by Jayson Georges
Imagine we just met in person. While making introductions, I pull a picture out of my wallet and say, “These are my three kids.” But the picture is of their feet. That would be confusing, if not socially awkward.
We humans use an entirely different part of our body to represent people—the face. Human identity is intimately connected to the small part of our body on the front of our head. A picture of someone should show his or her face; that is how we recognize people. Face and identity are inseparable.
This example shows the intricate link between face, identity, and community. Since face is a vital aspect of Majority World cultures, below I propose a biblical theology and missiology of face for ministry in honor-shame, or ‘face-conscience’, contexts.
The Face of Shame
Our physical face expresses feelings of shame and honor. For example, disgrace lowers the eyes and makes people blush—”No longer will Jacob be ashamed; no longer will their faces grow pale” (Isa. 29:22). More positively, fame raises our chin and makes our face beam—“Look to [God], and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed” (Ps 34:5). Our face is a billboard that displays our social status.
The standard visual for shame is someone looking down or covering his or her face. Ezra sensed this when confessing his sins: “I’m too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to God” (Ezra 9:6). A person who feels inadequate or defective tries to hide themselves by concealing the front side of their head. (Yes, akin to a toddler who plays hide-n-seek by covering his or her eyes!) If my face is hidden, then I think you cannot see ‘me’. One time I said a foolish comment before all my colleagues, and everyone erupted in laughter towards me. In that moment, I sensed an inner compulsion to crawl under the table and hide my face.
Shame not only affects our own ‘face’, but plays out in our social interactions as well. For example, slapping or spitting on another’s face is a grave insult. Families in traditional cultures may employ ‘honor violence’ against a disgraceful relative to restore the family honor. One common form is acid attacks—throwing chemicals on someone’s face to permanently and utterly humiliate them. This loss of face is arguably worse than an honor killing as the person must then live with ‘no face,’ both physically and socially.
In English, we say a person can “lose face” or “save face.” These idioms do not refer to a person’s physical face, but social identity. Face is a synonym for reputation and respect. The term ‘facework’ describes the ways people project and manage their social identities. One common arena for facework is Facebook. Social media allow people to easily present an alternative face through scripted comments and select pictures. A person can update their status, accrue friends, update their profile, and like others without ever showing his or her real face.
While certain cultures are particularly adept at facework, all people manage face to some degree. Consider the amount of face granted by the following three greetings in English: “Yo, dude!” “Hello, sir,” and “Your Royal Majesty.” Each phrase confers a certain amount and kind of social status.
Life in collectivistic cultures is often a chase for face. In Central Asia, the phrase “you have no face” is a severe insult. These words functionally rebuke a person for losing his or her sense of social regard and define him or her as a nobody, a person who is invisible to the community.
Face for Thais is like snow for Eskimos—a highly valued commodity with a rich vocabulary. In the Thai language you can: display face, give face, fix face, take face, carry face, sell face, tear off face, and even “hammer” face (Flanders 2011, 275). In Asian cultures, face is the glue that binds relationships and communities. So people take great precaution to grant and preserve face. Leaders use face as social capital to empower themselves and their followers (Persons 2016).
For a westerner like myself, the emphasis on face was confusing and frustrating. I was often blind to the reality of face. Even when I noticed its centrality in relationships, I dismissed it as manipulate, deceitful, and even immature.
But my years in Central Asia allowed me to see how and why the Bible says so much about face. Face lies at the heart of our relationship with God and our mission to the world. To summarize, we must get face from God and then give face to others. The following sections develop this biblical theology and missiology of face.
Seeing God’s Face in Scripture
God reveals his face to people, but we humans hide our face from God—this motif about face runs through the Bible. Although humans crave face, we turn from the One True Face.
In Genesis 1, God gives us ultimate face. Being made in the “image of God,” humans essentially have God’s face (i.e., our status as co-regents over creation) and are God’s face (i.e., represent him to the world, as signposts pointing to his glory). The first story after the fall involves the tragic loss of face. Cain offers a gift to God, but God did not look upon it favorably (Gen 4:4). “So Cain was very angry and his face fell” (4:5). When Cain was disregarded, he turned his face away. His parents Adam and Eve also hid and were covered in shame. God made us to see him face to face, but sin warps our hearts and makes us hide our face from God.
