American culture has been and continues to be shaped by a powerful movement. It is a movement marked by merit certificates, pop songs communicating, “be yourself because you are already awesome”, and cheap little-league trophies. It is the self-esteem movement; it is the campaign that strives to show how everyone is special in their own way. The ideals of this movement were perfectly displayed in Lupita Nyong’o’s recent acceptance speech at the Oscars, in which she notably claimed, “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid”. (For a thorough consideration of this claim, see this article by Dr. John Mark Reynolds.)
The American Christian sub-culture is not exempt from the self-esteem movement. Having grown up in the church, I can recall listening to many talks on self-esteem at Bible studies, youth conferences, and youth camps. I should clarify that this is not a bad thing; these sorts of talks can be exceedingly encouraging. During our adolescent years, there is a lot of pressure to fit in and to define yourself. American Christians seem to be aware of this and are putting forth a great effort to establish a healthier perspective of the self. However, it appears that in our attempt to tackle this issue, we have unintentionally abused an essential doctrine: that of being created in the image of God.
In the aforementioned Christian self-esteem talks, the idea that man was created in the image of God is often used as a premise upon which we assert our self-esteem. We are often told that we are beautiful, unique, and worthy since we are created in God’s image. Yet, the knowledge that you are created in the image of God should not be merely utilized as a bolster for self-esteem. The image that we bear amounts to more than the temporal worth of being considered “special” here on earth.
To be created in the image of God is to know Him. In On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius goes into detail on what it means to be created in God’s image. He writes:
[God] made [man] according to his own image and according to the likeness, so that understanding through such grace the image, I mean the Word of the Father, they might be able to receive through him a notion of the Father, and knowing the Creator they might live the happy and truly blessed life (Section 11).
God has created man rational, not for man to become great, but for man to know his Creator and have the blessed life. Athanasius goes on to describe how man turned away from God. After the fall, man began to look toward creation instead of the Creator. As a result, man tarnished the image as well as his rationality. Yet God, being good, redeemed man by sending the Word to become flesh and reconcile man with God. Someday, those who have put their faith in God will be able to know him and spend eternity as a happy, blessed being.
Being created in the image of God carries more weight than what is implied by the messages of the Christian self-esteem campaign. When we think about bearing the image of God, these three vital details should come to mind:
- Our ultimate purpose and fulfillment is to know God.
- We have tarnished the image through our own sin.
- We have been redeemed because of God’s love, and the image will be ultimately restored.
Christians certainly cannot ignore the self-esteem issues. It is almost inevitable that we will face feelings of inadequacy throughout our lives. I am not dismissing the occasional pep talk or practical encouragement. However, we must be careful how we go about such encouragement. It is certainly not helpful to misinterpret a a doctrine so that we might conform to our society’s standard of worth. This gives us a false picture of ourselves as well the gracious gift that God has bestowed upon us. We ought to recognize that earthly beauty, intelligence, and skill will never satisfy us as much as the knowledge of God. It is time to let go of earthly values and instead recognize our purpose, realize our sin, be humbled by the grace that God has shown us, and eagerly await the ultimate beautification of God’s image in us.