Who Are We? (Your Answer is Probably Wrong)
If a man mints many coins from one mould, they are all alike, but the Holy One, blessed be He, fashioned all men in the mould of the first man, and not one resembles the other. ~ Babylonian Talmud
I am not the first to say it, nor is this the first or last time I will say it, but one of the foundational errors of most Christian theology is that it begins with the fall of man rather than with our creation. When we start with the fall, we ground our identity and understanding of ourselves in sin and brokenness. And the Christian walk which comes out of this foundation is duly oriented to this sin and brokenness. But this is a grave error. The story of you and me and every human being ever doesn’t begin with the fall, but with an almost breath-taking premise: that we are made in the very image of God. This is reality. It is who we are. It is our true identity.
If we believe that we are defined by our sin and brokenness, then the claim that who we actually are is the very image of a mighty, loving God is absolutely scandalous. “Oh no,” we say, “I’m merely a sinner saved by grace. A lowly worm in whom there is no good thing. I am nothing and God is everything.” But go back and read your bible from the beginning. God’s purposes are clear and no where have they been changed or removed: “Let us make man in our own image.” If we are not in reality the very image of God, then God’s work has been destroyed, The enemy has stolen what belong to God and taken it for himself. God is not an all powerful, victorious God if we aren’t walking, talking, living, breathing images of God.
The problem we have – and which scripture makes clear – is that we do sin and others sin against us. And it stains us. Scripture is filled with descriptions of sin as filth which is washed away. Why are we so intent on identifying with what God has promised he will wash away? We are not sinners saved by grace. We are image bearers made clean by the blood of the lamb.
But what does that even mean? In what way do we bear the image of God? And if we do bear the image of God, how is it that we are so messed up in so many different ways? The answer shows why it is so important to ground our identity in what the bible tells us – that we are image bearers – instead of what religion tells us – that we are broken sinners. instead of identifying ourselves as the image of the God who is love, we identify with all the wrong things.
Here’s how it works; we each start as the image of God and we enter into a human body. And from the womb, our bodies and brains grow in their idiosyncratic ways. We have experiences and interactions. We do things. We interact with people and things.It’s a bit like running a picture through a filter. The same picture looks very different when run through different filters. The object of the picture is the same, but the result looks very different. Thus, we can all bear the same image and come out looking very different. Which is fine. That’s how God created us to be and bear his image.
But if we don’t know who we really are, we think the picture, run through the filter is the real thing. We think that these things, experiences, tendencies, preferences, emotions, thought, success and failure, etc are who we are. They become our identity. We think, “I am someone who smokes, was abused as a child, dropped out of school, is poor and likes dirty jokes.” All those things may be true, but they aren’t who you are. They are preferences and experiences that you have, but they are not you anymore than these words you are reading are your computer.
Of course, what really gets us in trouble is that much of what the image we bear gets filtered through is sin. And sin distorts. It’s like photo-shopping the image to look monstrous and then presenting it as reality. And when we think that this distorted, filtered image is actually who we are, the very best we can hope for is to be forgiven for being so hideous. This is why it’s so important to start our faith story at the beginning with our true identity and not with the fall.
Being forgiven is good, but it’s not transformative. You’re still hideous, but now you’re forgiven and accepted despite being hideous. Perhaps you can look forward to the day that God makes you not so hideous or you can try really hard to be not so monstrous and call that a Christian life. But when you understand that you are actually beautiful – the image of Love itself – forgiveness is restorative. It allows you to be transformed from the false image of something hideous to something better than you had ever imagined you carried within you.
Paul speaks frequently about the “old man”. He says, it is no longer I that lives, but Christ that lives in me. The old man – the old “I” that has to be put to death – is that false image we think is real. It’s all that stuff we identify with that isn’t really us – our experiences, our sins, our hurts, our possessions, our success and failure and standing and any other thing outside of who we truly are. We have to die to all of it because as long as we are taking our life from any of them, we are identifying with what is dead and dying. Our identity comes from the source of life itself. That’s who we are. When we are living out of who we are, that is Christ living in us.
Consider that Paul specifically says it is Christ who lives in him. Christ means anointed. In the book of Acts, the apostles taught, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.” This is how Jesus of Nazareth becomes Jesus Christ. Guess who else is anointed with the Holy Spirit and power? Well, in Acts 2, the apostles proclaimed that the world was witnessing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel which says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” Yeah, that’s us. We have the same anointing that Jesus received from God.
