Discountenance: When God Hides His Face

Angry boy facing away discountenance

We didn’t know what discountenance really meant until Bilbo began his smuggle in Smaug’s lair and Gabe bawled, I’m not listening. Then he plugged his ears and shouted, can’t hear you. He could.

We can’t hear, Bud. If you don’t obey and quiet down, you will be punished.

He did not and he would not. So I did what I had to do. I sent Gabe from my presence. I turned my face away.

Gabe, go out in the hall. You may listen there. Come back when you will listen.

He balked. Instead of heading to bed, he clapped hands over his ears, and wailed louder.


Go. A. Way. Get out of my sight. You may come back when you are quiet.

Then I waited for him to return. How I waited for him to return.  

A Most Grueling Parental Duty

You have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins. Isaiah 64:10

A lego man with face turned away from another lego man.

It had held every promise of a perfect night. 

Apart all day, we four were back together at night. We feasted on our favorites: beef fajitas topped with home-made salsa and vanilla bean crowned with Magic-shell. Then Chinese checkers and baths for the boys before we all snuggled in for a first-rate family film.  

Gabe was in a very good place. The boundary lines had fallen for him in pleasant places. It began a night of delight.

But the DVD stopped and bedtime came and Gabe pushed the boundaries. He was bent on hearing his bedtime story— THE HOBBIT—on the couch. I agreed to that. But when finally bedtime came, he stomped and stormed and plopped himself down defiant. He turned his back on me bawling like a little man banshee. 

That’s when the night turned ugly. But the next hour included a most-grueling parental duty. 

Your Sins Have Hidden His Face

But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you… Isaiah 59:2

Some wise Christians won’t use the word punishment when they discipline their kids. I do. Not often, and I wish never. But in this fleeting season, sometimes I do punish. By punish, I do mean that bit of discipline that is intended to inflict a penalty for an offense. 

I don’t mean paying them back or giving them what they deserve. That work is entirely God’s. And thanks be, He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10). 


But our merciful, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness Lord does discipline his children. He lets our sins separate us. The perfect Father found it necessary to punish his hard-hearted children. God turned his face from his people (Ezekiel 14:8, Leviticus 20:3-5, Jeremiah 21:5). He did not approve. He could not approve.

So when our children turn away, rebel and refuse to obey, we cannot approve. We cannot countenance, we cannot look on or look past defiant, hands-pressed-over ears rebellion.

So we discountenance. We turn our faces away.

Defining Discountenance

“In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:8

The Westminster Catechism (1648) uses the word discountenance to describe the “Duties Required of Superiors towards their Inferiors” (Q. 129). Scripture seems to reserve the punishing job for parents and for civil authorities. It is not our job to punish a spouse or friend—or an enemy. It is for us to do good, love mercy, and walk humbly and with truth in love. These are our appointed tasks. 

But for our children, punishment may be right. Two centuries after the catechism, J.C. Ryle listed punishment as one of The Duties Of Parents:

Fathers and mothers, I tell you plainly, if you never punish your children when they are in fault, you are doing them a grievous wrong…Reader, if you would train your children wisely, mark well how God the Father trains His. For He does all things well. 

But it is so hard. Done right, discipline truly hurts me more that it hurts you. But it is a work to which all loving parents are called (Hebrews 12:6, Proverbs 23:13-14). And it is a purposeful pain maturing saints are called to bear (Lamentations 3:22-30, James 1:2-4). 

So we pray that after the hard work, and all discipline- from correcting to training to punishing- is hard work, it will produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness

He Longs To Be Gracious

For the Lord will not cast off forever, but though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men. Lamentations 3:31-33

There is such grace in God’s face. It was there for the woman caught in adultery when Jesus stood up and looked at her, and for the rich young man and the Gadarene who was Legion. 

