January 29, 2012

Untouchable

So for the last two weeks we have been talking about the image of God.  First and foremost: you were created in the image of God.  You weren’t created in any other image.  All the images you chase around on a daily basis don’t ultimately define you.  They don’t enhance your value.  You value is rooted in the image of God residing within the structure of what makes you, you.  What this means is not that you physically look like God or are possessed His divine powers, but rather that you share in His personhood.  You share in the personal traits we see expressed throughout Scripture which resonate deeply with us and give us the sense that this God is someone with whom we could have a genuine relationship.  Together these form the core of important truths about the image of God I said we were going to explore when we began this series.  I said that I was going to prove and explain the concept of the image of God to you.  From there, I wanted to spend the bulk of our time talking about the implications of this incredible truth.  Well, here we are.  This morning we are going to begin unpacking what exactly it means that we are created in the image of God.  Last week I spent some time trying to answer this question from a more theological direction.  This morning I’m going to take that theology and help you see why it matters and what impact it should have on your life when you walk out of these doors.

Now, somebody might ask why we didn’t just jump to here in the first place.  Why spend so much time talking about theology and doctrine before getting to the “good stuff”?  The answer is that such theological formulations are important in giving us a proper framework by which we can make the most of the practical stuff.  The theology forms a fitting foundation for constructing the rest of the structure of our understanding.  C. S. Lewis describes theology as a map.  Going over a map of Dinwiddie County isn’t the same as living here.  The map doesn’t give you all the experiences of living here.  It doesn’t tell you about the great people, the beautiful visages, the smells on cool winter nights, or the number of stars you can see when it’s clear.  The map isn’t the same and anyone who said otherwise wouldn’t know what they were talking about.  But, without the map you’ll never find your way here or get around well when you get here.  The map was constructed on the basis of the experiences of people who do know all those things and in a way far deeper than you do, but who want you to come to a similar experience.  Or perhaps think of it this way: Say I went and had some scans done of my body.  Let’s say I had a full body X-ray, CT, MRI, and PET scan along with a full blood work up and a complete psychological examine.  Someone with the proper training would by these know a vast amount of information about me.  Now, they wouldn’t know me, to be sure.  But when they did have an experience of me, they would have a much firmer foundation from which to build on in trying to understand who I am.  We talk about and learn about theology not so those sometimes complex and confusing things can replace an experience of God, but so that our experience has some meat behind it.  A simple, even if profound, experience of God by itself is like a house with no foundation.  When the storms of life blow up it is going to collapse.  The theology gives us a foundation by which we are better able to make sense of and put words to the greatness of God.

With the foundation of understanding we now have in place, what does it mean for us that we are created in the image of God?  Perhaps the place in the Bible that best captures this for me and which sets the stage for the rest of our conversation this morning is Psalm 8.  If you want to follow along with me, turn there now and I’ll read it.  David writes; “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!   You have set your glory about the heavens.  Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have established strength because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.  O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

So what is David saying here and how does it tell us why our creation in the image of God should make any difference in our lives?  Look how the psalm starts out.  David begins by declaring his awe and wonder of God for the things He has done in creating the universe.  Indeed, God has done some pretty wonderful things.  In light of the greatness of God revealed in creation David cries out almost despairingly: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”  In the face of the all-surpassing greatness of God, it would seem that we shouldn’t even register on the scale of important things in the universe.  And yet, God has set us in charge of the whole earth.  Imagine for a minute that you owned a major corporation like Wal-Mart.  Compared to an overnight stock boy in a regular (not super) Wal-Mart in Nowheresville U.S.A., you would seem like a god of sorts.  You would be so far above such a minor worker that he would seem to totally escape notice.  Imagine then the reaction if you took this truly dispensable worker and elevated him to the position of Senior Executive Vice President, second only in the whole company to you.  People would think you were certifiably crazy for one.  But they would also come to the conclusion that this stock boy must be of value beyond what anybody ever considered.  We would conclude that his value to the company is set and never changing.  Some might consider him untouchable.  This is what David is getting at.  God is great beyond all accounting or measure, but for Him to make us alone of all the creatures in this world in His image and to then set us over all of creation suggests in a powerful way that we are also valuable beyond all rational reckoning and that’s not going to change.  This indeed is the first and most powerful implication of our creation in God’s image: As God’s image bearer your inestimable value is secure.  You are untouchable.

