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A Parting Blessing

A parting blessing. My mother used to say it as we said goodbye for any length of time, like when I was returning to boarding school or college. “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are apart, one from the other” (Genesis 31:49-50). It sounds so affectionate, lovely. I only learned later, and I wonder if she ever knew, that it was actually spoken between Laban and Jacob as a prayer for accountability. It expresses the suspicion of wrongdoing and the uneasy peace that marred their relationship. In truth it’s more like the refrain of the Christmas song, Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, warning little kids that Santa “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”

I wonder whether, in our fallen, broken, hearts, that’s the only kind of blessing we really expect from God. More like a warning. Be good because nothing escapes me.

With our own children, we replaced it with the blessing from Numbers, and I was delighted to learn on a recent overnight with grandchildren that they now expect to hear it spoken over them every night.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
(Numbers 6:24-26, ESV)

The Discipleship Journal theme for this year, Face to Face, reflects my own sense of how infrequently (even in my praying!) I turn my full face, my expectant gaze, to the Father, seeking him attentively and humbly. I tend to rush in and out of God’s presence, often distractedly. This all sent me digging for a fuller understanding of the way God’s face is spoken of in the Scriptures. What does it mean for his countenance to be upon me, and for me to focus my attention on it?

Jacob says he “saw God face to face” as he slept on his rock pillow. He watches messengers descending on a ladder from heaven and he questions why he didn’t die on the spot (Genesis 32:30). Wonderfully, later Jesus identifies himself as that very stairway that connects heaven and men, the means by which we may seek and see God’s face (John 1:51).

The unhealed parts of our hearts fear what we deserve. We sometimes still view God as Santa, making a list of our good and bad deeds. We’re familiar with that list. We avoid his face. But what do the Scriptures say about his face as he watches over us?

He turns his face away from rebellion, but in seeking him with repentance, we find him “gracious and merciful. If you return to him, he will not continue to turn his face from you” (2 Chron. 30:9). And what expression will we find on that face?

The Psalmist exhorts us to find out, to turn to the Lord’s face for strength (105:4), for instruction (119:135), and for loving kindness (31:16), not letting shame or fear cause us to avoid his full presence. My favorite these days is the declaration in Psalm 44:3 that God defeated Israel’s enemies “by the affection of his countenance, for he loved them.” 

Jesus has destroyed the barrier our sins erected between us and the Father, and he has become the very avenue to the Father’s loving face. God’s face is smiling on us, saints, us personally! The Father’s face is full of the same affection he has for his son (John 17). Our perspective changes radically when we take him at his word. Our faces change when we face him with confidence. “Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy, no shadow of shame will darken their faces” (Psalm 34:5, NLT).

If our confidence in the affection of his countenance is fleeting now, Paul promises that one day we will be past all doubt. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). Sometimes the difficulty of our circumstances tempts us to wonder if God could possibly be looking our way. Is he noticing? I love William Cowper’s hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, for articulating these fears and addressing them.

  1. God moves in a mysterious way
    His wonders to perform;
    He plants His footsteps in the sea
    And rides upon the storm.
  2. Deep in unfathomable mines
    Of never failing skill
    He treasures up His bright designs
    And works His sov’reign will.
  3. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
    The clouds ye so much dread
    Are big with mercy and shall break
    In blessings on your head.
  4. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
    But trust Him for His grace;
    Behind a frowning providence
    He hides a smiling face.
  5. His purposes will ripen fast,
    Unfolding every hour;
    The bud may have a bitter taste,
    But sweet will be the flow’r.
  6. Blind unbelief is sure to err
    And scan His work in vain;
    God is His own interpreter,
    And He will make it plain.

As I conclude these years of writing for the diocese, I can’t think of anything better to pray for us than that we would continue to seek the Lord’s “smiling face” with confidence and expectancy, and that his love would light us up with joy and vanquish anything that threatens to undo us.