What does being made in God’s image have to do with how I treat "them"?
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I walked into our living room to see the first tower fall on TV. Two days later, a friend called to tell me that a guy I had once dated had died in the second tower’s collapse. His death made September 11 painfully personal.
As Christians, we believe that every life has worth because we’ve been made in God’s image. We wonder how anyone could perpetrate such destruction upon fellow human beings. Yet while we rage against acts of the magnitude of September 11, we may not realize that we, too, sometimes violate the image of God in others, diminishing the quality of their lives in more subtle ways.
Let’s explore what the Scriptures have to say about devaluing the image of God in those who are different from us, and what we can learn from Jesus about honoring it instead.
Accountability for the lives of others underlies the Jewish law. God said to Noah:
From each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man."
Taking the life of an image bearer was serious, punishable by death.
In the New Testament, James describes a more common way we dishonor those made in God’s image:
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.
Not only must we honor God’s likeness in others by not shedding their blood; we must also refrain from cursing them. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines cursing as "using profanely insolent language against someone." Cursing can be more than simply hurling profanity. We curse others when our words and actions communicate that they are only worthy of condemnation.
These ideas echo Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5 as He describes the relationship between anger and murder.
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, "Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment." But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, "Raca," is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, "You fool!" will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Jesus linked the outward behavior of murder with the inward attitude of condemnation. Derision and name-calling, He taught, are not far removed from murder; both stem from contempt for someone bearing the image of God.
Jesus wants us to consider how our heart attitudes can damage our relationships. Murder and cursing plainly violate the dignity of those made in God’s image. In addition to these indignities, we can behave in other ways that devalue people’s worth as image bearers.
Jesus also taught that we need to be very careful about evaluating others based on superficial assessments: "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment" (Jn. 7:24). His words in this passage reiterate what God told the prophet Samuel:
The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.
—1 Sam. 16:7
Though someone’s outside appearance may reflect what’s happening inside, our judgments about what appears to be true of a person can also be wildly off base. During my senior year of college, my roommate told me that a mutual friend thought I was bisexual. As a boy-crazy heterosexual, I was shocked. Apparently, my drab clothes and lack of dates meant something was wrong.
Something was wrong: My self-esteem was abysmal. I thought I was fat, so I wore baggy clothes; I thought no guy could ever like me, so I played the role of the "smart girl" and was "just friends" with the guys. Inside, I desperately wanted to feel pretty and have a boyfriend. The friend who thought something was wrong was partially right. But she jumped to an inaccurate conclusion.
Even though I’ve been on the receiving end of superficial judgments, I struggle with making such judgments too. I tend to make generalizations about what’s wrong with the church or society—sometimes not realizing that those statements have hurt someone who’s listening to me.
We can easily make judgments based on some aspect of a person’s appearance that seems suspect. But we demean God’s image in others when we do so, because we’ve judged them instead of seeing them as people with real needs who are made in the likeness of their creator.
Another way we demean God’s image in others is by failing to let people be themselves. Instead of affirming their unique talents, interests, and aptitudes, we try to remake them in our image. Such attempts send the message: "You're not acceptable."
One of my spiritual gifts is teaching. I enjoy helping people understand Scripture. Occasionally, however, my motivation drifts into selfish territory, and I seek to make others think like me rather than be like Christ.
Creativity is a natural outgrowth of being made in God’s image; remaking others in our image is a destructive misuse of that gift. How much of our criticism, nagging, or even "counsel" is based on the insecurities that arise in our hearts when someone isn't like us? God made each of us just as He wanted, and He alone orders and effects our change.
We can also belittle God’s image in others when we close ourselves off from other people. Sometimes we do this out of fear of confrontation, rejection, or risk. Other times we're motivated by arrogance that causes us to disdain someone. Either way, ignoring people undermines their value.
Before I got married, I worked at a temp agency where we filled unskilled labor positions. A man named Jim, who was usually unkempt and dirty, always got the worst jobs. More than once, I noticed Jim looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
We hadn't seen Jim in a while when he showed up one day. He was clean, neatly dressed, had a steady job—and was rightfully proud of himself. Later that day I encountered Jim again at a nearby cafeteria. He smiled at me and obviously wanted to talk, but I acted as if I didn't see him. After a moment, I peeked at him: His face was crumpled and sad.
I might as well have slapped him and said, "You're too far beneath me to notice." Shame flooded me. I could pretend that I was afraid and did what any young woman should have done to be safe. But that wasn't true. I knew Jim would never hurt me. The truth? I was proud. Since then, I have prayed that God would keep Jim from believing the damaging message that my silence and pride sent him that day.
Whether we're judging others based on appearances alone, trying to remake others in our image, or closing ourselves off from people, pride is often the root issue. We'll always fail to honor the image of God in others when we exalt ourselves over them, because pride focuses on us instead of God. It renders us unable to see God’s image in others.
As we’ve seen, it’s easy to take away life in subtle ways by failing to relate to people as image bearers. In contrast, Jesus shows us what it looks like to treat people with respect and compassion.
Consider this: Jesus, fully man, was also fully God. Colossians 1:15-16 says:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.
When Jesus came to earth, He didn't just model how to treat people well. He revealed what God would do when face-to-face with His own creation, those stamped with His own likeness.
Jesus saw no risk in relating to those of all races, genders, or status. When He encountered someone who hadn't always chosen the right path, He didn't simply see a sinner; He saw His creation, His image, damaged and twisted. Let’s look at three occasions in which Jesus showed us how He wanted His people to be treated.