But when hearts are diamond-hard, our ears are plugged, and we sinfully walk away, our lovingly jealous Lord doesn’t shove up our chin and force us to face him. He waits, but He won’t approve. He longs, but He won’t condone. God yearns for our return, but he might look away until we turn to him.

  • The LORD waits, He longs to be gracious to you, to show mercy. In repentance and rest is salvation, he said. But you were unwilling (Isaiah 30: 18, 15, see also Isaiah 8:17 and 54:8). 
  • Return to me, your fountain of living water and I will heal you. But my people have forgotten me, forsaken me, so I will show them my back, not my face (Jeremiah 18:15, 17).
  • My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. But, when I would heal Israel, the iniquity of Ephraim is revealed (Hosea 7:1). 

While we sit and bawl in the hall, he may let us feel the shame and disgrace we deserve. Being discountenanced is bitter. Divine disapproval of our defiant disobedience smarts. Therefore repent and return, Peter preached, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

The Grace In His Shining Face

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

But then we remember the bitterness and the gall, and the pain of being separated from His shining face drives us back to its light. Then we confess our sin and he covers it. And the moment he does, we cry with Micah, Who is a God like you, pardoning sin and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love (7:18). 

But that covering and passing over comes at high cost. It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10). We considered that Son smitten, stricken, afflicted by his Father. But he bore our punishment. Like disobedient sheep, we’d strayed. We didn’t heed his voice. But now we’ve returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25). 

Maybe it was for sheer fatigue or for want of blanket and brown Bear-bear, or maybe he was contrite to the core. Maybe the little banshee boy simply came to his senses and realized he’d be better off beside brother in bed. Or maybe it just sounded cozier to hear how Smaug was taken down while mom rubbed his back than to rage alone at the far end of the hall.

Whatever the reason, Gabe obeyed and lay down his sweaty little head.

Then you better believe I turned my shining face to him.


“Sorry for plugging my ears. And interrupting and being a crybaby.
Sorry for grumbling when you told me no.
Will you please forgive me?”

(But of course, my child.)

How Bitter Turned Sweet & Good Friday Turned Great

Cross Good Friday

Good Friday turned great just before midnight. That’s when my pride died.

Again. This side of heaven, it won’t stay dead.

I can’t tell you the details. It would not be right. But I can tell you that it happened after a good friend confronted me about my wounding words.

Before Pride Died

But before pride died. I want you to know that the words I write do rattle around in my head. By them, I will be justified, or condemned. If I know the truth and ignore it, I’m worse than hot air. I’m a hypocrite.

So I tried to look for the kernel of truth in criticism that mostly seemed off- Assume you are guilty when a fellow believer confronts you about your life. And I tried to apply the cure for passive-aggressivetrust that God means good, leave him your hurt, and do good. By grace, I try to take my advice.

Maybe especially last night, because Good Friday is so good.

Why Good Friday Is Good

Good Friday is good because “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3), and because, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). And it’s good because “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).

Good Friday is good because by Christ’s death, we are freed from the penalty of sin and the guilt of sin. Because he bore our sins.

That is why Good Friday is good.

Marahs Made Sweet

I read and re-read my friend’s words. They stung. But I knew there was a kernel of truth in them, because I know there is sin in me. So I confessed, not was she accused, but what I knew was true.

That layer removed, I thought of other sins of which my friend had no clue. And just before midnight, I went to bed and paged to the prayer called “The Grace of the Cross.”

O My Saviour,

I thank thee from the depths of my being

    for thy wondrous grace and love

  in bearing my sin in thine own body on the tree.

May thy cross be to me

  as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs…

I got that far before the bitter tears began to flow. Bitter, in Hebrew, is marah. The Israelites found water too bitter to drink and called the place Marah (Exodus 15:22-27). Then the Lord showed Moses “a piece of wood.” He threw it in the water and the water turned sweet.

Wood turned bitter water sweet. I remember when I taught the story to my Sunday school class. Millie and Michaela and Audrie got it. They saw the cross of Christ.

