By Bethany Mathis
Originally Published in Be Still Magazine, Issue 11
As a very young child, I remember thinking I needed to decide my future and learn all I could about my purpose in life. I was a fairly intense kid. I have remnants from those times stashed in boxes in our basement—toy lizards from when I wanted to be a herpetologist in the second grade, a telescope from when I wanted to be an astronomer in the fourth grade, my guitar and notebooks of songs when I swore I was going to be a folk singer in Jr. high, among other things. I immersed myself in whatever it was. At the heart of all of this searching, however, I believe I simply longed to be defined by something—something that made me who I was, something that made me unique.
I don’t think I’m unlike the rest of humanity in my searching. I think we all have a sense that we are here for a purpose. We search for value or definition and crave validation and acceptance. We are taught how to search, and we are conditioned to look inside of ourselves for the answer to these questions.
But what if I told you that the answers to the self-defining questions we ask aren’t found within ourselves but in the character of another? That the thing that makes us who we are—the thing that our value and unique purpose spring forth from—is that we were actually made to reflect and represent someone else.
The search for who we are is aimless when disconnected from the truth of Scripture. Our longing for definition is fulfilled in the truth that we were created in the image of God. This binds us. This is the firm foundation of value and purpose that we long for. The truth that we were created to reflect and represent a holy God is what shapes us and defines us.
By answering a few basic questions about what it means to be created in the image of God, I think we can gain some profound insight into how it should impact us personally and practically. I will attempt to answer three questions: Why was man created? What does “in His image” mean? What does this mean for me now?
Why was man created?
First, God didn’t need us. God is completely self-sufficient and depends on nothing or no one for His existence. He didn’t create us because He was lonely or incomplete. We weren’t made to fulfill anything that God was lacking. In fact, He created us as lacking creatures so that we could be fulfilled by Him. We can’t offer Him anything that He doesn’t already perfectly possess.
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.Acts 17:24-25
This truth shouldn’t make us feel insignificant. God didn’t need us, but He chose to create us, and He chose to make us like Himself.
Secondly, we were made to glorify God. That was His aim in Genesis 2, and it’s His aim for us today. That’s why all throughout the New Testament we are told to do all to the glory of God. John Piper says this:
This is not an admonition to do God a favor. It is a command to align our lives with his eternal goal. He created us for his glory. God’s great aim in creating and governing the world is that he be glorified.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.Ephesians 1:11-12
This should bring us great peace and a profound sense of purpose. It doesn’t rob us of the uniqueness we think we crave. This truth—that we were made for the glory of another—stills our searching and reminds us that we are not the center of the story. It frees us to walk in our chosen career paths, to love on our kids at home, to serve our church and community, or to do whatever task is in front of us with the knowledge and intent that all we do is for His glory.
What does “in His image” mean?
Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’.Genesis 1:26
If you’ve been a Christian for very long, you’ve heard the phrase that we are “created in the image of God.” But what does it actually mean? The definition of “image” is a representation of the external form of a person or thing. When you think of an image, what comes to mind? A photograph or painting of an object perhaps? Being created in His image doesn’t mean that we are God or a god, but it does mean that we share something with Him. Wayne Grudem says, “to be created in His image means that man is like God and man represents God.”
We possess the unique ability to shine forth a picture of the Lord to the world. What an amazing privilege!
He chose only one creature to create in His own likeness. He chose to reveal Himself, in part, in us. This means we are able to possess some of His characteristics which are called His communicable attributes. This means that we have the capacity for things like love, goodness, kindness, holiness, or wisdom. We are also given the ability to think logically, learn, have complex relationships, and possess an inner sense of right and wrong. These are all things that reveal God in who we are.
We must also understand that these attributes are revealed in us only partially. Let’s take, for example, our ability to be creative . God was creative when He made us, and He made us from nothing. He gave us breath and life. We then can reflect that trait and be creative ourselves, but only with what God has already brought into being. We cannot fully or perfectly possess what God possesses, just as an image of an object could never become what it was meant to only reflect.
In Genesis 3, sin enters the world through the sin of Adam. Because of this, our image is distorted—but it is not lost. Even in the very beginning of our narrative, God is pointing us forward to when His image will be reflected perfectly and fully in His Son. The true nature of man in the image of God is seen in the person of Christ. Because of the cross, Jesus points us to when we will have complete restoration in God’s image at His return. Isn’t that exciting! Sin will no longer be a hindrance. We will live in glorified bodies, perfectly representing our Holy God as we were created to do.
What does this mean for me now?
So how does this theological truth change the way we live and relate to God? Theology was never meant to remain impractical. It’s for every Christian! How we understand the way in which we were created shapes how we live, commune with God, and interact with the world around us. I would like to offer us five ways that this understanding affects our daily lives and our walk with the Lord.
- Being created in the image of God gives us a profound sense of dignity and significance. The point of our creation was not to glorify ourselves in any way, but the fact that God chose to reveal His character through us is pretty mind-blowing. Have you ever pondered that we are more like God than the stars and universe? All of creation tells of His glory, but only we were made to reflect His very image. This is where our value and worth spring forth from. Any message of self-affirmation severed from the truth of creation is temporary.
- Being created in His image should shape how we treat other people. All of humanity was created in the same way. While it gives us a personal sense of significance, it should also shape how we see the significance of others. No one race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or gender is higher or lower in significance to God. As we interact with others, we must do so with the knowledge that they are image bearers just as we are. This is what should drive us as we seek social justice. The voice that proclaims the dignity of all human life is the voice of God within us. When we treat others in this way, we are reflecting God’s goodness.
- Being created in His image gives us profound union and connection with the Lord. God does not think of us like a lump of playdoh. We were uniquely created to have a deep relationship with Him. We are able to connect with God in a way that no other creature can. Even the angels long to see and hear from God in the way we do (1 Peter 1:12). We are set apart in our ability to connect and commune with God. Thank God for this privilege, and let it drive you to worship.
- Being created in His image compels us away from moralism. Moralism is simply behavior modification. We were created with the capacity to reflect the actual character and image of God. Jesus was the perfect human fulfillment of His image, and Jesus was not merely moral. He embodied perfectly the character of God because He is God! Now we, with the knowledge we have, can reject the idea that moralism is worth our time. If we are able to reflect the very character of God, why would we settle for anything less? This leads us to our last implication.
- Being created in His image gives us hope of sanctification. In light of the fall, the fact that we were created in this way gives us hope that we are able to be conformed in His image. We are in the process of being restored. While this truth leads us away from mere moralism, which is finding our right standing before God in our works, it leads us to sanctification, which is the act of being made holy like God is holy. This gives us hope of change. Even though we’d like to think that we can’t change, we aren’t unchanging creatures. God is the only unchanging one. Resting in the beauty that is our moldable nature and God’s continued grace, we can have hope that we are being restored and sanctified into His very image.
It seems like the world is running a race—the race to be the best, to find themselves, to be defined by what they do. This race is not ours, brothers and sisters. We have freedom from the never-ending pursuit of self-actualization. We all have unique callings and places we are sent. We will have unique assignments from the Lord, but these are not the things that make you who you are. We don’t have to seek to be defined by anything but our God. The diversity of God’s creation is unimaginable; the core of our being, however, is that of another. Wherever you find yourself, know that you can rest in who God is today. We can let go of the lie that we have to be anything but image bearers created to reflect the character of God to the world.