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A Mouthful of Life and Death

A Mouthful of Life and Death

When I get into trouble with my wife, Kelly, it almost always starts with my mouth. When I hurt a friend or a colleague, or unintentionally shame or provoke my teenage children, it is almost always a result of my mouth. If there’s any part of my body I hate, it’s my mouth! It just gets me into so much trouble!

At the same time, I’ve seen it do the exact opposite. When I keep it mostly closed, listen well, but then offer a simple word that makes someone feel seen, it can bring such comfort. When I offer an insightful compliment to someone at work, or remind my kids how glad I am they’re in our family, I can see their eyes light up. If there is any part of my body I love, it’s my mouth! It has the potential to do so much good!

Isn’t it crazy the power this tiny thing has?

 

Life and Death

The book of Proverbs recognizes the immense and contradictory power of the tongue. In 18:21, it says: Death and life are in the power of the tongue…. The Message paraphrases it like this: Words kill, words give life; they’re either poison or fruit—you choose.

Your mouth has the power to kill and the power to bring life. It can destroy the people around you, and with it, you can even destroy yourself. Pastor Tony Evans writes: Your greatest enemy is not in your home. Your greatest enemy is not on your job. Your greatest enemy is not that person at church who gets on your every last nerve. Your greatest enemy is in your own mouth. The three-inch muscle in your mouth has more power to destroy your life, and to do it quickly, than anything or anyone else.

We’ve caused wounds in others’ lives and we’ve received wounds ourselves. How many times have the words left my lips, and they’re not even all the way out yet, and already I wish I could put them back in? “I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry.” You can say a million nice things to try to make it right, but they may never forget. Some of us even now define ourselves by that cruel word spoken by a parent, teacher, coach, or friend years ago. Others of us live in constant pursuit of just a kind word from anyone.

Is it any wonder Proverbs refers to the mouth of the righteous as a fountain of life, choice silver, deliverance, protection, and delight? But the mouth of the wicked, it says, is violent, blood-thirsty, and foolish.

 

Will You Kill or Will You Heal?

One of the most powerful tools in your possession—for good or evil—is words. For with your words, you have the power to kill and the power to heal. You can become a murderer or a healer. Your tongue isn’t just your greatest enemy; it can also be one of your greatest assets. You’ve experienced both. We’ve caused both. So will you kill or will you heal?

 

Words that Kill

If we were to look through the book of Proverbs, we’d see several examples of murdering words: words that deceive, words that gossip, and words of anger.

Lies murder trust, thereby killing the thing we long for most in the world, relationship. Proverbs 6:16-19 declares: The Lord hates six things; in fact, seven are detestable to him: arrogant eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that plots wicked schemes, feet eager to run to evil, a lying witness who gives false testimony, and one who stirs up trouble among brothers.

Two out of seven are words that deceive, right up there with murder! The world cannot function without some measure of trust. No relationship can exist without trust. Trust takes years to build, and seconds to destroy. Lies are death.

Words that gossip are similar. Few things can destroy a church faster than gossip. It kills friendships, families, offices, and schools. Proverbs 16:28: A contrary person spreads conflict, and a gossip separates close friends. Proverbs 20:19: The one who reveals secrets is a constant gossip; avoid someone with a big mouth. 

Gossip is talking about another person in ways you wouldn’t want to be talked about. You can gossip by speaking and you can gossip by listening. Don’t say it. Don’t listen to it. Like passing around a loaded gun, it’s just not worth it. Gossip is death.

We also know the damage that can be done with words spoken in anger. Proverbs 22:10: Drive out a mocker, and conflict goes too; then quarreling and dishonor will cease. Proverbs 15:4: The tongue that heals is a tree of life, but a devious tongue breaks the spirit. And perhaps my favorite, Proverbs 15:1: A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.

Yet some of us today talk to others like we’re the star of our own political talk show. We may call it entertainment or passion, but the angry voices we listen to shape us to speak like them. It’s not ok. Instead, speak the language of life.

 

Words that Heal

The tongue can also be a great force for good. You have the power to give life in your mouth! A friend who says just the right thing at just the right time, and you almost feel like a different person. Or when you’re the person speaking, and you see the person’s eyes light up before you, and you know the difference you’ve just made.

The interesting thing about speaking words of life is that according to Proverbs, the best words usually begin with silence. If you want to give life with your tongue, start by listening. 

