Image of God?
Have you ever had a burning question that you just can not get out of your mind? It is the type of question where a simplistic or trite answer just does not satisfy. The question burns on, despite many attempts to answer it. A few years ago I had such a question: if humanity is made in the image of God, what does that practically mean for my life?
In Genesis 1:27 we read, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” There is something about humanity that is different. We are made in the image of God. This is often talked about casually, but there is a weightiness to this topic. It really is a big deal.
I tried to comprehend what this meant. Some said it is the fact that we are conscious and are not just controlled by instinctual responses to stimuli. Others said it is our ability to hold ethical and moral standards. Still others talked about it as the ability to experience emotions.
None of these answers satisfied me. I was not looking for another theoretical framework to help me understand this. I wanted to understand what this meant for me. How does the belief that I am made in the image of God impact my daily life? How does it impact my relationships? Does it even matter?
The Image of Us?
After some time another question came to mind. Is there something made in the image of us, of people? If there was, surely this might help me understand what it meant to be made in the image of God. Is there anything that is made in the image of a person?
I tried to answer this question several ways, but none of them made much sense or became that enlightening analogy that I was hoping for. That is, until I thought about Abraham Lincoln.
In the summer of 2010, I had the privilege of visiting Washington D.C.. As any good tourist in this city, I visited the Smithsonian, the Mall, the Washington Monument, and also the Lincoln Memorial.
It was a very large stone building. Inside a giant stone statue of Abraham Lincoln was enshrined on his throne. The statue was made in his image. In the image of Abraham Lincoln, was this statue created.
Lessons from Lincoln
If this statue was made in the image of Abraham Lincoln, then what would any actions towards it represent? Would any action towards this statue be utterly insignificant? What would happen if someone would put graffiti on it? Or worse yet, what would it mean for someone to break off the nose this statue? This would be scandalous.
To put graffiti on the Lincoln Memorial would obviously be considered the desecration of the memory of good old Abe. To break off the nose of the statue would amount to an act of violence against Lincoln and what he stood for. To do violence to the statue does violence to the one in whose image the statue was made. It is also insulting to the one who made the statue.
One might be tempted to think that stone is just stone. What really is the difference between vandalizing a stone that looks like Lincoln or vandalizing a shapeless boulder out in the wilderness? After all, they are made of the same material. And yet it would seem to be common sense that there is a very large difference. One is just a boulder; the other is a piece of stone that has been crafted and honed and shaped into the image of Abraham Lincoln.
We are made in the image of God, and God is also the one who created us. He is the artist that made us distinctly different from the other creatures of the world. It is in His image that we are created. In a very real sense, we are His self-portrait.
So what does being made in the image of God have to do with my everyday life? Just this: when I do violence to any human being, be it in word or deed, I am also doing violence to the one in whose image they are made, and to the one who made them that way to begin with.
In the past I had a false understanding of humility. I thought that talking negatively about myself was part of being humble. I would beat myself up and tear myself down. All of this in the name of humility. Yet it would seem that I could not get around the fact that I am a human being. If being a human meant that I was made in the image of God, then to do violence to myself in this way also desecrated something of the image of God in me.
This is a false humility. It claims to be humble while still thinking it knows better than God. It tells God that what He created is not good enough, that He failed as an artist and creator; that being made in His image is of no significant value. When put in these terms this sounds much more like arrogance and pride than it sounds like humility.
So it would seem that every time I compared myself to someone else and thought that I am not good enough it is much like spray painting the word “failure” onto a statue. Every time I looked in the mirror and disrespected myself, it is like painting the word “ugly” onto this statue.
Before long what you have is a statue that is covered in these words: failure, ugly, insignificant, unintelligent. The list could go on. What must be remembered, however, is that this statue is not made in the image of any man. This statue is actually a flesh and blood human being that is made in the image of God.
Even My Difficult Neighbour?
To follow this to its logical conclusion, I also had to consider my neighbour. Not necessarily the person living next to me, but other human beings in general. If they are also made in the image of God, how does that effect my treatment of them?
At the risk of being repetitive, I will say again: when I do violence to another human being, be it in word or deed, I am also doing violence to the one in whose image they are made. To respect the image of God in them has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with respect of God.
In Ephesians 5:21, we are instructed to, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Most of us would treat the Lincoln Memorial with respect, not because of the type of stone it is made of, but out of respect for Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, a person’s skin colour, gender, religion, behaviour or moral/ethical beliefs hold no bearing on these instructions. If we want to honour God, we will treat with respect all who are made in His image, out of reverence for Christ.