In the name of conviction, it’s easy to attack those who have different ideological, political, or religious views, forgetting that they, too, are made in God’s image. About 10 years ago, I worked on a political campaign in Oklahoma. Though it was fun to hobnob with "movers and shakers," I was surprised by the vindictive actions and words among candidates and staffers on both sides. Any display of kindness or respect was regarded with suspicion.
I did see one remarkable exception to this tendency, however.
During that campaign, I met J. C. Watts, who was also on the campaign trail. I was fortunate to have several opportunities to talk with him about the world, politics, and God. The thing I found most striking was how considerate J. C. was. He listened to people. He remembered people’s names and the details of their lives. It didn't matter who they were—allies, peers, gofers, photographers, even those on the other side of the political fence—he demonstrated respect. I believe J. C. reflected the way Jesus would treat people.
Jesus, too, had an encounter with someone on the other side of the political fence: Nicodemus. Jesus was a threat to the Jewish leaders' power; Nicodemus was a respected member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin (Jn. 3:1). The gulf between these men is illustrated by the fact that Nicodemus was so nervous about talking to Jesus that he came at night (v. 2).
Nicodemus was obviously a sincere—if timid—seeker of truth. Even though he came from the "enemy camp," Jesus honored Nicodemus' sincerity with respect and revelation, delivering to him the words of the gospel we know so well: "For God so loved the world..." (v. 16). Jesus shows us that even those who might be political or cultural adversaries are worthy of dignified treatment as image bearers.
What about us? Whom do we consider our opponents? Would we sit down with an activist for a cause we vigorously oppose and kindly talk about life and faith? What about someone who is derisive of our faith? When we acknowledge that even people we disagree with are made in God’s image, it opens a new door for gracious dialogue.
Another way that Jesus' interaction with others challenges me deeply is this: He was remarkably gentle with some people who'd made the same wrong choices over and over, such as the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus' treatment of this woman humbles and convicts me, because I easily lose patience with people who can't seem to break out of destructive patterns.
One person I struggle to treat well is an acquaintance who has repeatedly ended up in abusive relationships. Part of me is genuinely sympathetic toward her. But another side wonders, Didn't you see this coming? Each time I'm tempted to be impatient, God reminds me of how Jesus related to the Samaritan woman.
In this story, we meet a woman who also had a string of relationships. Exactly why she has had five husbands is never addressed. But it’s very clear that Jesus knows about her past:
You are right when you say that you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands.
Despite behavior that had ostracized her from her community, Jesus didn't condemn her. Instead, He acted with compassion as He disclosed His identity as the Messiah (v. 26) and described the living water that could satisfy her thirst (vv. 13-14).
Jesus treated this woman as a valued person, someone made in God’s image. In doing so, He crossed over the ethnic, gender, and societal prejudices that had isolated her. He looked below the surface of her life to the heart issue that seems to have driven her choices: a deep thirst for meaningful relationship. He related to her shame, and He offered her life.
The effect was astonishing: The woman left her jug of water by the well and immediately began to tell others about Jesus (vv. 28-29).
For several years, I attended a church that excelled in reaching out to people who had been burned by religiosity and legalism. Our pastor modeled an attitude of grace and truth that invited us to be real with our struggles and to walk with others through theirs. His messages consistently challenged me to let go of my tendencies to judge those I might deem to be hopeless cases—people whose lives looked like that of the Samaritan woman.
Fellow believers often helped me see beyond the shortcomings of others to realize their true value in Christ. Then I understood that they were also seeking and struggling to live and walk in grace and truth.
Finally, Jesus did not shy away from the castaways of society. Whether lepers, blind men, or the demon-possessed, those on the fringe were always seeking out Jesus for healing and deliverance. Jesus responded with compassion—touching, healing, freeing, and restoring those in whom God’s image seemed irreparably bent.
I used to work in a shoe store. One of our semiregular customers was Herman, a malodorous, unbalanced man who scrounged up enough money to buy new shoes about once a year. As you might expect, Herman’s shoes and socks were filthy.
The salespeople didn't exactly rush to serve Herman. My boss, however, treated him with the same courtesy and level of service he gave to city-council members and businessmen. I'm sure he never realized it, but my boss helped me see what it looks like to treat everyone as an image bearer.
Jesus, too, honored the image of God in people on the edge of society. One of the most extreme examples was a possessed man who lived near the tombs outside the city of Gerasa (Mk. 5:1-20).
Upon arriving in the region of the Gerasenes, Jesus and His disciples were greeted by a wild man called Legion because of the demonic horde that resided within him. The people in town had repeatedly tried to bind the man, "but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet" (v. 4).
Jesus freed this man from the spirits that had possessed him, and freed him to reflect the image of God more clearly. When the townspeople came to investigate, "they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind" (v. 15). Jesus' deliverance enabled him to be the person God created him to be.
In our churches and small groups, in our workplaces and neighborhoods, we each have regular opportunities to offer others life by treating them as image bearers. I'm learning to ask Jesus to wipe away my misconceptions, prejudices, and wrong opinions so I can respond to others as He did—with dignity and respect.
To do so, the following questions help me see others through His eyes.
It’s an ongoing process, of course. But I'm thankful we have Jesus as our model. Jesus listened. He asked questions. He touched people. He didn't label people but treated them as individuals with real needs. He knew the inestimable value of every person stamped with the image of God... His image.