Have you ever felt embarrassed and wanted nothing more than to hide from the discomfort of a very humbling moment in your life? When I was in junior high, my parents took our family to spend some time on vacation at a ranch house that we owned. Late one evening, when no one was around, I snuck into the kitchen and snitched a fudgsicle out of the freezer, but in my effort to hide myself by quickly scurrying away so that no one would see me eating yet more calories after dinner, unbeknownst to me, I had accidentally failed to get the freezer door all the way closed.
The next morning, when my parents saw that the freezer door was ajar and that our family’s ration of frozen food had partially thawed overnight, they were both upset. I remember them asking us kids, “Okay, who did this?” When my brother, sister, and I all pled innocent, my father said, “Alright, since none of you are coming clean on this, all of you are going to be spanked.” Feeling terrible about the verdict that my dad had just pronounced, I sighed and then quite magnanimously volunteered to take the spanking on behalf of three innocent kids. My mother, realizing that I must have been the culprit, sarcastically said out loud, “Oh, Sarah, you’re so noble.” So much shame was bound up in me in that moment that I said nothing; I just took the spanking and found a bit of solace that at least my brother and sister didn’t get punished for my wrongdoing. Instead of facing the truth in front of my whole family, I sought instead to save face.
The English idiom, save face, connotes the opposite idea of the Chinese expression, “lose face” (diu lian; 丢脸) To lose face is to be damaged socially. To save face is to avoid a loss of reputation or respect from other people. Ways to lose face include doing something wrong, violating a rule, not having the right answer, making a dumb mistake, or inflicting evil. In Chinese, the concept of “face” is mianzi (or lian), which refers to the amount of dignity, prestige or good standing that a person has.
As a theologian, I have done some deep thinking about the word face because it is a biblical word. In Genesis 4:1-15, we find Cain filled with anger against his brother, Abel, because Abel’s sacrifice, infused with faith, was acceptable to God (Hebrews 11:4). Cain’s sacrifice – being faithless – was not.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your face fallen?” In Hebrew the word for “face” is ( פָּנָֽיו׃; pānāw), often translated in English as “countenance.”
Cain felt ashamed because God had no regard for the offering that he brought to the Lord. Note: the Bible does not say that Cain felt remorse or sorrow or regret. Cain felt deflated for the sake of himself. His male ego was wounded. Cain sought selfish gain–he wanted to gain face. But God saw through his pretentiousness. So Cain became murderously angry.
God said to Cain, “If you do well, will not your face be lifted up?” God continued, “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you. But you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).
In other words, God told Cain to take responsibility for his own actions.
So what did Cain do? The Bible says that “Cain told Abel, his brother” (Genesis 4:8a). Told him what? Did Cain tell Abel what God had said about him doing well and his countenance (“face”) being lifted up? Or did Cain tell Abel what had God said about sin “crouching at the door”?
Apparently, it was the latter because “it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and killed him” (Genesis 4:8b). Cain “rose up”, meaning he pounced upon Abel. He must have crouched somewhere in the field and ambushed his brother.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel, your brother?’ And he said, ‘I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9).
Then God pronounced a verdict against Cain, and Cain protested it in self-defense. “And Cain said to the Lord, ‘My punishment is too great to bear! Behold, You have driven me from the face of the ground, and from Your Face I shall be hidden, and I shall be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and it will come about that whoever finds me will kill me’” (Genesis 4:14).
Then God put a hedge around Cain, so to speak. God appointed a “sign” for Cain, lest anyone finding him should slay him (Genesis 4:15). Brilliant Christian writer, Frederich Beuchner, imagined that God gave Cain a mark on Cain’s face. A mark that made Cain look so utterly pathetic that no one would respect him or feel the slightest bit of threat from him. Buechner imagined a twitch of sorts distorting Cain’s countenance.
It is costly to save face. Saving face always comes at the cost of having to sacrifice the truth. To save face is to be dishonest.
In the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, that same Hebrew word, pānāw, is found in yet another revealing context: To move straight “forward” (Ezekiel 1:9, 12; 10:22). That is to say, that the word face has to do with looking at what’s right in front of you. To “face” reality. Cain did not want to face reality. Neither did I. The cost of not facing reality is very severe because it causes us to lie, to deny reality. Or even worse, to attack reality, as Cain did.
But the good news of the gospel is that there is a real way to save face, but ironically the way is for us to be willing to lose face first. Jesus put it this way, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25). When you’re worried about losing face, you practically feel like you’re going to die. You feel like you’re losing your life, or at least life as you know it.
But it is sheer deception to think that you can save your life by striving at all costs to “save face.”
If we will dare to be honest – genuinely vulnerable – before the Living Lord, God will save our face, our soul, our life. God will give us a new self. In II Corinthians 3:16-18, we find a remarkable gift to any person who “turns to the Lord,” and that is this: God removes a veil from our face, the very veil that lies over our heart and prevents us from loving God.
“But we all with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror, the glory of the Lord, are being transformed!”
No matter what you’ve done, turn your face to God. Face God. Face the truth. Take off any mask you’re wearing. Because when you do so, the Lord will bless you, and keep you, and make His Face shine upon you (Numbers 6:24-26). And you will be transformed!
Read the full September 2023 Update