The countenance

Psalm 42:11 “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”

One of the outward signs of the condition of the heart is our countenance. It’s an obvious sign of our emotional state. It’s something that’s very hard to hide.  The Bible speaks to this fact in many places and from the earliest of times. We have all heard of the story of Cain and Abel.  Out of jealousy, Cain kills his brother.  Then God confronts Cain with these words: “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen (Genesis 4:6)?”  We’ve all seen such scowls, and we’ve all expressed them. Then there is the face of depression.  That’s the emotion being expressed in the verse above from Psalm 42. It’s called the condition of being downcast, which is such an apt description of not only the soul, but the countenance of such a person.   And then there’s the face of fear.  You can see it in someone’s eyes, no matter what one might say to the contrary. 

It’s so interesting how the countenance of one person can affect the emotional condition of another.  The Bible tells us that we should empathize with others. We are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).”  We are naturally helped in all this as we observe the countenance of one who is in a condition of either sorrow or joy.  Obviously, we would rather that our countenance be joyful rather than sullen, and that our face be radiant rather than dark, for isn’t that the kind of people we like to be around.  Isn’t it wonderful to be around a person whose face just shines? 

So, how can we be such people? Indeed, can we be?  It is to this that the verse above speaks. Here we have a person who is downcast.  Things are bad, and his face surely shows it.  But then he asks himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?”  He asks himself this question because it’s a condition he doesn’t want to be in.  But then, wonderfully, he tells us there is an answer.  Rather than to look downward, to himself, he realizes that his gaze needs to turn upward to God, whom he calls by this wonderful name, translated “the health of my countenance” in the King James Version.  It’s that gaze towards this One Who loves us, knows us, and has promised to help us, no matter what condition we are in, that can lift our countenance and make our face shine. 

An awesome example of this is the account of Stephen, one of the first martyrs of the early church.  As the angry crowd began to plot to stone him because he was sharing the gospel, we are told that the people seized him and brought him before the ruling council of the Jews. In the midst of this turmoil and the threat on his life we are told that “gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15).”  Then, in spite of their threats, Stephen continued to share the message of salvation that only Jesus can give.  To this we are told in Acts 7 that they became enraged and “ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”  Then, “they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed togetherat him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.” And what was Stephen’s reaction?  We are told “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” 

Absolute peace in the midst of a storm; that was the heart of Stephen.  He fixed his eyes on Jesus, and as the face of Jesus shined on him, his face shined in response. That’s the upward gaze rather than the downcast sullen look that is possible for those who put their trust in God, regardless of the circumstances.  It’s the upward gaze that we are again called to in these wonderful words from Hebrews 12:2: “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  It’s the upward gaze – demonstrated to us by those such as Stephen, who looked to Jesus, as we should – for as we look on this One Who is the Light of the world, how can our face do anything other than shine?!

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