Because I am Created in the Image of God…

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:

  1. Our ultimate purpose and fulfillment is to know God.
  2. We have tarnished the image through our own sin.
  3. 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.

The Well-Ordered Soul in Plato and Athanasius

I spent five months trying to order my soul. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates establishes the just man as the man whose soul is well-ordered. This means that his appetite, spirit, and reason play their respective roles. Reason guides the appetite and spirit, allowing the just man to evade vice and pursue virtue. Socrates explains that “the most happy is the most kingly, who rules like a king over himself”. Embracing this idea, I sought to order my own soul without any guidance aside from my vague understanding of justice, virtue, and reason. It didn’t work.

In his treatise,On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius reveals his perspective on Plato’s idea of the well-ordered soul. He exlpains:

For if even Plato, who is admired by the Greeks, says that because he who begot the world saw it distressed and in danger of sinking into a region of dissimilitude, sitting at the helm of the soul he helped it and corrects all its faults, what then is there incredible in what we say, that humankind being in error, the Word sat at its helm and appeared as human, in order that he might save the distressed by his guidance and goodness?

The Son of God lived, died, and was resurrected to conquer death and corruption. The Word took on flesh and became the mediator between God and man. He has reached down to depraved creatures so that he might heal our broken souls and lead us to holiness. It is through his sacrifice that we are able to partake in the glory of our Creator. In understanding the basic message of salvation, the foolishness and arrogance of trying to order one’s own soul becomes apparent. Man is in a perpetual battle with the flesh that cannot be won without the Word at the helm. It is arrogant to assume that a fallen individual possesses the power to rule oneself.

The temporal ends promised by Plato pale in comparison to the beauty and goodness of Christ. The happiness that Socrates mentions is one of earth and time. The kingly sort of ruling described in the Republic is a human ruling which can never be perfected. On the other hand, the Word guides the soul closer and closer to God until the soul is made complete and is able to enjoy the eternal happiness that is the presence of God. Also, when one submits his soul to God, he is submitting it to the only King who is eternally just and sovereign.

Regarding the means to a well-ordered soul, there is action required by the individual. However, it is action that is grounded in the power of Christ. The Apostle Paul closes his letter to the church in Thessalonica saying:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

God, through the incarnation of the Word, does the complete work of sanctification in one’s soul. Plato was right about living virtuously. To have a well-ordered soul, the good must be sought and the corrupt must be expelled. Unfortunately, what Plato failed to recognize is that God is ultimately the King over one’s soul, and must be relied upon for complete order.

Plato’s idea of the soul — though pagan— is captivating and inspiring. By the grace of God, others such as Saint Athanasius have seen and proclaimed the truth of this idea in a new light. With the Word at the helm, the well-ordered soul has now become a sincerely hopeful ambition. This is not to say that it is easy. With a corruptible flesh, it remains a continual struggle to maintain purity in spirit, soul, and body. Nevertheless, there is a righteous King who abounds in grace and lends his strength so that we can become more and more like him and someday rest in the goodness of his presence.

Vacation Bible School and Athanasius: the Power of the Gospel

I never thought I’d be using Saint Athanasius to explain God to a fifth grader. But this Wednesday, I found myself thinking over Athanasius’ arguments in On the Incarnation as I challenged a group of squirmy 10-year-olds to tell me why Jesus had to die on a cross. Why couldn’t he die in his sleep of old age? Could he have died from a disease, and still save us? A lively discussion ensued about public executions, gruesome pain, and hell. I was a very proud vacation bible school leader.

The theme of this year’s VBS at my home church was EPIC: the most amazing, gargantuan, mind-blowing, ridiculous, unbelievable but totally believable story ever. (Yes, that was really the tagline.) The intention of the church was clear: present the story of Jesus in a way that would get the kids excited about the gospel. Throughout the week, the story built from creation (“God made you—that’s amazing!”) to the climax of Jesus’ death on the cross and the choice we have to follow or reject him. The church did a terrific job of laying out the good news so that elementary kids could understand and become enthusiastic about it.

While I had high hopes for the kids to learn and grow, I didn’t think I would do the same. I’m a college honors student at a Christian university. I have read pagan philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and I have also read quite a bit of theology—Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure and Calvin, to name a few. My studies have taught me to ask good questions and seek the truth, but they have also pushed my already-analytical self toward reason and logic, and away from faith and emotions. It is difficult for me to get excited or emotional about God because I want to make sure I have all my facts and arguments lined up in a nice, neat row. Satan uses this tendency to trap me: I can think condescendingly about someone who does not have as much knowledge of theology as I have, even if they are seeking Christ with their entire soul.

Going into VBS, I expected to have fun and teach kids some basics about God along the way. I wasn’t expecting to have deep theological conversations, and I definitely wasn’t expecting to learn anything myself.

In past years, I’ve led 1st and 2nd graders  at VBS, but this was my first year with 5th graders. At the top of the elementary school food chain, they are a little bigger and smarter, and have a greater capacity for deep thinking. I wanted to help challenge them in their relationship with the Lord, and was amazed at the conversations that resulted. Here is a sampling of some of the questions they asked:

  • If someone never has the chance to hear about Jesus, will they go to heaven or to hell?
  • How can Jesus be God, and also a son?
  • Will we be able to see someone’s soul in heaven?
  • If Satan was an angel before he fell, why did God give him all those blessings, if he knew that Satan would use the blessings against him?
  • In heaven, will we be able to remember everything we’ve ever done? What about the bad things?

It was thrilling for me to help the kids think deeper, and to push some of them beyond their well-rehearsed “church answers.” It was also thrilling to have them hit upon questions I didn’t have the answer to.

The gospel is simple, but it’s also very complicated—a fact I felt keenly during vacation bible school. It can be boiled down and explained to 5th graders, but has also been debated for millennia among intellectuals. It is both wonderful and awful, in the true sense of the words. Amidst hand motions and water balloon relays, I rediscovered the awe of the basic gospel story through the kids’ thoughtful questions and the church’s enthusiastic teaching. The work of redemption that God has wrought for humanity is truly epic. Sometimes in debating the minute points of theological doctrine, I forget the power of the Almighty’s saving grace. It’s good to be reminded by 5th graders.