Shame and the Face of God

4. The Face of God – In the Old Testament there is an interesting dilemma about whether human beings can be permitted to see God’s face, which equates to the overwhelming knowledge of God (cf.Exod.33:20ff; Num.12:8), and live (Gen.32:20; Exod.3:6; 20:19; 24:2,10). Yet there is an association between the face of God and ‘ blessing’ ( Num.6:24ff; Ps.4:6; 67:1), and the hiding of God’s face and divine ‘abandonment’ and ‘disgrace’ (Deut.31:16ff; Ps.22:24; 27:9; Isa.57:17; cf.Ford:p218; Stockitt:p118 ).

Seeking God’s face is associated with the pursuit of holiness and repentance (1 Chron.16:11; 2 Chron.7:14; Ps.24:3-6; 27:8) and the “shining face of God is a summary statement of salvation.” (Ford:p217; cf., Ps.31:6; 67:1f; 80:3,7,19 .) In fact, “to follow the Hebrew word ‘face’, through the Old Testament is to be offered a fresh perspective on salvation from that associated with most doctrines of atonement.” (Ford: p217.)

This is especially true if we juxtapose shame, described by a loss of face or an inability to lift the face (Ezra 9:6; cf., Stockitt: p118), with salvation represented by the ability to look into the ‘shining face of God’. The answer to ‘shame’ is to see God’s face; something greater than empathy, it is the experience of God’s smile of acceptance.

This Old Testament dynamic is worked out in the New Testament – Christ is God incarnate, face-to-face with humanity. Not only can we look to the Transfiguration (Mt.17:2; Lk.9:29;cf., Farrar:p238; Hendriksen: p504, 510; Marshall: p383), to the teaching of Paul (2 Cor.4:6 Lias:1892:p61f; Plummer:p62,121: Thrall:p317; cf.2 Cor.2:10), and the evidence of Revelation (Rev.1:16; 22:4; cf., Stockitt: p119), but if we consider Jesus using ‘facing’ as an interpretative aid: “then its literal and metaphorical ramifications are vast, ranging through the great variety of meetings, dialogues, addresses and conflicts; through ideas of rejection of evil, with conversion and repentance as ‘turning’; the Last Supper authorising a face to face community around a meal; and an eschatology (‘now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’ – 1 Cor.13:12).” (Ford: p220.)

Critically, at the Cross, Jesus cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Mt.27:46) which comes from Psalm 22. Later in that Psalm comes the answer ‘he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help’ (Ps.22:4). There is a suggestion here that we can look to the Cross for a resolution of ‘loss of face’ – of disgrace/shame. On Christ’s face “we see the cost of God’s initiative in bodily form. It is a human face that is in torment, the face of one who is in a place of shame,” (Stockitt: p118). This face was the face that had looked with pain at Peter after his denial (Lk. 22:61). In front of that face Peter’s shame was intense, but in front of that face Peter’s shame was addressed (Jn. 21:15ff; cf., Stockitt: p118).

Also at the Cross we see the dead face of Christ – the dead face of God. The dead face means that we cannot separate the atonement from the physical humanity of Christ. The dead face indicates that the person has died. The dead face, “acts somewhat like a black hole of infinite, impenetrable meaning. … But it is, most importantly, a black hole with a human face. Evil, sin, death, suffering and all the distortions and corruptions of creation can now be identified with this face. There can be no separation of person and work here. The face of this person leads to the heart of his work. Many atonement theories rely too heavily on the language of ‘event’ – one objective happening once for all. … The dead face by no means rules out event language – it is incomprehensible without it. But it ties it into person language in a way that other forms of expression do less adequately.” (Ford: p221.)


David Ford; “The Face on the Cross”; in Anvil, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1994; p215-225.
Robin Stockitt; “‘Love Bade Me Welcome; But My Soul Drew Back’ – Towards an Understanding of Shame”; in Anvil, Vol. 15, No. 2, 1998; p111-119.

For other references see the bibliography on this site.

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