God offers restoration of face to Cain—“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? [lit., “will there not be a lifting up of face?”]” (4:7). Nevertheless, Cain kills Abel out of status envy and removes his brother’s face from the picture altogether. The tragic and ironic consequence of Cain’s false pursuit of face is losing access to God’s face. Cain says, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face” (4:13–14).
Every human longs to be noticed and connect face to face, with people and with God. This is the heart cry of David in Psalm 27:8, “ ‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” A key reason people of all cultures crave face from other humans is because sin disconnects us from God’s face. We each feel (and thus compensate for) the shame of our alienation from God. The absence of God’s face is our greatest shame, and every person feels the sting of that separation. Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your sin is a barrier between you and God; your sins have hidden God’s face from you.” Cain’s story is prototypical—humans hide their face, reject God’s offer of face, and then lose access to God’s face.
God’s Face as Salvation
God’s face is not hidden forever; God gifts his face to the human family. God reveals his face—“Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love (Ps. 31:16); and we behold God’s face—“Look to [God], and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed” (Ps. 34:5). Looking to God’s face confers radiance to our own face. Recall what happened to Moses’ face when he saw God’s face: “When he came down from Mt. Sinai, his face was shining so brightly that the other Israelites were afraid to approach him. Seeing God’s face made his face so radiant, he had to wear a veil” (Exod. 34:30). Beholding God’s face changed Moses’ face.
God’s face may be defined as his gracious and honoring presence. Access to God’s face is like a special invitation into the emperor’s grand palace. This privilege of royal access confers status. God’s people stand in God’s presence and connect intimately with the God of glory. While the absence of God’s face is our greatest shame, seeing the face of God is our greatest honor.
New covenant believers now behold God’s face as never before. In Ezekiel 39:29, God foretold, “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.” The gift of God’s spirit means God’s face is always visible to believers. We are not simply in God’s presence, but God’s presence now resides in us. To continue the above metaphor, the emperor has left his palace to move into the squalid shacks of our mortal bodies, a tremendous and undeserving honor.
In 2 Corinthians 3 Paul explains the glory of seeing God. Whereas the Old Covenant came through Moses with great glory, the New Covenant has a greater, permanent glory. Spiritual blindness inhibits visibility, but Jesus removes the veil from our face and allows us to behold God’s glory (vv. 10–14). In Paul’s mind, all of history climaxes with the grand unveiling of God’s glorious face:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
In one verse, Paul summarizes the glory of salvation: God reveals his face, which we behold and experience; then, God’s face reshapes us into the face of Jesus Christ, into every increasing echelons of glory. Revelation 22:4 describes heaven as such: “[God’s] servants will worship him; they will see his face.” Heaven is beholding the face of perfect Glory, not dimly as through a mirror, but face to face (1 Cor. 13:12).
Rejecting God’s Face
A tragic reality remains—people reject God’s face. When God’s face became a human face in Jesus, people could not recognize it (John 1:10; 2 Cor. 4:3–4). Isaiah foresaw the rejection: “Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (Isa. 53:3). Out of arrogance, humans do not give face to Jesus. Instead, we crucify Glory. The crucifixion was the ultimate turning from God’s face.
The human tendency to turn from God’s face continues until the final day, when people command the mountains, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne” (Rev. 6:16). People in shame go to great lengths to hide their face from God. C. S. Lewis aptly summarizes the final judgment in the language of face:
In the end that Face which is the delight or the terror of the universe must be turned upon each of us either with one expression or with the other, either conferring glory inexpressible or inflicting shame that can never be cured or disguised. (Lewis 2001)
In sum, humans long for face and God reveals face in the person of Jesus Christ, but sin keeps people from God’s face. Considering the importance of facework in global cultures and the prominence of face in scripture, face dynamics could be more central in contemporary global ministry. We offer several practical suggestions via two rubrics: get face and give face.
A first step is getting face at a cognitive level. Western culture (and theology) gives little place to the realities of honor, shame, and face. Although honor and shame are central moral values in Majority World cultures and prominent throughout the Bible (Georges and Baker 2016), they represent a significant growth area for Western theology and missiology.