Proverbs 10:19: When there are many words, sin is unavoidable, but the one who controls his lips is prudent. Proverbs 12:18: There is one who speaks rashly, like a piercing sword; but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 15:28: The mind of the righteous person thinks before answering, but the mouth of the wicked blurts out evil things. Proverbs 29:20: Do you see someone who speaks too soon? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

How much heartache could be avoided if we listened? Instead, while others talk, we’re busy reloading. We crowd others out with the sound of our own voice. Sometimes the best thing you can say to another person is to not say anything at all. Our lips need brakes! If you want to learn the language of healing, start by listening. 

Then, when we do speak, lean in with grace. Proverbs 16:24: Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (NIV). Say things like: I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m thankful for you. Say: I forgive you. I’m here for you. Say: You can do it, and even if you can’t, I’m still here. Say: God loves you. Christ died for you. Your failures don’t define you.

There’s an old saying. Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.Yet when we hear gracious words of encouragement and love, we can fight a little longer. Who do you need to give a little life to today?

 

What Does God Say About You?

The reason we can speak like this (or be silent like this), is that as Christians we know what God says about us. His words are true life to each one of us, and in him we are able to rest. We don’t have to lie to protect ourselves, we don’t have to gossip to make ourselves feel superior, nor do we have to speak out of anger to retaliate against those who have offended us.

What does God say about you? He says you’re loved, you’re seen, you’re safe. He calls you his friend, his son or daughter. He names you Beloved. If that’s what God says about us, and you hear it and you believe it, and you remind yourself constantly of it—if that’s the language we’re learning—then we can speak life to those around us.

You have the power of life and death in your tongue. Which will you choose?

What Owning a Dog Taught Me About God’s Love

What Owning a Dog Taught Me About God’s Love

One summer Friday afternoon my wife decided she really wanted a dog, so we spent four hours scrolling through dog listings on PetFinder till we found Milo, a Corgi-Australian Shepherd mix. He was a rescue who previously lived on a farm with over a dozen other dogs that were breaking out and killing the neighbors goats and chickens (Yikes! I know). We applied to adopt him and the next Monday morning we drove him home. Little did I know how much that good boy would change my life.

I would have never described myself as a dog person before Milo. Growing up in East Africa, my family always had dogs, but they were outside-only dogs whose job was to guard our house. My parents got an inside dog after I had moved out, but I did not care for it too much. It always jumped on me, tried to lick me, and always needed to be entertained, no matter how much I tried to ignore it.

Despite my indifference to dogs, I was still open to getting one because my wife wanted one so much. However, as soon as Milo became ours, my whole personality changed. Although originally it was my wife’s idea to get him, she would now say that I am the one who loves that dog a little too much. Not only do I love this one dog a lot, but also I’ve learned to love other dogs as well, even my parents’ dog!

Beyond becoming an embarrassingly stereotypical “dog-dad”, what has surprised me most about this experience is how certain truths about God have become more real in a different way.

Dogs and the Image of God

Pet ownership is really strange if you think about it. What other animal, besides humans, domesticates other animals? The only thing close is how some ants have developed a symbiotic relationship with other insects, but the scale and intentionality is much less than the human domestication of other animals. Not only have humans reared livestock as a source of food, clothing, and labor-saving, but humans also have pets just for companionship and the intrinsic pleasure of taking care of another creature.

In this way, pet ownership is one of the clearest examples of how humans are in the image of God. Being God’s image-bearers means that humans are to represent God to creation. After declaring his intention to make humanity according to his image and likeness, God says, among other things, “They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth” (Genesis 1:26).

Domestication of animals is one of the ways humans demonstrate our roles as divine image-bearers by bringing God’s rule over these creatures. That’s why animal cruelty deeply disturbs us. It’s not because animals have an intrinsic worth comparable to humans, but because our rule over the animal kingdom is meant to be a picture of God’s gracious and loving rule over us. Abuse of pets offends us, but witnessing a loving bond between human and pet can be a signpost of God’s love for us.

What Owning a Dog Teaches Me About God’s Love

Recently, I was reflecting on the weirdness of dog ownership in general and my unique strong attachment to Milo in particular. How can I love something that is so utterly dependent on me? Milo, like other dogs and pets, can’t survive without their owners. He needs me to feed him twice a day, take him on walks to go “potty” and get exercise, pet and snuggle him for emotional comfort, and work a “9-5” to put a roof over his head while he is sprawled out on the couch napping all day. While he does love me in return by being loyal and seeking to protect me from thunderstorms and imaginary intruders, the relationship is by no means symmetrical. Even when he doesn’t act like a good boy by herding other dogs at the park, demanding walks when it’s not time yet, and devouring any garbage he can get his jaws on while we do walk, I still love him and am committed to what’s good for him. How can I love something so much that needs me so much?

