The Unexpected Merciful Face of God

The Community Worship service this past Sunday on “The Face of God” got me thinking about two places that phrase occurs in the Jacob story. I’ve found them useful to reflect on and hope you will too.

The first is when Jacob had just spent the night wrestling with a man (who he eventually figured out was no ordinary man). Jacob calls the place where he wrestled Peniel (“Face of God”) and says, “For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30). We might think that seeing the face of God would be a wonderful thing to experience but the implication of Jacob’s words is that he expected to die. He was not the only one who held this belief. Secrets of Heaven 4299 tells us that “The ancients knew that no one can see Jehovah face to face and live” and it cites a number of examples from the Word in which people expected to die after encountering God or the angel of God. That passage also explains why people had this belief: being in the presence of God seems to cause us torment. “Crises and torments seem to come from the Divine because they come about through the Lord’s divine presence…. Yet they come not from the Divine, or the Lord, but from evil and falsity in the person being tried or tormented. Nothing but sacred goodness, truth, and mercy emanates from the Lord. This holy goodness, truth, and mercy is what is unbearable to people involved in evil and falsity because it opposes or confronts them.”

When we are involved in evil and falsity, seeing the Lord’s face or being in His presence does not seem like it will be a pleasant experience. And yet, though we might want to hide ourselves from the Lord’s face, if we actually looked at Him, we would see nothing but goodness, truth, and mercy coming from His face. Jacob expected judgment and harm from God but instead received a blessing and a new name and later that same day he expected to receive judgment and harm from his brother Esau (whom he had wronged years before) but instead his brother “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept” (Genesis 33:4). And so Jacob said, “I have seen your face as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me” (Genesis 33:10). He expected to see hatred and vengeance of the face of his brother but instead his brother was pleased with him. What do we expect to see on the face of God when He looks at us? Can we believe that He loves us, understands us, and wants to help us find a good way forward?