Why God’s Face is Not a Frown; Or, the neuroscience behind the neglected theology of God’s Joyful Face (pt. 1 of 2)
This post could also be called, “Why neuroscience helps us read the Bible better (part 93)”
Faces are Everything
Face-to-face interactions are vital to our mental and emotional well-being.
And this begins the moment we are born.
Might it be important in the process of being born-again?
As Dr. Louis Cozolino states:
“In the first hours of life, we begin to search out the faces and eyes of those around us and show preference for our mothers’ faces.” (The Neuroscience of Human Relationship: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain)
Parents and children regularly “engage in prolonged periods of mutual gazing that calm and relax them both.” We are so drawn to the faces of babies that for most people, the “sight of an infant affects them physically and emotionally, drawing them toward the child with increased openness and sensitivity.”
Cozolino points out that the cliche about being “wide-eyed and innocent” is based in this underlying biological reality—humans are drawn to face to face with babies because it brings us joy, and brings the baby joy in response.
Could this be true for us as we think about God?
But before we talk about the face of God, we need to link joy and faces.
The Joy of Face-to-Face Interactions
Joy is not happiness. Happiness is a state of being that comes and goes without reference to your relationships.
But joy happens with people.
Because of people.
As neurotheologian Jim Wilder says (see our interview with Jim about being a neurotheologian):
“Joy is a ‘glad to be together’ state amplified between two minds that are glad to be together at that moment. Joy is relational.” (In “Joy Changes Everything”)
Or as we say in Does God Really Like Me?, joy can be defined as “the experience of being with someone who is glad to be with you.”
And joy is communicated through faces.
Face-to-face interactions “represent the most intense form of interpersonal communication,” causing an amplification of positive emotions (expanding joy in relationship) and the shift from negative to positive emotions (return to joy in relationship) (see Allan Schore’s Affect Regulation and the Origins of the Self, chapter 6).
Joy is passed non-verbally from one face to another, radically changing one’s body chemistry and emotional energy.
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But how does this connect with God’s face, especially if…
….No One Can See God’s Face!!!
The Bible clearly teaches—it seems—that sinful humanity cannot look at God’s face without dying.
When Moses asked to see God’s glory he was told that God’s goodness will pass before him, but that “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live” (Exodus 33:20, 23).
The Hebrew word for “face” in this passage is pānîm.
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But People Did See God’s Face
It is interesting that just nine verse before Exodus 33:20 we are told that at the Tent of Meeting, “The Lord would speak to Moses face (pānîm) to face (pānîm), as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:11).
Face to face?
Like a friend?
And this wasn’t the first time either.
When God and Israel confirmed the covenant between them, then
“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 25:9-11)
The Vanishing Face of God in Biblical Translations
The idea that we cannot see God’s face actually influences our Bible translations.
Right in the middle of the passages in Exodus 33 that we talked about, the ones saying that we can and cannot see the face of God, we read this verse.
“The LORD replied, “My Presence (pānîm) will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (Exodus 33:14)
Why is pānîm (face) translated as presence in this verse when in other verses immediately before and after it is just translated as face?
That’s a good question.
And I don’t have a good answer.
And this isn’t the only place it happens in English translations.
Michel Hendricks, in The Other Half of the Church, points to Psalm 89:15 as another example. “Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence (pānîm / face), LORD” (NIV translation).
A better translation would be “in the light of your face.”
Joy and the Face of God (2 more passages)
Hendricks notes two other important passages. And these passages link God’s face and joy.
Speaking of the King of Israel, the psalmist declares, “Surely you have granted him unending blessings and made him glad with the joy of your presence (pānîm / face)” (NIV, Psalm 21:6).
As Hendricks says, “The word-for-word rendering of the Hebrew is, ‘You make him happy with joy with your face.’”
Similarly, in the very important Psalm 16:11, the psalmist says that “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence (pānîm / face) there is fullness of joy” (ESV translation).
Again, it would be better to translate this as “before your face is overflowing joy.”
And this verse is so important because it connects so clearly with what relational neuroscience teaches us. That our relational life grows by being connected to joyful faces. And this is what Psalm 16:11 is telling us, that God’s “paths of life” bring the “fullness of joy” because of “God’s face.”
Joy in the Face of God (not a Frown)
The reality is not just that we receive God’s joy when we are in God’s presence. Although this is certainly true (and it is why we wrote a book with the subtitle “Discovering the God Who Wants to Be With Us”).
The deeper reality is that we receive joy because God’s face is beaming God’s own joy toward us and in us.
God’s face toward us is not a frown.
It is a joyous smile.
And that joyous smile charges us up with God’s blessing (which is the topic for part 2 coming later this week as we talk about Aaron’s blessing over Israel).
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