Sound familiar? This is precisely how it is between God and us, only on a much greater scale and to a much deeper extent. God loves us not because of anything in us or anything we could give him, but just because he loves us. He created us just so we could experience this good world he made, he died to save us even while we were still his sinful enemies, and no matter how many times we fail, he is eager to forgive and renew us. This is a love that is almost impossible to get our heads around, which is exactly why God made a number of relationships in our world that should, at their best, offer us a glimpse of what God’s love must be like.

Having the opportunity to care and provide for a pet is one such relationship. The love a parent has for their child is another great example of this, and one I imagine can embody this love to an even greater degree. Loving someone who is not your equal and who can’t immediately repay you for that love (like a pet or young child) is the closest experience to what it’s like for God to love us how he does. If I, as a sinful and broken human, can love Milo this much, who did not do anything to earn it, then how much more must God love me?

Today, whether you have a dog, cat, betta fish, parakeet, horse or hamster, or only admire pets from afar, I encourage you to reflect on the love and care you have for that animal, and how that might be a small reflection of God’s even bigger love for us.

The Forgetful Prophet

The Forgetful Prophet

One of my favorite things to do in Kansas City is visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Every time I visit I am drawn to a particular painting that depicts God sending an angel to encourage the prophet Elijah. This is one of my favorite stories in Scripture and the more I have studied the passage, the more I realize that I identify with Elijah. But that identification is not with the positive aspects of Elijah’s character but rather the unfortunate deformation that is taking place in his ministry.  

 

Elijah’s Encounter with God

Before God sends his angel to Elijah in 1 Kings 19, the wicked king Ahab and his wife Jezebel have led Israel into apostasy through the worship of false gods. In the chapter just prior to the encouragement of Elijah, God had shown his glory through the defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. In that scene both Elijah and the prophets of Baal had prepared a sacrifice for their respective god and they were going to see whose responded. Listen to the prayer of Elijah at that moment:

 Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, today let it be known that you are God in Israel and I am your servant, and that at your word I have done all these things. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” 

There are three things to notice about this prayer. First, notice Elijah’s remembrance. He calls on God’s personal name, Yahweh (anytime you see the name translated Lord, it is referring to God’s covenant name), and refers to him as the God of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (or Jacob). This title brings all sorts of images and memories of the prior work of God to mind in the story of the Torah. Second, notice his humility. His desire is that people would know Yahweh is Lord and that Elijah is his servant. There is no self-commendation, there is a servant who has only done as his God has commanded. And finally, his ultimate desire is to see the glory of God displayed and have it recognized as such. 

God answers this prayer and sends a fire to consume the sacrifice and the prophets of Baal are defeated and destroyed and there seems to be a glimmer of hope for a nation that had abandoned its God. Keep this prayer in mind as we fast forward one chapter and we see a very different interaction between God and his servant Elijah.  

 

Elijah’s Spiritual Amnesia

In chapter 19 we are told that Jezebel, after hearing about the defeat of the prophets at Mount Carmel, orders the death of Elijah. We are told that the prophet “became afraid and immediately ran for his life.” Our prophet who just watched Yahweh show his power at Mount Carmel is now asking that the Lord would take his life (1 Kings 19:4). In Elijah’s next words to God note the change of tone from his last prayer: 

“I have been very zealous for the Lord God of armies, but the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are looking for me to take my life” (1 Kings 19:10). 

God responds by asking him to stand on Mount Sinai so that God might speak with him in a soft whisper (19:12) but when Elijah hears the voice it says “he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” 

Did you notice the changes? Instead of remembering the character of Yahweh when Jezebel threatens him, he gives into fear and despair. Instead of humbly submitting himself to God, he questions why God has not honored his zeal. Instead of seeking the glory of God, he covers his face to keep from seeing it. What happened? How could there be such deformation in such a short time frame? 

