God Can’t See Your Face

And Why That’s Good News

This article is by David Harvey, pastor and cohost of the Two Texts podcast:

“Brad Pitt says he has prosopagnosia!” My friend’s message crashed into my vacation and had me on my news app in seconds. I’m a Pitt fan. I’ll confess that. And I don’t even know if it’s that I like him as an actor or I just like the movies he’s in. I try not to worry about it. But I’m also really interested in prosopagnosia.


Most of us only just learned of anosmia a few years ago when it was an accompanying symptom announcing that you too had fallen victim to COVID-19. Having mastered one Latin illness, does Hollywood really require us to learn another?

Prosopagnosia, often known as face-blindness, is a disorder characterized by neurologist Dr. Leah Croll as an “inability to attach a face to an identity.”[1] Sometimes this involves an inability to recognize individual faces, such as friends or family. Other times an inability to recognize a face as a face.

Pitt shares his story partly to explain why he often treats friends like strangers, but also in the hope that he might find others like him. Unusual as it may sound, Pitt’s condition is neither novel nor fiction but a distressing and rare neurological disorder made only more complex by how few know of it. Oliver Sacks describes a patient with this condition in his brilliantly titled essay, “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” noting that people with prosopagnosia are regularly unaware of the condition, and likewise their friends. As with most humans, adept as we are to adapting, coping strategies and methods are applied, often unconsciously, to recognize loved ones and colleagues. Anyone answering the phone to a friend is well aware of how we can know a person by more than their face.

What interests Sacks about his patient is the way that prosopagnosia affects other aspects of life. Without the ability to perceive the particulars of a person’s face, Sacks’ patient lives with many limitations, but he is also strangely left “incapable of judgement.”

Now there’s a line worth pausing over. A condition that leaves one incapable of passing judgement on a person’s face. For most of us, our faces are primary public expressions of our personas. Persona, a Latin word meaning “face,” comes down to us from Greek theatre in which it was used of the masks that actors wore to symbolize aspects of their characters to their audiences. As such our “faces” or personas speak to how we represent ourselves in public. The me that I want you to see. You could suggest that all of our public interactions involve some level of what social scientists call Facework. This aptly named academic discipline studies “impression management,” or how we wish to be seen. Perhaps unsurprisingly, scholars in this field note that what consumes our efforts is not the self-presentation of who we authentically are, or even who we want to be, but rather how we influence how others perceive us in relation to our values or standards of worth. Essentially, do people think I’m rich enough, young enough, attractive enough, or [insert appropriate unachievable standard] enough? Facework, it turns out, is what we’re doing when we’re trying to convince others to like us — to convince them of our enoughness.


Here’s my question: Is there a way in our enoughness-obsessed world to see the possibility of prosopagnosia as a gift? To be face-blind could mean that others wouldn’t need to justify their enoughness to us. Everyone would have value based not on how you recognize them but on how you choose to treat them. So that friend who hurt you, an ex-boyfriend, someone from a different political position, or even religion, would find you, like Sack’s patient with prosopagnosia, to be “incapable of judgement.” What might that be like?

Full disclosure, the real reason that this particular Brad Pitt story arc pulled me from my beach chair is that in his letter to the Galatians St. Paul describes God as having, what I like to refer to as, divine prosopagnosia. In the midst of a short but significant autobiographical moment in Galatians 2, Paul mentions that Peter, James, and John are held in some esteem within the church but that he himself is largely unperturbed by their standing because “God does not show favoritism” (2:6). But in the Greek of Paul’s letter we have a more colloquial phrase that roughly translates to “God does not take a person’s face.” This is a significant moment in Galatians — one which will make the famous declaration in Galatians 3:28 seem much less surprising. Paul essentially tables all our attempts to manufacture a particular persona, to put on a face for God or other people. Our persona doesn’t move the needle one way or another. The God who sent Jesus to rescue the world, it turns out, is face-blind.

Now this might not be a huge surprise to you because, if you read Acts 10:34 before Galatians, Peter has said as much already: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.” Again, the Greek here is “God is not a ‘face-taker’” (a term I commend to be brought back into common usage). The idea of God’s impartiality actually threads its way through scripture (e.g. Deut 10:17; 2 Chr 19:17; Job 34:19) but is generally framed in terms of God’s indifference toward face. Perhaps best known is God’s warning not to quickly dismiss the future king David on how he looks — “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). In the Septuagint, the Greek translation commonly used by the early Christians, this phrase reads (if you haven’t guessed already), “People see face, God sees heart.”

Alertness to God’s prosopagnosia allows us to circle back to the famous line in Galatians 3:28 and see it more clearly: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

We are all one in Christ Jesus because God is face-blind and “incapable of judgement” based on our status. In short, your status isn’t erased, removed, or inverted, it’s just not as important as you thought. Wear whatever mask you want; it won’t make God love you any more or less.

Divine prosopagnosia is, at the root, grace. If you think about it, this was exemplified on the cross because it was literally a cross – a torture device designed to shame its victims. A god who rescues the world by suffering public humiliation is clearly not one for putting on a good face. By despising the shame of the cross (Heb 12:2) God once-and-for-all reveals that he is blind to our perceived value systems. Grace and the gospel, I suggest, require divine prosopagnosia.

Paul writes Galatians to remind that church that God is face-blind because seemingly some in Galatia have forgotten this (Gal 6:12). But perhaps Galatians is a letter to us also. Do we need to remember that being formed like Christ (Gal 4:19) is a call to encounter and embody the grace of divine prosopagnosia?

So while I pray that Brad’s prosopagnosia doesn’t stop him from making the movies I love, I realize that I need to develop a little bit more prosopagnosia in my own life. Not simply because it reflects Jesus, but because the world could do with a few more of us being “incapable of judgment.”

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10 responses to “God Can’t See Your Face”

  1. Jenoa says:

    Great post Dave! So happy to see your name pop up on the Mbird site!

  2. David Harvey says:

    Thanks Jenoa – Glad you liked the post too!

  3. Otto says:

    Thank you David. Wonderfully insightful!

  4. David Harvey says:

    Thank you Otto. I hope it was helpful and encouraging.

  5. Lindsay says:

    This is so insightful! Loved this article, especially this: “Our persona doesn’t move the needle one way or another. The God who sent Jesus to rescue the world, it turns out, is face-blind.” In a Facebook world, a face-blind God is indeed Good News!

  6. David Harvey says:

    Thank you! I’ve often been struck by the irony of how Facebook is a whole bunch of people doing impression management. Facebook and Facework!

  7. Miranda Fuller says:

    Your article was like a a cold cup of water in an image-obsessed desert. I now see that it’s impossible to “lose face” with God the father because we don’t have “face” to begin with. What a relief! Thank you for this liberating bit of wisdom.

  8. David Harvey says:

    Miranda, this is such a wonderful reply. I’m so happy that my article had this reaction from you. Thank you.

  9. Doreen says:

    Thanks for always expanding us to see the intent behind the words. It opens the Scriptural intent. It can then open our minds and our behaviours. Thanks for this contribution and well done publishing! (gotta look beyond the wrinkles!!)

  10. Glenn Swanson says:

    David, you always have a way of sharing something insightful, stimulating, unique and edifying. Thank you again.

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