They understood it was wood that makes our bitter water sweet.

How Good Friday Turned Great

Last night I tasted both. Bitterness first- It was my sin that held him there.

But then sobbing like a hot mess in bed, the bitterness became sweet. I knew I was forgiven by my crucified King.

Christ died for this.

Feeling that was how Good Friday turned great. The cross makes our confessed sins, even our most embarrassing and ugly and bitter sins, sweet. Because, Who confesses and forsakes finds mercy (Prov. 28:13).

That is when bitter turns sweet, and good becomes great. We stand forgiven at the cross. We remember and we celebrate:

Christ died for this.

I saw my sin loud and clear last night. But I also saw the cross and confessed and found mercy and grace.

And that is how Marah became sweet and Good Friday turned great.

In confession we break through to the true fellowship of the Cross of Jesus Christ, in confession we affirm and accept our cross…

The old man dies, but it is God who has conquered him. Now we share in the resurrection of Christ and eternal life. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

How Not to Be a Mule: Come, Unbridled

mule with bridle eating grass

Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you. Psalm 32:9

About Mules

A mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. They’re said to be more hardy than horses and more intelligent than donkeys.

Still, being likened to a mule isn’t exactly a compliment.

My uncle owned a mule named Petey. Petey was both strong and headstrong. Life on the farm was good for Petey the Mule.

But one day, which happened to be manure hauling day, “Petey decided he no longer liked his ears touched. This caused problems putting on his halter and bridle,” Uncle John posted. “He developed some escape routes which included trying to run Farmer John over; thankfully this isn’t Farmer John’s first rodeo.”

Thankfully, God can relates to mules too. He’s familiar with beasts that charge and beasts that avoid.

But, biblically, what is it that makes mules so mulish?

Hint: It’s what our kids do when they refuse to come and confess that he stole the candy or broke the lamp or lost his Fitbit, again.

That is, they refuse to come to us until after they’re busted outright or the guilt gets so heavy they simply can’t bear it. That’s mulish.

And foolish.

About The Most Happy-Making Thing You Can Do

In Psalm 32, this is the behavior in view: Refusing to come and confess to the one who freely forgives.

Staying away from God when we sin is irrational-without understanding. Because confessing to the God who already knows and freely forgives is one of the most happy-making things we can ever do.

In fact, that’s how David begins Psalm 32, with a double-whammy description, and prescription, for happiness:

Happy is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

The way to be happy and blessed is to go and confess.

Why Mulish Is Foolish

Which is exactly why the next two verses in Psalm 32 contrast this path to happiness:

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

Pity the fool, the mule, who does that- who stays silent and far away from the Master.

But mules do. They are silent, slow and stubborn. Mules need pressure applied to come to the master. They must be curbed with bit and bridle. That’s why God’s hand feels heavy on us sometimes, like Farmer John’s did on Petey the Mule that day.

I put pressure on you when you were sinning and neglecting me, our Master might explain, so that you’d come back to me. But I wish you’d just come freely. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.

Not Confessing Is Irrational

In case you missed it, avoiding the master is irrational. It is not acting in accord with the truth that repentance brings refreshment and confession clears the conscience. It is living as if estranged relationships and hidden sin are to be preferred over restored relationships and forgiveness. That is foolish. Mulish.

Like when son-who-shall-not-be-named confesses to eating my prized Dove Dark only after I show him the wrapper I found under his bed and not a moment before.

To be human rather than horse or mule, is to be rational. To be rational is to realize that we will be happier when our sin is confessed and covered by God.

And that when we cover it, he will not, but that when we uncover our sin before God, he will cover it (Psalm 32)

Life on the Farm

Mules live on farms. Here John Piper expands the image for us:

Maybe we should try to picture God’s people as a farmyard of all sorts of animals. God cares for his animals, he shows them where they need to go, and supplies a barn for their protection. But there is one beast on this farm that gives God an awful time, namely, the mule…

God likes to get his animals to the barn for food and shelter by simply calling them.