 

Deformative Forgetfulness 

Since Genesis 3, the serpent has sought to lead God’s image bearers into deforming forgetfulness. Curt Thompson says in his book Anatomy of the Soul that “being tricked always involves the subtle or blatant manipulation of fear, memory, and shame.” I believe this is what we see taking place in Elijah’s life. The deformation of fear has allowed him to see Jezebel as a threat beyond God’s control. The deformation of his memory has led him to forget the superiority of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, demonstrated on Mount Carmel. The deformation of shame has led him to cover himself from the glorious presence of God, much the way Adam and Eve covered themselves in the garden. But similar to the garden, the Lord responds in surprising grace toward this deformed prophet. 

The Lord responds to Elijah in several ways. After the prophet put himself under a tree to die we are told the angel tells him to eat and sleep (twice!). Then God calls him to Mount Sinai, the mountain where Yahweh made his covenant with Israel. God brought him to a physical location where he would feel secure and would encourage him to remember the God who cared for the likes of Abarahm and Moses would also take care of him. Once Elijah arrives at the mountain, the Lord asks him two times: “What are you doing here, Elijah? It reminds me of God asking Adam and Eve in the garden after they ate the fruit, “Where are you?” God is gently inviting his weak servant to see the waywardness of his ways. God does not lash out at his prophet, but instead speaks to him in a whisper and he reminds him he is not alone. There are in fact seven thousand prophets who have not bowed to Baal and God’s plans have not been thwarted. Even so, we see a disturbed prophet who, until the Lord takes him to heaven in a chariot of fire, seems to only reluctantly and begrudgingly listen to his God (2 Kings 2). 

 

Grace to Remember 

So why do I identify with this prophet? Perhaps you can relate: I often allow my circumstances to be much larger than my God. This leads to a forgetfulness of God’s prior work and a “woe is me” mentality. My fear leads to a forgetfulness that I am ashamed to admit. So how can we combat such deformation? 

What is your pace in life? Do you ever find it fascinating that the first thing God has this weary prophet do is eat and sleep? I know that my greatest vulnerability to deforming practices is when I am tired, hungry, and alone. God treats each of these in his interaction with Elijah. Reflect on the rhythms you are setting. Are they for your flourishing? 

Who or what are you paying attention to? Dietrich Bonhoeffer said “The devil doesn’t fill us with hatred for God, but with forgetfulness of God.” Are there ways you live like God is absent? What are some practical reminders and rhythms to keep you mindful of God?  

I believe that today the prophet Elijah is able to look upon the face of his Savior despite his previous desire to cover his face before the glory of God. What a patient God we worship! I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone in my spiritual amnesia, that even the prophets of old had moments of weakness. But I take even greater comfort in knowing that we worship a God who beckons us back to himself. Even in a soft whisper. 

Where Can I Go With My Shame?

Where Can I Go With My Shame?

I was standing in a group of people I love and I couldn’t hide or deny my hurtful behavior. Everyone saw what I did. I couldn’t make excuses or suppress the truth. There was no justification for it. I was caught and stood there with my shame exposed. 

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you did or said something that you wish you could take back? Have you lashed out at someone you love, said something you regret, or wished you could go back and try it over again? Your face turns red with embarrassment, your shoulders tense up with anxiety, your heart races, and you feel warm and clammy. 

These are the kind of moments I try desperately to avoid. And I don’t think I am alone. I think most of us try our best to hide our shame. We would do anything to not be seen and exposed for how bad we actually are. Often the cover up or scrambling to cover your tracks can be worse than the mistake you made in the first place.

What surprises me the most about the scrambling is how instinctual it is for me and how desperately I cling to it. Oftentimes I don’t even have to think about it before I lie, or twist the truth to others and myself so that I don’t have to see my sin for how ugly it is. And then I double down. I make excuses. I justify my actions. I would do anything to not have my shame exposed. 

 

Could Shame be a Gift?

But what if having my shame seen by others could actually serve as a gift? What if the thing I am working so desperately to keep hidden is an opportunity to receive grace, love, and forgiveness? Hold that thought while we jump back to the story. 

Here I am standing in front of my extended family, trying to gather their attention so that I can pray. They are all looking at me with shock and indignation. It was quiet for a few moments before my mother-in-law walked over to me. 

What should I do? What can I say? I don’t have the opportunity to hide, suppress, or deny what just happened. I did the only thing I could with my shame exposed. I looked at her and said, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Will you forgive me?” 

This was scary. This was embarrassing. This was vulnerable. I did not know what would happen next. She graciously looked at me, gave me a hug, and said, “I forgive you. I love you.” 

