Every single person was made in God’s image.
The idea of “Imago Dei” is one of the core tenets of Christianity and is rooted in the creation narrative in Genesis 1. It’s something Christians cling to as assigning personal value and identity in tough times, something meant to both encourage and challenge us.
This is not controversial to Christians. However, I think we gloss over it way too easily. I think we discuss this premise of faith in the context of “all humankind was made in God’s image.” We look at it from a collective lens rather than from a personal lens. I think that needs to change. Because there is a subtle but significant difference between “all people were made in God’s image” and “each individual person was made in God’s image.”
Each person you and I meet or see out in the world was carefully and specifically created in God’s image. If we truly believe this, it should be the core foundation in our minds as we interact with anyone and everyone. And that is incredibly challenging.
We all adhere to stereotypes. In the hilarious but very R-rated satirical puppet musical “Avenue Q,” there’s a song all about how “everyone’s a little bit racist.” It takes a serious topic and a trigger word and cleverly points out how we all participate in judgments based on racial stereotypes, so we should all acknowledge our own faults and destigmatize the discussion around it. But it’s not just racism. Any time we see a homeless person on the street, a well-past-retirement-age checker moving in half speed at the store, a group of teenagers just looking like they’re up to no good, or any other of infinite examples, we make snap judgments. It is human nature.
As Christians, we’re called beyond our human nature. Our first thought when we see any of these people (or really any person at all) cannot be one of judgment. That is contrary to the life and heart to which we were called. It’s contrary to the actions and words of Jesus.
Instead, our first feeling should be of love as we acknowledge that this person was made in God’s image. This individual person in front of me is valuable to God, completely unique, and worthy of love and empathy.
Empathy. That’s the core of this. It’s what we as humans fundamentally lack, and it’s what absolutely separated Jesus from everyone around him.
Empathy sees the person in the street and immediately, without judgment or fear, desires to help in any way possible. That person is 100 percent human, as God designed, just as we are. They have value and are worthy of love.
When we love someone, we see them differently. Even when they stumble, we’re more merciful with them than we are with others. Discipline truly brings us pain to impart because we don’t want to hurt them even if we know it’s in their best interest. With those people we know and love, even if we know they’re lazy or have made stupid decisions to bring things upon themselves, we still yearn so desperately to give them whatever it takes to help them climb out of it. Our first reaction to their pain is never judgment. It’s a very different approach to how we evaluate strangers.
That’s when we see the love that is God, the love we are meant to have and share, the whole premise of relational love between our creator and us. The difference is that for Jesus, every single person prompts that response. Even just thinking about that fills me with both joy and terror, because it’s so beautiful and perfect and what I want to be, but I’m so far from it.
I think that’s key to Jesus’ acts of mercy and healing: those he helped were people who were outcasts either due to their illness or sin. Others didn’t view them with love and value, and they probably reached a point where they didn’t view themselves with love and value. Read through the Gospels and dwell on each of the individuals whom he stopped to help: tax collectors, Samaritans, “ritually unclean” people due to illness (the bleeding woman and lepers), and so many others. These were outcasts of society, despised by all around them.
Imagine being one of those people, shunned from society. People step over you or cross the street to get away from you. They speak about you as if you were a leech or disease plaguing society. It wouldn’t take long before you started believing it yourself. It wouldn’t take long for you to lose your humanity.
Jesus sought these people out. In some cases they came to him, in others they merely cried out to him, and in several he literally pursued them. The savior of the world, God incarnate, went out of his way to affirm the humanity of these people. His empathy for them reflected his knowledge that they bear the image of God. His actions were those of someone pursuing a lost loved one.
That’s one of the most radical things about Jesus. Where we see someone living in poverty and immediately assume laziness, Jesus sees a person he loves.
Like I said, just thinking about that fills me with both joy and terror. It’s so amazing to trust Jesus feels that way about me even when I mess up, but it’s also overwhelmingly convicting. Because he called me to go and do likewise.
Too often we stigmatize people based on a wide array of demographic groups: race, sex, sexual preference, wealth, age, political affiliation, religious affiliation, education, health status, background, etc. It is amazingly easy for us to stop seeing people as human when we do this. Every time we do that, we are living the exact opposite of the way Jesus lived and called us to follow.
Every single person was made in God’s image. So true and so incredible. That means every single person, regardless of everything, is worthy of dignity and empathy. There is not a single person, regardless of how “far from God” they might be, that Jesus would not seek out and choose to build up and heal while the world around them casts them out.
Let’s keep that in mind each day as we step out into the world and see every person around us. And let’s keep that in mind as we engage in politics as well, keeping it at the core of any thought about which policies to support and oppose. Empathy. Love. Go and do likewise.