Thursday, February 18, 2016

Imago Dei


My four-year-old daughter has a little toy rake that she enthusiastically runs and fetches whenever I set out to rid the yard of leaves. She loves “helping” daddy do the yard work. It's a terrifically inefficient process. She haphazardly moves leaves here and there in a way that only makes sense to her. I do my best to steer her in the right direction, get her pushing the leaves the same way I'm headed. Our collaboration is definitely a work in progress. When we've finally wrangled all the leaves into one big pile, she often likes to jump right in the middle and thrash around like she's making a snow angel. This inevitably adds more raking for me. But I love every second of it, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Likewise, it brings God great joy to include His children in His work—not because we are particularly useful or handy, but because we are His.

The creation story tells us how God affectionately crafted humanity in His own image. In the ancient world, the Roman emperors would erect marble sculptures of themselves throughout their empire in order to let their subjects know who was boss. In contrast to the Caesars' static symbols of power, God created living monuments to His greatness, conduits of His mercy and justice, and placed them in the world as His administrators. He instructed them to spread out, multiply, and exercise dominion over all creation. As His image bearers, humanity was empowered and commissioned by God to continue His creative work in the world by harnessing its raw potential. But what happens when the monuments refuse to reflect their glorious Creator? What happens when God's human administrators shirk their calling and rebelliously seek their own way? All of creation is currently living out the tragic answer to this not-so-hypothetical question. Instead of stewarding God's good creation, humanity exploits and oppresses all that God has entrusted to us. We were meant to be a blessing to the cosmos, yet by our own folly we became creation's curse.

Fortunately God is not swayed by humanity's consistent moral incompetence. He is as committed to His original plan to rule His creation through human administrators as ever. And so He became a human, the God-man Jesus of Nazareth, to set our wayward species back on track, to give us the costly reboot we so desperately needed. We can't help but note the counterintuitive way in which God reclaims His world. Suffering and dying as a frail human being is not the counter-move you would expect from an omnipotent being. It speaks volumes, however, about the way in which God views and wields power. Jesus claims that “His yoke is easy” and “His burden is light.” And while His disciples originally jockeyed for power over each other in typical human fashion, Jesus spoke of another way. He said that whoever aspired to be great in His kingdom would need to become the servant of all, and then went on to demonstrate this concept in both small and monumental ways. It seems His sovereignty is best displayed through His comfort with outsourcing His work to human agents. In His kingdom we are not only recipients of His restorative work in the world but we are also made into active participants—ambassadors, ministers of reconciliation, partners in the family business. It's the serpent who would have us believe that God is a megalomaniac, holding out on us, keeping us from our highest potential. C.S. Lewis uses his allegorical tale of Narnia to paint a compelling picture of God's role for humans. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the noble Aslan restores peace to Narnia by sacrificially redeeming the treasonous Edmund, defeating the White Witch, and enthroning the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve as his royal administrators over the mythical land. God would have us be kings and queens over His creation, while the lies of the serpent have reduced us to shackled slaves.

Our Creator regularly goes out of His way to utilize human beings to accomplish His purposes in the world. He shouts “let my people go!” through stuttering human voices and pours out His heart through human pens. He works His wonders through staffs and slings wielded by human hands. How beautiful are the feet that bring His good news. This is not by necessity or coincidence. It is in accordance with His good pleasure and express design. Right after the resurrected Jesus announced that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to Him He immediately distributed His authority to His disciples so that they could carry out the Great Commission. In Acts chapter 10 we read about a Roman centurion named Cornelius who is ready to hear the Gospel. God sends an angel to him, not to tell him about what Jesus had accomplished, but merely to tell him that he needs to go find a man named Peter. Then God sends Peter a vision and tells him to get ready for Cornelius' visit. God goes to great lengths to arrange a meeting between these two men, reserving the best part—the Gospel proclamation—for Peter. How hard it must have been for the angel to hold his tongue as God gleefully disregarded expediency in favor of His precious child's clumsy involvement.

I think prayer is often of this same sort. At the end of Job's intense ordeal, God reprimands his inconsiderate “friends” by saying, “I am angry with you...because you have not spoken the truth about me.” He then goes on to instruct the men to ask Job to pray for them and promises that He will accept Job's prayer on their behalf and forgive them. This round about way of forgiving Job's friends may seem puzzling at first. Why doesn't God just forgive these guys if that's what He has already planned to do? It seems that He is honoring Job by making room in the process for his humble involvement. He tells us to keep asking Him, nagging Him even, for His kingdom to come, for His will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven—an outcome that He Himself is passionately committed to achieving whether we were to ask or not. And yet He says to ask just the same. Our ability to affect real change in the world through our request is His gift to us, and the time spent participating with our Father at work is a gift we share. Our “contribution” to God's work, as Mr. Lewis points out, can only be seen as a child borrowing money from her father to buy him a birthday gift. Though the father is pleased with the arrangement, he is in the end “none the richer.”

If my four-year-old sets out to rake the leaves on her own, it will undoubtedly end in failure. Jesus warns His followers, “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Like a once-shattered mirror miraculously restored, God's image bearers are only set right through the work of His Christ. It is Jesus who qualifies us to “reign with him” as we were always meant to (Revelation 20:6). He is pleased to enable and assign us a place in His good work. He doesn't need little human helpers. He is more than capable of governing the cosmos—raking the leaves, so to speak—on His own. We will constantly be confounded by His behavior, however, if we try to understand a hyper-relational, triune God in terms of mere efficiency. He has a plan and purpose for the human race, and He is going to great lengths to see it through to its glorious conclusion. 

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