Understanding that the image of God has been imprinted on every one of us not only forms our foundational understanding of who we are, but it is meant to shape the way we view, live with, react toward, and respond to one another. The biblical commands to love one another, to treat everyone with honor, and to never do evil in the face of evil, grow out of the soil of the truth of the image of God in man. We are called to look in the face of our enemy—even in the face of someone who may otherwise disgust us—and see the image of God himself. Only when we do this will we treat one another with the love, respect, honor, and goodness to which we have been called.
We are in a cultural moment where respect has been replaced by outrage. Little cultural gentleness remains. We react toward those with whom we disagree with the harshest of responses and accusations. In many cases it seems like we are not content with disagreeing with people who we are convinced are wrong; we want to harm them or to erase them in some way. We seem to have lost our ability to have civil discourse, where ideas are discussed with dignity, restraint, and respect. We seem to think it’s valid not only to critique people’s words, but also to judge their motives. We are way too quick to speak and too quick to react in anger. It makes public, private, political, cultural, and church communication very difficult and, in some cases, impossible.
We are in trouble if we reduce people to a set of ideas, beliefs, philosophies, political positions, theologies, or social constructs. We are in trouble if we depersonalize those with whom we disagree, failing to remember that behind the opinion is a person made in the holy image of God. We cannot allow ourselves to reduce people down to a set of sentences on a page which we might find distasteful, without regard for the harm our response may do—harm not to the position on the page, but to the person behind the position.
I wish I could say that this problem exists only in the culture and not in the church, but I cannot. Every day I am saddened as I read my Twitter feed and witness the harsh, unkind, judgmental, mocking, angry, and disrespectful responses of brothers and sisters in Christ toward one another. It often seems like responders enjoy the opportunity to join in and take someone down. Outrage like this is devoid of any functional recognition of God’s call to be gentle, to love even your enemy, and to do good to everyone, especially those in God’s family. We are never forced to make a choice between theology and love.
We are called to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). Love that has forsaken truth ceases to be love, and truth not spoken in love loses its purity, because it gets bent and twisted by other agendas. Good theology never produces angry, arrogant, bullying, disrespectful, harm-producing outrage. Theology that does not produce gentle, patient, and respectful love falls short of God’s standard for how his truth should be handled and what it should produce. Faithfully biblical theology and its good relational results are rooted in these words of God: “Let us make man in our image.” We cannot say we believe in the theology of the image of God in man without living out the mandate of the passages that follow in the way we live with and respond to one another.
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Prov. 15:1)
Do not rejoice when your enemy falls,
and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles. (Prov. 24:17)
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:43–48)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:14–21)
So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10)
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger. (Eph. 4:26)
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Eph. 4:29)
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand. (Phil. 4:5)
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. (Titus 3:1–2)
We are in trouble if we reduce people to a set of ideas, beliefs, philosophies, political positions, theologies, or social constructs.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19–20)
When [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:23)
Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. (1 Pet. 3:9)
Parents, when you are teaching your children how to respond to you, to their siblings, to their friends, and to others in the culture, don’t just tell them to do it because you said so. Start early, teaching them about the identity, dignity, and value that everyone carries because they are made in God’s image. Theologize with your children. They won’t understand at first, but they are putting together a view of everything that will shape how they interpret life, make decisions, and choose to live. Make sure good theology is the foundation of their view of life. The image of God in man is both a critical and practically helpful piece of that theology.
Students, the truth of the image of God in man shows you how to treat others in your school or university with whom you disagree. Employers, this truth tells you how to care for those under your employ.
Workers, here is direction for how to respond to your boss and treat your fellow workers. Civic leaders, there is direction here for how you are to respond to those on the other side of the aisle. Husbands and wives, there is direction here on how to handle conflict in your marriage. Pastors, here is a call for how to deal with theological and missional differences in your church. And for all of us, we would do well to remember that behind the social media post is someone who was formed by God to bear his likeness.
This article is adapted from Do You Believe?: 12 Historic Doctrines to Change Your Everyday Life by Paul David Tripp.
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