Or even with a look.

Steered With a Look, or a Bit?

Psalm 32:8 says, “I will counsel you with my eye upon you.”

My Mom says that I was disciplined with a look as a child. All it took was the look, and I’d usually come around. I’d curb my tongue or knock it off or change my tune.

If only the grown-up Abigail was always so sensitive to God’s eye.

But sometimes I’m a mule. Sometimes God has to put the bridle of suffering on me and drag me from danger. I completely agree with John Piper that,

A guilty conscience and all the agonies that go with it is a merciful gift to the unrepentant.

Piper continues the barnyard analogy, “So God gets in his pickup truck and goes out in the field, puts the bit and bridle in the mule’s mouth, hitches it to the truck, and drags him stiff-legged and snorting all the way into the barn.”

But we’d be better off and so much happier if we just came with a look or a call.

Repentance Brings Refreshment

But isn’t all this come and confess talk very gloomy? you ask.

C.S. Lewis answers that question like this,

It is not even, in the long run, very gloomy. A serious attempt to repent and to really know one’s own sin is in the long run a lightening and relieving process. Of course, there is bound to be a first dismay and often terror and later great pain, yet that is much less in the long run than the anguish of a mass of unrepented and unexamined sins, lurking in the background of our minds. It is the difference between the pain of a tooth about which you should go to the dentist, and the simple straight-forward pain which you know is getting less and less every moment when you have had the tooth out.

C.S. Lewis, “Miserable Offenders,” God in the Dock (Eerdmans, 1970) 120-121. 

I bear witness: confessing is happy-making. In the moment, it’s humbling and hard and it hurts. But, “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis a gift to come down to where we ought to be.”

Isn’t it?

In fact, isn’t being forgiven about the most lightening and relieving, soul-healing and refreshing gift a sinful soul can ever receive?

In Acts 3, Peter preached just that:Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins mat be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.

Repentance brings refreshment.

How Not to be a Mule

Sometimes it is the bit of affliction and the bridle of suffering that makes us come to him. Or, to borrow David’s words, to stay near him.

It is much to be deplored that we so often need to be severely chastened before we will obey. We ought to be as a feather in the wind, wafted readily in the breath of the Holy Spirit, but alas! we lie like motionless logs, and stir not with heaven itself in view. Those cutting bits of affliction show how hard mouthed we are, those bridles of infirmity manifest our headstrong and willful manners. We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much of the ass about us. If we will be fractious, we must expect to be kept in with a tight rein. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly…

C.H. Spurgeon, Commentary on Psalm 32

We should not be treated like mules if there was not so much ass about us. Oh, for grace to obey the Lord willingly. Ouch. And amen.

Do you know this?

I mean, know it? I confess that I must re-learn that confession is good for the soul. Like when I sent that early morning apology text (there have been plenty of others since) and when I made a mule of myself on an Irish mountain. And this weekend when I marched up the steps away from a sister, and my mule snorts woke me up and turned me right back down to confess, “I’m sorry I was rude.”

In summary, not being a mule means staying near God without being forced. It means praying to God before his hand is heavy on you. It means confessing your sins to Him straightaway. Before you’re busted.

That is how NOT to be a mule.

And when I do come to him and confess, he will freely forgive. He will tenderly take my chin in his hand and lift my humbled head.

My unbridled, forgiven head.

You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head.

Psalm 3:3

Conviction Comes To Interrupting Chicken


Yup, Little Miss Active Listener went rogue again. Tigger-like, she bounced right over reflective, soft-spoken Joe with her over-eager interjections.

I could say the interrupting words were well intentioned, borne of desire to build relationship and connect. I could say that.

But I know better.

Contrition

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Psalm 51:3

Jim and I were in the kitchen with our friends Sadie and Joe, enjoying some Sunday morning omelettes. Joe was summarizing a new book. I was Interrupting Chicken.

