Seeing God’s Face

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Imagine not being able to recognize faces.

That’s the central characteristic of a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, or “face blindness.” 

The term combines the Greek words for “face” and “lack of knowledge” (agnosia is related to agnosticism, the theological position of those who don’t know if God exists). 

Neurologists are still trying to unravel its mysteries.  Prosopagnosia seems to be related to damage sustained in or around a single fold of brain tissue.  The impairment may result from a stroke or head injury, although it’s clear in some cases the condition has been inherited.  The symptoms may be mild, moderate, or severe. 

What no one disputes is that the struggle to recognize faces – including the faces of your spouse, children, closest friends, and even your own face in a mirror – has major relational implications.

Victoria, the current crown princess of Sweden, has prosopagnosia.  So does British actor and comedian Stephen Fry, famous for his roles in V for Vendetta and the Hobbit movies. 

Jane Goodall, who has spent much of her life in the highland forests of Tanzania, where she became the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, has learned to differentiate between chimps.  But it’s harder for her to identify human beings. 

The late neurologist Oliver Sacks, who declared the human brain to be “the most incredible thing in the universe,” was well aware of the fact that his own brain was compromised when it came to facial recognition.  Even after 10 years, he couldn’t identify his own administrative assistant.  He once told an interviewer that he learned to recognize people by other means – “your shirts, your voice, your pants.”  He added, “On several occasions I have apologized for almost bumping into a large bearded man, only to realize that the large bearded man was myself in a mirror.”

Then there’s actor Brad Pitt, who told an Esquire interviewer, “So many people hate me because they think I’m disrespecting them… That’s [one reason] why I stay home.  You meet so many people.  And then you meet ‘em again.” 

I’ve long suspected that my face induces a special neurological condition in other people, which might explain why I’ve so often been mistaken for Brad Pitt. 

When we turn to Scripture, the face that gets more attention than any other is the face of God.

The biblical references, as it turns out, are an interesting lot. 

First we learn (as God says to Moses), “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)  That would seem to preclude any possibility of standing directly in God’s presence.  Throughout the Old Testament, however, there remains a deep longing to see God.  “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’  Your face, Lord, I will seek.” (Psalm 27:8)  Jesus makes this statement in the Beatitudes:  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)  Later on, John the evangelist adds:  “We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2)  And then we read one of the Bible’s most dramatic promises – a snapshot of what we’ll experience in heaven: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” (Revelation 22:4)

What are we to make of these fascinating verses?

We begin by acknowledging that God’s “face” is a Hebrew figure of speech, not a flesh-and-blood reality.  God is incorporeal.  He’s not limited by a physical body. 

When we read about God’s strong arms, the palms of his hands, and his eyes that roam the earth looking for those who are faithful, the Bible’s authors are expressing aspects of God’s character, not physical realities that we might one day see or touch.

So what does it mean to seek God’s face?

We get a clue from the famous “Aaronic blessing,” the gracious words that Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, would speak over God’s people:  “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

Those two references to God’s face would resonate with the Israelites in terms of entering the presence of a very important person – a king, perhaps.

What was the greatest honor that could possibly be bestowed upon an ordinary person?  Maybe, just maybe – on an occasion never to be forgotten – they might catch a glimpse of a royal face.  The king might even look in their direction.  Better still, the king’s face might shine.

We all know what a shining face means. 

When a parent showers unconditional love on a child (“I’m so proud of you!”), that mom or dad’s face glows.  When a bride and groom look into each other’s eyes for the first time on their wedding day, their faces shine.  When siblings or friends or old rivals finally bury the hatchet and forgive each other all their foolish sins, they look at each other with immeasurable relief and hope. 

To seek God’s face is a way of saying, “Lord, I want you to look at my life today, with its crazy mixture of things that are just right and other things that are oh-so-wrong, and smile.  Please tell me again that you love me, and that by your grace and power, everything will be all right.”

In this world, no one can say for sure what God will allow us to “see” of himself in the New Creation. 

We know we cannot see his face today.  But we also know that he can see us.

And that may be even better.