Question: "Is it true that God cannot look upon sin?"
Answer: In the book of Habakkuk, the prophet says to God, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil” (Habakkuk 1:13, CSB). This does not mean that God must close His eyes or turn His back when people start to sin. It is, rather, a recognition of God’s righteous character and, in context, part of a larger discussion of God’s methods in dealing with sin.
Habakkuk begins with a series of questions directed to God. Habakkuk saw the sin and degradation gripping the nation and took his concerns to the Lord. Who today can read this lament and not see the same questions so many are even now asking of God?:
“How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralyzed,
and justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
so that justice is perverted” (Habakkuk 1:1–4).
Habakkuk saw the people of God wallowing in sin, but he was at a loss as to why the wicked prospered and the righteous suffered. Why was God so tolerant of wrongdoing? Like Job, Habakkuk questioned God’s seemingly slow response to right wrongs. Would the violence never end? Whatever happened to justice?
God responds to Habakkuk by revealing His plan to use the Chaldean nation to conquer Judah and thus punish the evildoers (Habakkuk 1:5–11). This answer caused Habakkuk even more distress, and he again questioned God. The Chaldeans (or Babylonians) were even more wicked and debauched than the Israelites. How could God use a wicked nation like that to judge His people (verses 13–17)? Why would He allow “the wicked [to] swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (verse 13). Does He approve of their sin?
It’s in this context that the perplexed prophet says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing” (Habakkuk 1:13). The key to understanding this statement is found in the parallelism of the poetry. “To look on” is parallel with “tolerate.” Habakkuk is pointing to God’s holiness and saying, “You are too holy to look favorably on evil.”
We use a similar expression today. Our English word countenance can mean “face” or “look,” and it can also mean “to sanction or approve of.” When someone says, “I cannot countenance that behavior,” he or she is expressing disapproval of that behavior. In similar fashion, when Habakkuk says of God, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil,” he means that God’s holy nature guarantees that He will not sanction sin. God cannot “look” upon wickedness with favor—so, the prophet asks, why would He allow the Babylonians to overrun Judah?
God is still omniscient and omnipresent, so He knows about sin, and He is present when it’s committed. He does not wink at sin or turn a blind eye to it. He sees it, and, as Habakkuk rightly asserts, He cannot see it favorably. What bothered the prophet is that, in using the Babylonians to punish Judah, God seemed to be countenancing the Babylonians’ idolatry, violence, and greed. God assures His prophet in chapter 2 that the sins of Babylon will not be tolerated, either. The Chaldeans were dispatched as God’s instrument to judge the wickedness of Judah, and the Chaldeans’ own sin will also be judged. But judgment will come in God’s time and in His way.
Confusion over the idea that God’s eyes are too pure to look on evil has led some to believe that, when a Christian sins, the Holy Spirit leaves him or her because the Holy Spirit cannot “look” upon sin. But that would contradict the Bible’s teaching that believers have been “sealed” by the Holy Spirit, the “deposit guaranteeing our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:13–14; cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22). The Holy Spirit dwells inside Christians; although He is grieved by our sin (Ephesians 4:30), He does not abandon us. The key is that our sin is paid for by Jesus and fully forgiven. God cannot tolerate sin, and that is why He sent His Son “to destroy the devil’s work” (1 John 3:8).