Now I have made mistakes and needed to be forgiven more times than I can count. But this one meant so much to me. She didn’t have to forgive at that moment. She had every right to be angry but she showed me mercy. 

 

A Taste of Grace

I tell this story to highlight the taste of grace I received from my mother-in-law that day. Yes, my mother-in-law is a saint, but more importantly, the same gift she offered that day is the same gift God offers us every day. 

Every day we make mistakes. And every day we are tempted to hide them. When our sin is exposed it leads to our shame. And while shame is such a powerful emotion which can lead to scrambling and hiding, because of the gospel, shame can also be a gift. Shame is an opportunity to run to God with our sin exposed and receive his grace, mercy, and forgiveness. 

Here are two verses that have been meaningful to me when I think about wanting to hide my sin and shame instead of running to the One who has borne our shame.

The one who conceals his sins will not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them will find mercy.  Proverbs 28:13

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  I John 1:9

 

Having it all Together

I spend most of my life trying to act like I have it together. What if instead, when I mess up and my shame is exposed, I run to God? In his loving arms I receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness. This is when I receive the reminder of the gospel, that on the cross, Christ died for the penalty of my sin and shame. And he also credits to me his righteousness. Let me say it again, my sin is replaced with his righteousness. 

This is why shame can be a gift. Because the gospel means that I am both deeply flawed and deeply loved. At the same time.

My challenge to you and to myself everyday is to take our shame and use it as an opportunity to run to God who sees us, knows us, and loves us. I pray your shame can be a gift that leads to a deeper experience of his love for you. 

Hitting the Refresh Button on Grace

Hitting the Refresh Button on Grace

Many of us have heard of one famous German theologian who stood up to the Nazi party. But did you know there was another famous theologian beside Deitrich Bonhoeffer who did the same thing? Yes it’s true, and his name was Paul Tillich.

Paul Tillich

The Nazi party wanted Tillich to renounce his published political views in order to keep teaching in Germany, and the legend is that Tillich laughed at the SS guards, and was of course, swiftly banned from teaching in any school in Germany. Hearing of his situation, and with admiration for his work, Tillich was invited to teach in the United States by two famous public theologians, the Neibhur brothers. He lived the rest of his life teaching in the United States at various famous universities. Martin Luther King did his doctoral dissertation on Tillich, and in fact, his fearless intellectual inquiry and diagnosis of culture took the United States by storm, causing him to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1959.

Hitting the Refresh Button

Tillich is undoubtedly a controversial figure in theology, and he and I disagree on a number of key realities, but one of things I can appreciate about Paul Tillich was his effort to take Christian concepts and symbols that felt stale to cultural and societal conversation (a conversation that was increasingly growing more secular), and hit the refresh button on these concepts so that they could make a renewed impact. He didn’t want society, the world, or the church for that matter, to leave behind Christian concepts or symbols simply because they were thought to be outdated. In the midst of secularization, Tillich was certain that the Christian faith was valuable to modern people and society. For example, he hit the refresh button on faith by calling it “the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern.” Even more, he hit the refresh button on God by calling God the “ground of being.” And though this appears to be an impersonal term, for Tillich, it avoids the idea of God being a “being,” which would mean God is subject to finitude and bound to some form like all other ‘beings,’ or unable to transcend even the infinite.

In a famous op-ed column in The Saturday Evening Post he wrote this: “If we define religion as the state of being grasped by an infinite concern we must say: Man in our time has lost such infinite concern.” The Christian faith is relevant for every generation, but Tillich wanted to figure out how to reach a new generation.

Sin

Another one of the simple ways Tillich hits the refresh button on Christian concepts is how he talked about sin. Tillich would say that we don’t understand the word sin anymore. The power of sin has largely been lost to us, and by that he means we don’t understand the depth and breadth that term embodies.

Whenever he spoke of sin, he would only use that word briefly. Instead, he would speak of separation. He would say that we should understand sin is really separation or even estrangement. Because of sin we are estranged from one another; we are separated from how relationships really should be and work. Because of sin we are estranged from ourselves; and we are separated from who we really should be. And because of sin we are estranged from God; we are separated from whom we actually belong.

Grace

The Christian concept that answers the malady and tragedy of sin is grace. Grace, like sin, is difficult to describe, and Tillich again would say we don’t really understand the word grace anymore either. Is grace just forgiveness? Is grace some kind of ethereal force, or magical power of God?