Because you are created in the image of God, you don’t have to look to anyone or anything else to have your value affirmed.  There is nothing in this world that can add to your value as a person.  It’s as high right now as it ever will be.  It has never at any time in the past been any lower.  From the moment of your conception you have been of more worth to God than any other thing in this world.  The same is true for every person you encounter on a daily basis.  Consider the opening to our conversation a couple of weeks ago and the images you pursue each day; the images by which you seek to reshape your life.  They can have no impact on your value.  Or perhaps consider the standard things by which we assess the value of others and of ourselves.  You don’t gain any value from your job, your house, your family name, your school, your grades, the clothes you wear, the numbers on the scale, the phone you have, the car you drive, or any other things you have.  Nothing in this world can give you more value than you have right now.  This is easy for me to say, but it’s harder for us to believe.  We hear things like this, nod our heads in emphatic assent, and then go out to pursue increasing our value through the acquisition of a variety of different images.

Think about what this means for just a minute, though.  You don’t need to go to wild extremes to develop or increase your value.  You don’t have to get down because you don’t feel like you’re good enough for or don’t measure up to the people around you.  You have value because you are created in God’s image.  As God’s image bearer your inestimable value is secure.  You should certainly do your best at everything you do in order to honor the God who always has and will do His best for you, but how you do doesn’t impact your value.  Yet still the images in the world around us scream the opposite.  The message of this world is that our value is insufficient but with the aid of their image it will increase to where we want it to be.  We are very consistently taught that when we make the right grades, dress the right way, marry the right person, invest with the right companies, and the like, our value will increase.  If you are in school, make all the A’s you can, but know that whether you get A’s or not is not reflective of your value.  Dress as stylishly as you can, but know that your clothes have no bearing on your value as a person.  Be as pretty as you can be, but know that achieving the distinction of beautiful in the eyes of a world whose very idea of beauty celebrates a standard no one meets won’t make you of more worth.  Strive to be the best at everything you do, but rest well knowing that your value is secure.  As God’s image bearer your inestimable value is secure.  The hard truth in this is that if you pursue value in any one of these or other areas, you will actually damage the perception of your value both in your mind and in the minds of those following your empty pursuits. This will happen because when you declare by your actions your belief that human value is not rooted in the fixed standard of God’s image, it becomes detached from anything secure and instead must flit from one retreating standard to the next in such a way that it becomes painfully obvious that you don’t measure up, that you aren’t enough, that you don’t really have the value you thought you did.  Thankfully, as God’s image bearer your inestimable value is secure.

Consider for just a minute what a freeing truth this is.  Consider the consequences of your value being rooted in anything other than God’s image.  The picture isn’t pretty.  Think: if we were created in the image of work, then the more prestigious and higher paying our job was the more value we would have.  Or perhaps the harder we worked, the more value we would have.  But this isn’t the case.  If we were created in the image of intelligence, then the higher our IQ or the better our grades the more value we would have.  Groups with IQ as the exclusionary factor like MENSA would be the country clubs of the world—the houses of the elite.  Those folks who didn’t possess the relevant IQ level would be looked down upon as of less importance to society than the higher-minded few.  But this isn’t the case.  If we were created in the image of a certain religion, then the more faithful we were to that religion the more value we would have.  All those who were not counted among that religion’s devotees would be considered valueless wretches to be converted or killed.  But this is not the case.  If we were created in the image of beauty as this culture defines it then the skinnier, smaller-dressed-sized, more muscular (to a point), whiter smile, larger-chested, broader-shouldered, fewer skin blemishes, fewer gray hairs, fewer wrinkles, smokier eyes, more provocatively-dressed we were, the more value we would have.  The week before last was the Miss America pageant.  Lisa and I watched a bit of the evening-wear part of the competition.  As each of the young women walked out on stage the sound folks played a short statement they had recorded regarding their dress and what made them beautiful.  Although perhaps we should not have been, we were shocked to hear how many of these young women made statements about how the amount of work they had put into make their bodies look the way they did and how the level to which their dress was revealing or alluring enhanced their sex-appeal made them worthy to wear the Miss America crown.  The worldview clearly on display that evening was that our value is directly related to the extent to which we fit the Hollywood culture’s definition of beauty.  And given the incredible rise in the number of elective cosmetic surgeries in the last generation, I would say that at least this definition of worth has taken hold in this country.  But this is not the case.

When our value gets defined by any other terms than the image of God the only possible result is tragedy.  Consider what the Nazis tried to do in the 1930s in Europe.  Among their many faults was their narrow definition of what counted as beautiful: the image of the perfect Aryan.  They literally killed thousands upon thousands of people who didn’t fit this mold.  And if you find yourself sitting back confident that something like that could never happen here?  Guess where the Nazis got their inspiration?  From the eugenics movement popularized in this country by Progressives in the 1920s.  While none were disposed of in a manner similar to that of the Nazis, in this country there were thousands upon thousands of people deemed by the relevant authorities to be “simple minded” or otherwise unfit to be allowed to procreate who were rounded up into what amounted to concentration camps and were force-sterilized.  All because they didn’t understand the concept of the image of God. But we do.  As God’s image bearer your inestimable value is secure.