When we are anointed and Christ lives in us, the old man – the old “life” we knew – has been exposed as false and must be put to death. Scriptures say that we are a temple for the indwelling of God. God is light and cannot dwell in the darkness. If our identity were in our sin and brokenness, God could not dwell within us.
The Catholic Church has traditionally taught that Jesus represents the true man – man as he was meant to be. None of us are God as Jesus was, but in essence, the difference between Jesus and us was that Jesus never identified with anything other than the reality of who he was. This is how he was able to give up everything – including his own life. Because he knew that everything outside of himself and his true identity was just a passing thing. And he calls on us to do the same. But in order to do that, we cannot be taking our life and identity from anything other than the very image of God which we were created to bear. Including the false, religious identity of us as worthless sinners.
Let’s go back again to Genesis 1. The words say: “let us make adam ( (man) in our image”. Did you catch that? It’s not an individual person God was making in his own image, but mankind – all of us. This is a reality which has profound implications for how we relate with each other. Because if my true identity is the image of a glorious God, then so is yours and everyone else’s. This is of course, the root of the dignity which Christianity has taught us to see each human being as having. There are no greater and lesser people – we carry the image of the Living God imprinted on our very being not just as individuals, but together as humanity.
Knowing that each person we meet is in reality a glorious being can also help us when we’re looking at someone who is behaving abominably. Because what we see in others – the sin, the meanness, the brokenness – isn’t who they are. It’s a false image. It’s like they are someone under a delusion, playing pretend. As Jesus said on the cross, “they do not know what they are doing.” They really don’t. People behave horribly because they think they are something they are not. They are convinced in their own minds that they are their experiences, their emotions, their hurt, their possessions or position. And they are acting out of that. Now, consider that it’s not just us as individuals doing this, but as families, groups, tribes and nations. It’s both silly and sad, really.
A person who thinks that they are defined by their sin or experiences or power or whatever is lost. They’re blind. Out of their minds, really. Enslaved to what is has no substance and will fade away. That’s what all that stuff warning about the world is. It’s not about listening to rock music or the clothes we wear or what we do for enjoyment. The world is a danger because we think it’s real. We think it can show us who we are and what we are worth. We think it can give us a life worth living or one you’d rather just throw away. That’s what being caught in the world is about – not a lifestyle or a disregard for what is godly and proper. It’s being caught in a delusion that any of those things define us.
If we understand this about ourselves and each other, it becomes a bit easier to forgive, not to take things personally, to return good for evil. What another person does and says is all about them and who they think themselves to be. It has nothing to do with you or me. When we can stand firm in reality – who we really are – a person telling you awful things about yourself might as well be walking up to a duck and trying to convince it its a shark. It means nothing. It’s just a delusion. It is painful to be surrounded by people caught up in a delusion, unable to see the reality of who you are. But that’s also why Jesus promised that he came to sow strife and discord rather than peace.
In John 17, Jesus prays for us that we would be one as he and the father are one. This is such a foreign concept for us. But it’s rooted in this basic truth of our shared identity. We – mankind – were created to bear the image of God. We’re all just variations of each other.
Great spiritual teachers have been saying forever that our separateness is an illusion. That in reality we are all one – not just the same, but one. One day after I had been meditating on this, trying to figure out if it were true or what it might mean, I had an odd experience. I had laid down in bed next to my husband and put my hand on his back. And for just a moment I had the sense of feeling my hand on his back from both of our perspectives – as if I were both the one touching and the one being touched. Then he put his hand on me and again, I had the sense of feeling both the weight of his hand on me and being able to feel the softness of my skin against his hand. And I realized that this is what it would mean to be one.
To be both the toucher and the one touched. To be both the one who sees and the one who is seeing. If this is the reality underneath the oneness which Jesus prayed for us and our shared identity as image bearers, then the imperative to love others as you love yourself takes on a new urgency. What you do to others is actually what you are doing to yourself. If you cause pain, one day you will know and experience that pain yourself. If you love another and forgive them, then it is no different than offering love to yourself and letting go of your own pain.
Few of us can experience this reality for more than fleeting moments, but in my experience, it sticks with you. It’s a holy thing, I think. But so long as we do not know who we really are, we can hardly imagine, much less experience this oneness. This is part of the mystery of the trinity – the love shared between the three who are one. But that love has to go back to and come out of who we were created to be. You can’t actually love someone if you don’t know who they are, after all.
But if you can let go of the illusions which say that you are defined by your sin and brokenness or your experiences, your possessions, success or any other thing besides the glory of God you are a portrait of, then you, your life and all of your relationships can be transformed. And that, my friends, is the very power of Christ alive in you.