Hon! Stop interrupting, my husband broke after one of my break-ins. Let him talk!

I shut my mouth. Those words about how it’s the fool who answers before he listens (Proverbs 18:3) came to mind.  Guilt- the good kind- moved in.

After an awkward moment of silence, Joe continued, still calm.  I listened to him- and to my wounded ego- without interrupting either. In a few minutes. Joe left to help at early church.

But I didn’t say a thing. Any thing. And I didn’t do the right thing.

Conviction

So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:17

But I knew the right thing to do.  James 1:19 has been a quote-out-loud verse in this house for years. Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. And I know Proverbs 18:23 pretty well, too: Whoever covers his sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and forsakes them finds mercy. 

Obedience required confession. And not in a vague Sorry-if-I-offended-you way.  Because confession- like thanksgiving- demands particulars. Precision like, Forgive me, Joe because for repeatedly interrupting . Or, sorry I wasn’t a patient listener.  Specific. 

I knew what I had to do. Interrupting was a sin of commission. I was doing the wrong thing. But to go on without confessing, that would add to it a sin of commissionWhoever knows the right thing to do- confess to Joe- and fails to do it, for him it is sin. 

There was conviction. I knew the right thing to do. 

Confession

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. James 5:16

But my pride had kept me from confessing as a first response, before Joe left for church.

And silence when there’s sin to confess wastes away the bones (Psalm 32:3). So the ‘ole bones groaned for the next three hours at church. But when we all got home, I did the right thing.

Hey Joe, I’m sorry I kept interrupting you this morning.

I don’t know if I added Please forgive me, or not. But I know meant it. And what’s more. I know Joe gave it.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve been selfish and rash and had to confess to a friend and I’m pretty sure, it won’t be the last. Because our gracious God reveals convicts us, bit by bit. There are sins we don’t even know we commit. A year or a month ago, I might not have seen Interrupting Chicken as a sinner.

But I do now.  And once we  know the right thing to do, it’s on us to do it.

Ongoing and over and over again.

Continue

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. 1 John 1:28

In a message on James 4:17, Russell Moore says that confessing our sins is critical for every Christian.

Then he explains why it’s so important to make things right,

Because the Christian life is about the Gospel. Because you and I understand that we are sinners. Not that we were sinners. That we are sinners. And that we are constantly in need of grace and mercy.

So what does the Holy Spirit drive us to do? He drives us to an ongoing confession of sin….

Because this is how God is drawing you near to him by the confession of your sins…The point is, you ask for forgiveness…so that you can be freed and liberated from that…

The most miserable Christian in the world is not the who is aware of his sin and is confessing it. It is the one who does not have his sins being exposed and repented of so [he can] experience the blessings of fellowship and walking in Christ.

It sounds so awful and terrifying. So does a surgeon. A surgeon rips you up to take the tumor out. So does the Word. It’s healing. 

Confess and repent is part and parcel of the Christian life until we see our Lord face to face, and are like him. And it’s not so morbid really, it’s actually, very lightening and relieving, and as Moore said, healing.

Confession, Interrupting Chicken can assure you, is good for the soul. 

Conclusion

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Ecclesiastes 12:13

So what do you do with conviction? Do you stuff it inside and protect your pride? Or do you confess it and find fellowship?

During a swim at our friends pool this week’,  my 11-year-old, called me over and asked in confidence and with conviction,

Hey Mom, do you think I should say sorry to Mrs. Mills? I accidentally dropped a cheese cracker in the water and she told us kids not to have food in the pool.

You can guess this mama’s answer.

 You know the right thing to do, Son. Go do it.

Grant me never to lose sight of  
the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
the exceeding righteousness of salvation,
the exceeding glory of Christ,
the exceeding beauty of holiness,
the exceeding wonder of grace. 
The Valley Of Vision, “Continual Repentance”