Let’s add one more piece of encouragement on to this.  What this means is that no one can take away from or otherwise lessen your value.  The opinions of other people as far as our value goes are meaningless.  Unless their estimations of our value are perfectly in line with God’s, they aren’t correct.  Now, this doesn’t mean that we should rely on people to build us up falsely when we’ve done something wrong.  As a line from the movie Spanglish goes, “Sometimes feeling bad about yourself is good common sense.”  But even in these cases, our value is secure because we are created in the image of God.  Speaking to the youth specifically for a moment: there will be times when your parents communicate something to you that unintentionally sends the message that your value has decreased in some way.  They won’t mean it and if you can graciously help them understand how they did it I guarantee you they will seek your forgiveness.  But, every parent does this at some point—often at several points—in the life of their child.  Here’s the truth: your parents can’t change your value.  Speaking now to the parents in the room: your kids are going to respond to you at times in ways that make you feel like your value in their eyes has decreased.   They won’t mean to and are just acting out like a cornered animal because they haven’t yet reached the level of maturity to express their frustration in a constructive way, but every kid does this from time to time.  Here’s the truth: your kids can’t change your value.  Our value is rooted in the image of God.  Not in the image of our parents or our children.  Are you starting to see why this is so important to understand?  If you were created in the image of your parents or your kids, then their opinions of you would be the most important thing in the world.  If they started thinking less about you for some reason, then your value as a person would actually decrease to the level of their estimation.  This would hold regardless of how old you are.  But, this isn’t the case.  As God’s image bearer your inestimable value is secure.

In light of all this, there is a challenge I need to set before you.  It wouldn’t be right to leave this subject without addressing this issue.  And the issue is this: In this culture we are taught from a young age to compare ourselves with the people around us.  Now, making such comparisons is a natural human reaction because of our sinful nature—there’s a reason the last of the Ten Commandments is about wanting what your neighbor has—but our culture celebrates it as a virtue.  If I were to give a name to this I would call it the sin of comparisonitis.  In the sin of comparisonitis, we look at what the people around us have and either want what they have or decide that we aren’t good enough in some way because we don’t have it.  When we compare ourselves with someone else, what we are doing is expressing the worldview that their opinion matters more than God’s.   We are acting out the belief that our value is rooted in this other person or image.  Carrying around the thought that if only I was____________ I would have the self-worth I desire is dangerous to the extreme.  Holding something else up as the standard by which our value is to be determined will result in an ever-retreating standard.  Each time we get close, we will find that the standard has been move back.  It will keep moving back until we are running around in circles trying to find ourselves without ever actually getting anywhere.  It’s like the old dollar on a string gag.  Somebody ties a dollar to a string and another person reaches to pick it up.  Right as their hand gets close the dollar is jerked backwards as if blown by a short puff of wind.  The victim takes a couple of steps forward and reaches again for the dollar only to have the same thing happen again.  After a few tries they wind up looking like a fool because any objective observer can see that they’re never going to reach the dollar.  They will be chasing it right until the fall into the trap.  If we are not coming at our self-image from the starting point of: I am of infinitely great value because my value is rooted in the image of God, then we are never going to be totally satisfied with who we are.  Some of you know this because you struggle with it, for others of you you’re going to have to take my word for it: living very long with much in the way of self-dissatisfaction is a miserable thing.  And, it’s an unnecessary thing.  There is no reason for us to doubt the extent of our value because we were created in the image of God.  Now, this is not to say we don’t have places in which we could come to reflect the image of God more completely in our lives because we do.  This is to say that regardless of what the world around us seems to proclaim not having as much stuff as our neighbor or looking like our neighbor or doing things in the same way as our neighbor doesn’t make us less of a person.  It doesn’t impact our personhood at all.  Because, as God’s image bearers our inestimable value is secure.

Now, everything we’ve talked about this morning has all been pretty well focused on us and the personal implications of our being created in the image of God.   This is not, however, the extent of the great news resulting from a proper understanding of God’s image.  When we fully grasp the awesome truth that as God’s image bearers our inestimable value is secure, this changes not only our view of ourselves, but also the nature of our relationship with the God in whose image we are created.  As David rightly proclaimed in Psalm 8, God has set we humans—a bunch of seemingly insignificant creatures on a random planet nowhere near the center of an enormous universe—in the seat of authority over His world.  He’s the creator and owner, but after Him, there is no one or nothing second to us.  He wouldn’t do that unless He had an awfully good reason for doing so.  And I’m going to let you in on this reason and some of its implications…next week.  So come back as we wrap up our series, celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, and at last get to the big picture importance of our being created in the image of God.