For Tillich, grace was neither of those things. Instead, grace is how God overcomes the separation and estrangement of sin. In other words, it is through grace separation from God is overcome. The grace of God through Jesus breaks into our lives in spite of separation. Essentially, grace is the acceptance from God of that which is formerly rejected by God. Grace is the reunion of God’s life to our life.

Here is what Paul Tillich says about grace in one of his sermons titled You Are Accepted:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you…Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace.”

The Courage to Accept Grace

As Christians, we should be confident that we are rooted in God’s grace. We have a complete, immediate, and total reality of acceptance from God through his Son. In his book, The Courage to Be, Tillich says that it takes courage to accept that you are accepted by God. He has a different Christology than I am inclined to adopt, but I still agree with him.

It takes courage to believe, live into, and embody a hope that flies in the face of existential despair and anxiety. As Christians, we understand we are wholly accepted through Jesus.
When we courageously accept our acceptance from God, then we can also courageously reject the other words, things, or realities that seek to strip us of our rootedness in God’s grace. When you are lonely and in a place of despair or darkness, through God’s grace your light can be remembering that you are forever accepted by the One who matters. When you are struggling because you receive harsh words from co-workers or your boss, through God’s grace the final word spoken to you and over you is that you are accepted by him. And when you have made decisions that make you fear rejection from others and you struggle to even accept yourself, through God’s grace you have no reason to fear, you are always accepted.

This is God’s grace: his grace through Jesus has the power to overcome all separation. Do you have the courage to believe him? Do you have the courage to live out of his grace?

God’s Face Is Toward You

God’s Face Is Toward You

When my kids were little, one of the best parts of my life was when I’d walk in the door at the end of a long day. They’d run to me, squeeze my legs, squeal with delight, beg me for piggyback rides, the “dragon game,” or other ridiculous forms of roughhouse. Their faces could practically light up the entire room at the very sight of me. I was a hero, a celebrity, the most loved human on the planet and the source of one of their greatest delights. It felt pretty good. 

I have teenagers now. Needless to say, I’m not even sure they notice when I get home (or that I ever left). While I choose to believe they’re still glad to see me (after all, according to Hebrews 11, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…), I do miss those little faces lighting up like that at my very presence. You know the feeling, right?

 

A face that is glad to see you

Does anything feel better than seeing another human light up when they see you? You show up at a friend’s house that you haven’t seen in years. You return home from a long and tiring business trip and your spouse greets you at the door. You arrive home after your first semester in college. Your grandkids finally pull up after a long road trip. Even as I write this, I can literally feel my face lighting up just at the very thought of these situations.

We also feel this in the small and subtle things. When you walk into church and you can just tell the people you see are glad to see you. Their faces light up, which makes your face light up, which makes their faces light up even more, which makes your face…. It feels good, doesn’t it?

We now know that there is brain science to back this up. Jim Wilder and Michel Hendricks, in their brilliant little book, The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation, write:

Our brains desire joy more than any other thing. As we go through our day, our right brains are scanning our surroundings, looking for people who are happy to be with us.

God designed facial recognition circuitry into our brains and linked it to our joy center. My wife’s face lights up when she sees me, and this initiates a joyful chain reaction in my brain that I can feel in my body. Brain science reveals that this joy sensation is crucial for emotional and relational development. Our brain looks specifically to the face of another person to find joy, and this fills up our emotional gas tank. The face is key.

They summarize joy in three points. 1) Joy is primarily transmitted through the face (especially the eyes) and secondarily through voice. 2) Joy is relational. It is what we feel when we are with someone who is happy to be with us. Joy does not exist outside of relationship. 3) Joy is important to God and to us.

Of course, I didn’t need to quote these experts for us to know this to be true, nor do we need science’s confirmation for the things we already believe so deeply. We feel this deep in our bones! We know, even in our own bodies, that this is true.

It shouldn’t surprise us then that God has also known this to be true, for this is how he made us. Long before any of these scientific studies were even imagined, God imagined humans, and he made us to light up at the faces of one another. He made us for joy—joy with him and joy with each other. 

 

“The Lord make his face shine on you”

It even comes out in the “original” benediction or blessing in the Bible. It’s the oldest we have and it has long been my personal favorite of all the benedictions we give at church. In seminary, our pastor used to sing it over the congregation at the end of the service. We say it over every child in our dedication services, I try to work it into every one of my weddings, and I love using it on Christmas Eve and the start of every new year. It’s also become one of my favorite songs we sing from Elevation Worship, The Blessing.

