I remember being curious about one of my pastors. I wondered why it was so easy for him to be kind, gracious, and loving towards people who I found rather strange or socially awkward. Where I tried to look for a quick exit ramp in conversations with these people, he would hold conversations with them that lasted for several minutes. Moreover, you could tell he was genuinely interested in the person and the conversation!
“How does he do it?” I thought to myself.
A couple of days later I had the opportunity to ask him in private, “Hey, I’ve noticed over the last couple of months that it seems rather easy for you to love people, even those who are harder to love. How do you do it?”
I was somewhat expecting him to spend the next five minutes teaching me some kind of socio-psychological grid that he uses to create these dynamic conversations with people that I found, well… rather static. Some kind of secret trick of the trade that he’d developed; perhaps some grandiose concept from a little-known theology book that he’d read recently in seminary. My head swam with different hypotheses.
My pastor turned his face towards me and gently remarked, “I genuinely believe that they’re made in the image of God.”
I froze for a moment with a couple of different emotions. There was the feeling of surprise from expecting a long, drawn out and complex response and instead being met with a single sentence. A sense of respect for my young pastor. Also a feeling of conviction: my sour taste for conversations with social outcasts wasn’t a personality issue, it was a moral issue rooted in seeing people differently than how God saw them.
Finally, there was a glimmer of hope that I felt. The feeling came from realizing that loving hard people wasn’t based on something outside of my control. This wasn’t a spiritual gift reserved for the pastoral in heart; it was a standard that was attainable by changing out my valuation of the person with God’s valuation of them. Where I see a skin-crawling conversation with someone unlike me, God sees someone that he knit together in their mother’s womb; someone that He sovereignly brought forth in His own likeness and image (Gen. 1:26-27).
I have revisited this conversation from two years ago with my pastor in my mind and heart dozens of times for a host of different reasons. Why should I go out of my way to start a conversation with the new person at church? Because they’re made in the image of God. Why shouldn’t I verbally tear down my opponent with vitriol? Because they’re made in the image of God. Why should I abhor the genocide and dismemberment of babies via abortion? Because each and every one of those babies in the womb are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image and likeness of God.
The concept of the imago Dei shouldn’t remain trapped in the systematic theologies upon our bookshelves. Like my pastor, the doctrine should soak and permeate how we view people in every moment of our lives. This doctrine is a pivotal lens of the Christian worldview that stands against the ideologies of the world: ideologies that make human life equitable to that of farm animals. Every man, woman, and child has unique and immeasurable value because of their being made in the image of the God whose glory, beauty, and majesty knows no end. Our understanding of ourselves comes from clearly understanding our distinct relationship with God: we are his creation, he is our Creator.
We are His image-bearers, and He is the image we bear.