by Patrick Lafferty
Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.
Writing in the New Yorker in 2002, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Dr. Paul Ekman, a Harvard psychologist who likes to look at people’s faces. After years of studying facial affect among a variety of cultures, Ekman began noticing certain universal muscle movements that corresponded to common human emotions. He documented forty-three distinct movements our faces can make, which can yield no less than three thousand unique combinations of expression.
Eventually Ekman and his colleagues compiled the database of expressions into what came to be known as the Facial Action Coding System (FACS). This system has found manifold applications, from training law-enforcement in counter-terrorism to rendering computer-generated images of an aged Brad Pitt in the film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The face is truly a treasure trove of information.
Mark provoked our biblical imaginations last Sunday by asking us to envisage the visages of those who witnessed the tomb firsthand. Though the New Testament is spare (but not silent) in describing the emotional states of its personages—including the Lord Jesus, Himself—we do well to picture their faces accompanying their words and deeds, even if our visualizations are, speaking contemporarily, of the lowest resolution. The cursory mentions of Joseph of Arimathea convey his actions, but we can easily imagine what his face exhibited as fear followed him while retrieving the body of Jesus. The text says the women “stood at a distance” when the tomb was sealed, but it takes little imagination to see in one’s mind the sorrow upon their disillusioned faces.
Conceptualizing the faces of our Lord when He wept, of Saul on a Damascus road about to have his name changed, of Martha missing the point as she scurried to prepare a meal for Jesus enriches our study. Unforeseen benefits accrue from meditating upon the larger, if implicit, emotional dimension of a given moment by imagining faces. Yet thinking about faces may have an even larger significance for our spiritual formation.
What Ekman and Gladwell argue is that our faces don’t lie, try as we might to get the smiling muscles of our zygomaticus major to cover for us. Since our faces unmask our mood, we can say, by extension, they also betray our theology—or, to the superficial observer, belie it. They image our hearts, bearing witness to our raw, unalloyed beliefs about the Lord and ourselves.
If, for example, we see God as only a stern taskmaster, demanding and exacting swift compliance to all He has said, would not such a belief register upon our faces at least subtly? Or in contrast, wouldn’t an abiding peace on the face signal an abiding trust in the majesty and mercy of God? We could only make said deductions based on extensive observation in public and private settings, the latter verifying the authenticity of the former. But we learn much truth from seeing the face well.
Imagine our own little experiment with the Facial Action Coding System, this time with a spiritual application. If somehow we could compile your facial expressions over the last six months into a database and generate a composite picture of your most common expression, what would the analysis reveal? Would the dominant muscle combinations correspond to sorrow or to delight? Would your levator palpebrae superioris and depressor glabellae (the muscles exhibiting anger) score high? Would the analysis show fear—the most sophisticated and demanding of the combinations–portending your face was bound for breakdown?
A single snapshot in time yields evidence pertaining to the moment. But this imaginary composite picture would help us understand how you see all your moments. For how we see God seeing us shapes how we see ourselves and all else.
The imaginary experiment may be more feasible than you think. A little reflection—perhaps just asking those who see your face most often—could provide the composite picture that reveals your heart’s truest belief. Then with that image in mind, you might ask what your face’s dominant orientation discloses about your perception of God’s perception of you. Does your rendering of His face include a look of enduring love and firm insistence on following? Are the nuances of sin-hating and sinner-loving both present in the picture you envision?
Resurrection day may have passed, but a resurrection life—the one awaiting the day when we shall see Him face to face (1Cor 13:12)—demands we let the Cross sketch the full holiness and mercy of God’s now hidden face.