I believe in the Doctrine of Original Sin.
I believe in the Doctrine of Imago Dei.
I believe that for all our mistakes, our brokenness, our sinfulness, everything wrong in every human being, that we bear the hallmark of our maker, the image of God himself.
Sin broke that image. Our own sin, every day, exacerbates and confirms that breakage. The distance to God. The gulfs between people. The tension of rich and poor. The pain of LGBTQI Youth. The poor education that leads parents to make terrible decisions. The violence against people because they don’t, or perhaps can’t, conform to what society demands of them.
Even as none of us can conform to what God would demand of us.
The Image of God is Reduced, Damaged, Broken.
The Stimuli running through my brain over the last few days have been diverse.
– I –
This morning a friend on Facebook shared an article from ‘buzzfeed’ entitled “36 Photos from Russia that Everyone Needs to See“. It depicts the brutality inflicted upon LGBT people as they march for their cause. Regular readers will know that I am not in favour of gender-neutral marriage, and that I don’t sing from the secular song sheet when it comes to the way certain relationships should be viewed in the church. But that is irrelevant. The images from Russia are images of evil, bringing back the spectre of old discrimination on the Eurasian continent, and hinting at the dark heart of man that lies behind every one of us. The Image of God, the bodies of these men and women, damaged, broken, bleeding, reduced in dignity.
– II –
Yesterday evening my wife and I sat down in front of Netflix, feeling like watching a documentary. So we did. We ended up watching “This is What Love in Action Looks Like“, a chilling and sobering documentary looking at the story of a teenager. This teenager, who came out to his parents as gay, was then sent by them to an ex-gay ministry called ‘Love in Action’. The documentary charts his journey through their program, the stories of protestors, and closes in the closure of the program and with the stories of those who have gone through the ex-gay movement and become ex-ex-gay, as it were. This documentary was hard to watch. It was gutting to see the reality of a poor application of Scripture, just as it was infuriating to see the one-sided secular media, and way in which identity was so twisted and made absolute by both sides.
You see, the Image of God goes beyond our bodies, it involves the whole of us. And even as the whole of us is tainted by sin, the whole of us bears the Image of God, the hallmark of our maker. And so to try and engage with secular culture on its terms – the words ‘gay’, ‘straight’, and so on – is a denial of the dignity of human beings. It betrays an ignorance of the true value and worth of human beings, and the glorious and beautiful design of the God whose Image we all bear. The Image of God is not defined by modern constructs like ‘gay’, ‘straight’, and so on. To claim that certain forms of identity are identical to following Jesus is false – even though the discussion is complex. And so watching this documentary I felt many pangs of sadness, for the poor kids in the program, their misled parents, and the representatives of the media and of the protestors.
– III –
Today, with this saddening documentary still in my mind, I found myself reading about a camp in America for gender non-conforming boys. This is an incredibly complex and sensitive issue, and I have not written about it on this blog, even though I have researched and written about it behind the scenes, offline. But this article, from The Slate, was as chilling in my mind as the aforementioned documentary about a misguided ex-gay ministry. In this camp, the article illustrated with overwhelmingly positive images, the slogan is “You are You”, and the point at which the boys find themselves now is unhelpfully absolutised and drawn out.
Identity is more than sex.
It is about all of these and more than these. The damage done by the experimental nature of such camps and other exercises on young children is not yet known. But one thing is clear. The Image of God is reduced. The autonomy of the child, and the responsibility of the parents, normally held in tension, are bizarrely juxtaposed and interwoven. Difference is ignored. The self is deified. Whilst I hope I understand a little of gender dysphoria issues, and the related storm of words and concepts, the stark application of the theory to the lives of children who are still growing, learning, changing. It would be so easy to lost for words. Yet I hope and trust that the language of the Image of God might offer clarity, a way forward, a better place to site one’s self.
I’m almost counting down through ages and sections, and a cross-section appears. The adults of various ages shedding blood and tears in Russia. The teenagers forced to conform by well-meaning but ill-informed parents. The boys told they aren’t, or don’t have to be, or could be something else. The Image of God damaged, reduced, broken, distorted.
It goes further, though.
– IV –
Our culture is full of opinions and facts, fundamentalists and idealists, extremists and moderates. On any given day of the week I could legitimately subscribe to a range of different ideological labels, yet all of the labels, in common with the plethora of bits of cardboard on a new shirt, fail to do full justice to the Image of God, the beautiful creation that is every human being. Recently, on the same day as thousands of others, another human being came into our world. The Royal Baby. The son of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The 4th in line to the throne.
And before it was born, the media told us it was a baby. A person. A Royal. Whereas the bundle of cells in the womb of an unintentional mother is just a foetus. A problem. A mistake. A human being. The birth does not make a baby – the creation of each human being starts in the same way. The undue precedence given in the media to the Royal Baby – God Bless him, and his parents – echoes the importance of the truth of the Image of God, even as it pales into comparison with the value that God places on human beings.
The radical truth of the Christian understanding of reality is that every child, every human, conceived and born or ‘only’ conceived, is worth an unimaginable amount. The Christian story, properly read, protests against the news that the number of abortions of disabled babies rose in the UK last year. The world says that such babies are unhelpful, a waste, incomplete. The Christian story, properly told, tells of the dignity and worth of babies with different abilities, shapes, awarenesses. The God that created us is far more majestic than even the most perfect Olympic athlete, and this perfect, against our expectation or even evolutionary dogma, extends even to those children that don’t fit easily into the false moulds and labels our society brings to humanity.
– V –
The Image of God, the human being, the frail and wonderful dominant species of our planet, is a fascinating thing. The ways that it damages and reduces itself are so varied and wild that our problems are as unique as we all are, yet joined together as though we had something in common.
Two thousand years ago the Image of God was doubly so, in an Israeli man that history calls Jesus Christ. One of the many titles that the Bible gave him was ‘Son’. The Son of God, the Son of Man. Jesus, God incarnate. In Colossians 1:15 the Apostle Paul wrote a short sentence that goes right to the heart of the damage and brokenness I have been writing about today;
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation“
The image of God. The firstborn. God himself identified with us, and identifies with us, in tying the ultimate means of salvation and revelation, Jesus Christ, with the language and basic human experiences essential to our human existence. Jesus was born. Grew up. Was educated. Tempted. Made sad. Made hungry. Mocked. Beaten. Whipped. Bled. Cried. Died.
This Image of God, this Jesus, in dying for the world, for every Image-bearer who would recognise him, started as a baby born to a virgin, mocked even then. Jesus died alongside thieves, in human terms unjustly executed. The Image of God, The Son, hung on a cross. Reduced. Damaged. Broken. Bleeding like the LGBT protestors in Russia. Crying like the teenagers in the ex-gay ministry. Grown up, even as the boys in that camp will one day grow up. Made of the same stuff, the same genetic map, as the Royal Baby and the millions of babies never born.
I find this hard to write. Harder still to know. But I believe it is true. The Image of God matters. Recognising that, recognising the worth and value of human beings, does not instantly validate everything they do. I don’t think Jesus would whole-heartedly endorse any of the stories and perspectives I’ve alluded to above. But he would welcome the people. The Image Bearers. So that, in the words of Paul again, this time in 2 Corinthians 3:18;
“We all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit“
Would you contemplate the Lord’s glory?
Would you follow Jesus, and be transformed from your sinful, limited, death-bound self, into the fullness of his image?
Would you realise, by the Grace of God, the Image of God in you, and the beautiful image of Christ that he would transform you into?