We must also get God’s face at the heart level. The realities of God’s revealed glory in Christ must transform our spirituality as mission practitioners. Christians must ask themselves, “Whose face am I truly seeking?” Or perhaps, “Whose face are you hiding from?”
Shame and face-consciousness knows no cultural boundaries; they plague all people. True face and true status come only from Jesus Christ; he gives us his glory (John 17:22; Rom. 8:17; 2 Thess. 1:12). We are to seek God’s face, not our own. God’s face is tangibly seen and experienced through community. We all long to be fully seen and yet fully loved; we want people to see our true face and keep looking upon us.
To adapt the popular bread metaphor, once we realize we are faceless no-names who have been given face, then we will be eager to share that face with others. And this might happen in multiple ways.
Christians should be intentional to communicate face in personal interactions with people. This includes concrete actions such as giving gifts, hosting guests, and using proper greetings. Our team hosted a formal dinner for the employees of our business center. When thanking our main employee during the ceremony, I publicly emphasized his accomplishments and positive character qualities, then presented him with a gift from a prestigious store in town. Although my Western tendencies felt uncomfortable ‘playing-up’ his role, these actions purposefully communicated face in a way everyone recognized as genuinely honoring.
We must be particularly conscious to give face during conflict. The Western approach to conflict resolution focuses on facts and neglects face. Without sacrificing truth, we must consciously consider the dimension of face when confronting or apologizing (Rom. 12: 14, 18). Western communication emphasizes direct confrontation, verbal confession, and public apology as legitimate forms of restoration.
But those practices can expose shame, cause loss of face, and increase relational tension. To preserve face during conflict, consider using a mediator, speaking indirectly about the problem, publicly praising the person you offended, or using food to symbolize forgiveness.
Giving face goes deeper than communication techniques; Christians are also people who confer God’s face to the disgraced. Sam was an American missionary teaching in Haiti. One day, a local student came into his yard looking quite sick. When Sam asked what happened, the young man recounted how he felt disrespected. His disgrace was visibly palpable as he said, “I can go three days without food, but without respect, I can’t live.”
In that moment, Sam prayed with the Haitian student and shared how Jesus restores his honor. His face went from being totally downcast to radiant after the prayer. Sam wisely realized the root problem was the loss of face. Restoration and healing came as Sam shared God’s face with the Haitian student. His words bore witness to crucial kingdom realities.
Our relationships must graciously confer honor and face upon people. But eternal face only comes through seeing and knowing Jesus Christ. How might evangelism present the gospel in terms of face?
Linda ministered among Chinese immigrants in America. She discovered that the Chinese euphemism “scratch God’s face,” a term of deplorable shame, was an effective and powerful way for Chinese to understand sin in Genesis 3 and their own lives. Perhaps it resonates to explain sin as “we have no face before God” or “we marred God’s face.” The explicit language of honor, shame, and face in the Bible makes such face metaphors appropriate redemptive analogies.
The above sections about face in biblical theology provide some raw data one could use to frame the gospel in terms of face. The gospel could be explained as: (1) we all lost face, (2) Jesus has face, and (3) we get face from Jesus (Wu 2014).
These reflections come from my personal effort to understand, live, and proclaim the gospel in a particular honor-shame culture of Central Asia. Although readers’ contexts will differ, the global prevalence of honor and shame makes the missional paradigm of “Get Face!, Give Face!” a potentially fruitful contemporary mission practice. In closing, “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” (Num. 6:24–26).
Flanders, Christopher. 2011. About Face: Rethinking Face for 21st Century Mission. Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock.
Georges, Jayson and Mark D. Baker. 2016. Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
Lewis, C. S. 2001. The Weight of Glory. San Francisco: HarperOne.
Persons, Larry. 2016. The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.
Wu, Jackson. 2014. Do You Want Face?
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Jayson Georges lived nine years in Central Asia. He is author of The 3D Gospel (Time Press, 2014) and Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures: Biblical Foundations and Practical Essentials (IVP Academic, 2016). He also hosts www.HonorShame.com.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 3. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.