Thousands of years before we knew anything about brain science or interpersonal neurobiology, God knew, and our brilliant Creator God gave us this benediction. I memorized it first in the NIV, Numbers 6:22-26: 

 The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:

 “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.”

 

The original blessing, the blessing God commanded, perhaps the highest blessing we can receive, is that God’s face would light up when he sees us. That he would continually turn his face toward us. For this is the ultimate blessing, the ultimate protection, the ultimate act of grace, and the greatest source of peace. If you want real joy, here is where it is found—seeing God’s face light up when you walk in the room. Knowing that God is glad to be with you.

Reflecting on this passage, Wilder and Hendricks write: 

God designed our brains for joy, and He wants us to live in the glow of His delight. This blessing expresses a joy that can be paraphrased, ‘May you feel the joy of God’s face shining on you because He is happy to be with you.’

 

How can God possibly be glad to see me?

However, if I’m honest, I often wonder, does God’s face really light up when he sees me? He knows me. All of me. He knows the ways I tried to run from him in high school. He knows the mistakes I made in college. He knows my failures as a husband, as a father, as a son, as a brother, as a friend, as a pastor, as a colleague, as a boss, as an employee, as a neighbor, as a citizen, as a human. So many mistakes, so much sin. Every one of my faults is in his face, even the failures I’ve been unable to admit to myself. He sees.

You can’t hide anything from God’s face. And I imagine that disappointed look, like the one your mom or dad used to make. Or worse, I imagine him turning away from me, and walking out on me. If YOU really knew me, dear reader, YOU would turn your face from me and walk out on me. Each of us has felt this happen way too many times. Nothing destroys our joy quite like this.

And yet….

The good news of what Jesus has done for us means our God will never do that to any of his children. No matter what. Ever. You see, Jesus already died the death we deserve, and when he was forsaken on the cross, the Father did turn his face away. That is what we deserve, but Jesus experienced that for us, so that we never will.

Jesus also lived the life we could never live—perfect, holy, righteous, just. He took our shame and gave us his goodness, so that when the Father looks at us, he sees all the good that Jesus is. All of his beauty and righteousness and love. We are given credit for that.

This means, if you are one of God’s children through faith in Jesus, his face is always toward you. It’s always shining when he sees you. For our God is always glad to see you. Do you believe that?

Like lovers who have been separated for months. Like a parent who hasn’t seen their child for a whole semester. Like your grandkids when they finally show up for a long awaited visit. Like your closest college friends at an unexpected reunion. That’s how God feels EVERYTIME he sees you. And he always sees you! His face is always toward you. Can you see his eyes lighting up?

Now I realize this is hard to believe. The gospel of Jesus usually is hard to believe. So how do we actually experience this? I want to feel this—how can we? Let me quickly and inadequately suggest two things.

 

Turn your face toward him

First, if you want to experience the joy of God’s face toward you, you have to turn your face toward him. It’s mutual. He also wants to see your face light up when you see him! Like any relationship, the joy is best experienced by prioritizing time for that person, and mutually enjoying one another.

When you open your Bible, when you carve out time for prayer, when you quiet your life enough to listen for him, when you show up to church each Sunday, when you sing songs of praise to him, when you go on a walk alone in the woods. These are the spaces we are most likely and most often to experience his face and his joy, and he experiences it from us, too. If we want joy, we have to make these things a priority. Like the old hymn says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in his wonderful face

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of his glory and grace

 

Turn your face toward others

Second, if you want to experience the joy of God’s face toward you, you have to turn your face toward others. So often our experience of God’s love comes through the love we feel to and from others. When you show up at church or your community group or Bible study, does your face light up from the people you see? As yours lights up, theirs will too, and you’ll get a taste of the joy of God’s face. If we want joy, we have to make each other a priority.

As we do these things, with faith in Jesus as our deep hope, we’ll experience joy, and we will live out the fulfillment of the greatest benediction. 

Let these words again wash over you—not simply as a wish, but as a truth that is fully yours in Jesus Christ. Read them this time from another translation:

“May the Lord bless you and protect you;

 may the Lord make his face shine on you

and be gracious to you;

 may the Lord look with favor on you

and give you peace.”’  Numbers 6:22-26 CSB

These words have already come true for all who believe. Amen and Amen!