, then, to think that we might be more inclined to get the Lord’s attention when we are in the depths of brokenness? Jesus leaves the 99 and goes after the 1 lost sheep. So, if you’re wanting to be closer to Jesus, to feel the warmth of his rescuing embrace, is it not at least somewhat sensible to make yourself that lost sheep?

The Bible is filled with stories of God’s grace. The role that humanity plays within the story is not that of rescuer, it is that of being rescued. Earlier I mentioned Romans 6 and Galatians 2. But have you ever wondered why those verses are in your Bible?

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1).

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin?” (Galatians 2:17a).

These verses are here because grace was presented in such a way that it begs these questions. The gospel we preach should be such that it leaves open the door to an idea that sinning may actually bring you closer to God. It’s a wrong conclusion – but the biblical gospel should lead you to at least ask that question.

Let’s think again about someone like Sara. She has a deep desire to be known, not in the center of attention type of known, but more like a little girl doing a handstand hoping that her daddy notices her. She wants to be seen. When her daddy doesn’t notice time and time and time again, that does something within that little girl’s heart. Sara comes to church every Sunday carrying this deep wound—whether she acknowledges it or not. She is driven by wanting to be known, enjoyed, valued, and given attention.

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What Sort of Messages Do We Hear about Sinning and Grace?

Person kneeling in prayer

Place Sara in two different types of congregations. One congregation is very much centered on the good news of Jesus. The songs she hears are all about God’s rescue and His grace and pursuit of the downtrodden. When the church talks about missions, they talk about putting all their attention towards those who are lost. The sermon that morning is centered upon the prodigal son and how the Father runs to him and pours affection upon his returning son. If you’re Sara, what do you conclude? Who gets attention? Who has the Father’s gaze? When we ask these questions, we can begin to see why Sara seems to be stuck in this cycle. In her mind, the ideal place for receiving the Father’s affection is when you return from your sin—and it’s impossible to return from your sin if you don’t first run headlong into that sin.  

There is another congregation, which will tell a bit different story. The songs here are all about the holiness and the majesty of God. This church has less focus on missions and more of a focus on personal holiness. The sermon that morning is on repentance and our need to please God through our lifestyle. If you want God to be pleased with you, then you need to live in such a way that He has prescribed in the Bible. If you’re Sara, what do you conclude? Who gets attention? Who has the Father’s gaze? Will sinning bring her closer to God? In this type of setting, Sara will not ask such a foolish question. She will conclude that personal holiness will bring her closer to God. And she will devote her life to doing the right things and avoiding the wrong things. She has learned that the best way to get attention is by being a good girl. That may sound right, but is this really the story of the Bible?

The problem for Sara within that second congregation is that she has moved from being the prodigal son to the older brother. She still thinks that the gaze of God is given to her based upon her personal performance. She still believes that getting closer to God is based upon what she does. But the story of the Bible, the good news of the gospel, is that what brings us “close to God” is the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Photo credit: Unsplash/Luis Alberto Sanchez Terrones

What Really Gets Us Closer to God?

silhouette of raised hands toward cross graphic in bright sky

What Romans 6, Galatians 2, and 1 John 1 all conclude is that we do live differently, but we do this because our identity is different. We do not continue in sin because we are dead to sin and we are alive to God in Christ. Someone like Sara finds healing in what Christ has fully and finally accomplished on her behalf. He has purchased the gaze of God with his blood, shed on her behalf. She has God’s attention. Period. And that attention is not tethered to her behavior. It is attached to her new identity—in Christ. As such she will never lose the gaze of her Father.  

Our enemy is crafty. He will preach the blessings of the gospel to us when we are in the throes of temptation. “It’s okay. God loves to forgive. He delights to lavish grace upon you. You know that when you go down this path, you’re going to get His attention. You know that when you come running back, you’re going to get that embrace again. God will forgive you, it’s what he does.”

But as soon as we follow his twisted counsel, he preaches Law to us. “You are cursed and gone astray. There is no way the Father will still love you in the same way. You have rebelled. You need to clean yourself up before you can climb back into His favor. You are guilty. Shame on you. You are an embarrassment.”

The problem with both of these half-gospels is that they detach us from Christ. The flawed logic of “sinning to get closer to God” is that it connects your performance to God’s attention. It’s the same thing that Sara told herself as a little girl. “Daddy will only pay attention if I embarrass him.” Her earthly father did not reflect her Heavenly Father in this regard. His attention is connected to our identity and not our performance. Which is also why it’s great news that you cannot sin your way out of His good pleasure either.

What gets you “closer to God”? Being in union with Jesus Christ. Period.

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Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and Jesus Is All You Need. His writing home is and you can connect with him on Twitter @mikeleake. Mike has a new writing project at Proverbs4Today.