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Learning to Bear the Image of God

by Austin Prokup

My Christian life has been largely characterized by a zeal for learning. I usually prefer sitting down with a good textbook over a good novel. I have found that biblical and theological study draw me to worship God more than just about anything else, and they have yielded growth and restoration in every corner of my life. However, there have been times when my theological development has gotten ahead of my character development.

Despite growing up attending church, I didn’t start following Jesus in a serious way until my freshman year in college. As I began to study the Bible, I was quickly faced with many questions I had never considered before: What is the Bible and where did it come from? What evidence is there for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? How do I live faithfully in regards to relationships, money, work, play, etc.? The list goes on. Thankfully, 2,000 years of Christian reflection has left no lack of robust answers. I eagerly soaked up information and discussed these issues over the following years. Throughout this time, many good character qualities grew within me, but so did pride and a combative, defensive spirit. “Ungracious” and “unkind” were words that began to increasingly characterize my speech toward people who did not hold my convictions or didn’t care enough to even have convictions. Further contributing to this was a subtle but formative insularity and tribalism sprinkled throughout the resources I was leaning on. In my attempts to be faithful to one portion of God’s word (and what I thought it was saying), I was missing other vital aspects of the Christian faith.

I think Jesus’ prophetic caution to certain religious leaders of his day applied to me as well: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23). I exercised selective listening to scripture, making me so hyper-focused on certain secondary issues that I allowed the foundation on which they rest to be overshadowed. But this started to change as I was reoriented toward the centrality of the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31). I began to see afresh the whole story of the Bible.

One aspect of this shift involved a deeper exploration of what it means to bear the image of God and how it fits together with this centering call to love God and love others. Beyond having some attributes similar to our Creator’s (e.g., creative, relational, rational, etc.) and serving as a basis for human dignity, many scholars suggest that bearing God’s image means faithfully representing God as we cultivate and care for his world and those who inhabit it. This vocational call is reiterated in the biblical narrative to Abraham and to God’s people throughout the Old Testament. Needless to say, neither these individuals nor humanity as a whole has done a great job of this, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus’ life takes on rich significance in this light. His sinlessness was not merely about his purity as a sacrifice for us, but was the fulfillment of humanity’s vocation to image God and the beginnings of the New Creation. And he did so on our behalf. Jesus’ role of representing Adam, Israel, and humanity (among others) is alluded to throughout the New Testament, such as in his 40-day temptation in the wilderness. Jesus bears God’s image perfectly as one who loves God and loves others. This love is perhaps seen most clearly in his unjust death on a Roman cross, an exemplar of self-giving love and the unexpected means of rescue for an undeserving world. As Spirit-filled followers of the crucified and resurrected Lord, his teachings, and his example, we too participate in the beginning of this cosmic restoration as Jesus shows us how to be truly human. The church is called to be a community of God-and-neighbor-oriented people, humanity done well, and even when it is sadly far from this ideal, we look with hopeful expectation and longing toward the day in which the New Creation will be fully realized. The day when our fallen world will be restored and suffering, sin, and death will be no more.

The past few years have been filled with a more balanced and humble study of the Bible, church history, interpretive method, and theology. My more recent study has illuminated many of my own blindspots, such as the Great Commandment getting a backseat and my limited understanding of the image of God, though there is quite a long list of others and much more to learn. I experienced a paradigm shift from a shallow theology propped up by proof-texts centered around select issues toward a more richly textured theology, contextually-aware and framed by the story of Israel coming to its fulfillment in Jesus the Christ (i.e., Messiah). This change has been more a shift in emphasis than a change in major doctrinal conviction, but it has made a huge difference. Far beyond acquiring useful information, it has led to a real transformation of my life and character. For that, I am thankful, and I am sure my friends and family are too.

To be sure, what we believe matters. But in our attempt to be faithful to God and his word, let us be careful that our interactions and our demeanor toward others, whether in-person or online, is not characterized by the combativeness, anger, ignorance, and unnecessary anathematizing common in our day. In so doing, our attempts to address unfaithfulness can actually become ways that we ourselves are unfaithful to this great call to reflect the grace and goodness of God to a world that desperately needs it. Rather let us be known as good listeners and people of patience, kindness, peace, love, gentleness, and self-control as we strive to represent Jesus to the world, bearing the image of God both in our beliefs and how we hold those beliefs.

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