Recognizing the Image of God
A message written for the 25th Anniversary of Christian Reformed Disability Concerns by Rev. Mark Stephenson, Director of Disability Concerns. Feel free to use this message or adapt it as appropriate for your situation. For your own integrity, please acknowledge the source. A children's message on the same Scripture passage is also included below.
What makes a human life worth living?
Productivity – how much someone is accomplishing in life?
Potential – how much someone might accomplish if given the time and training?
Financial worth? Good looks? Independence?
Getting more personal, what makes your life worth living?
What you do? What you might accomplish some day? Your financial worth? Your looks? Your independence and freedom to choose. . . where you will live, whether you will marry, how many children you will have, what kind of job you will pursue?
The trouble with all of these is that they are so fragile.
Our work productivity can be trashed by a layoff.
Our potential declines as the years we have lived exceed the years we have yet to live.
Our financial worth is dependent on so many factors beyond our control.
Our looks and even a warm smile can be twisted by accident or stroke.
Our sense of independence is shattered when a loved one dies, and we realize how much we needed him or her.
What gives a human life value? What gives my life value? Ultimately, what we do or will do, how much money we have, how we look, or our freedom to make choices do not invest our lives with the greatest measure of our value. All of these can be taken away. But humans have an intrinsic value that nothing can remove. When God created people he made our inherent value layoff-proof, recession-proof, stroke-proof, accident-proof, even sin proof. Listen to Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."
So God created human beings in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Genesis 1:26-28, TNIV)
A. Humans are made in the image of God.
1. People are different
The rest of creation has some likeness to God.
God exists; a rock exists.
God has life; a daffodil has life.
God created beetles; adult beetles create baby beetles.
God has emotions; a dog has emotions.
God thinks; chimpanzees can think.
Although every grain of sand and elm tree and elephant is a window through which we can glimpse God, Genesis does not tell us that any other creature is made in God’s image and likeness; only human beings. People are different from the rest of creation.
2. Our most important difference is based on what we are.
Human beings, as a species, are better at creativity, self-awareness, thought, and taking action than any other species on earth. Yet, the Bible tells us that what we do is secondary to what we are. Being is more important than doing.
Genesis 1:26-28 first tells us that we are made in God’s image.
Then it tells us that God calls people to do certain things: to rule and to be fruitful.
Living out our calling comes second after being invested with the intrinsic worth of being God’s image-bearers.
To illustrate this idea, think about the difference in value between old coins made of silver and today’s coins that are made mostly from copper, nickel, and zinc. (Show a silver quarter and a modern quarter if you have them.) If I took a quarter minted today and bent and twisted it until it was no longer recognizable as a quarter, it would be a nearly worthless hunk of metal. But no matter how much I defaced a silver quarter, it would still be worth much more than its face value because the value of the metal itself is about $2.00. A silver quarter has intrinsic worth, not for what it does (its face value) but for what it is (silver). Same with humans. The value of every single human comes from what she is: a creature made in God’s image. No matter how disabled her body or mind is, her value is the same as any other person’s value.
3. Humans are special to God.
Genesis 1 and 2 tell us in three different ways that humans are more special to God than the rest of his creation. First, Genesis 1 tells us that humans were created last. This placement in the creation order is Scripture’s way of saying that people are the pinnacle of creation. Once God made people, he was finished with his “very good” creation. Then God rested. Second, the term, “image of God,” tells us that humans are special. When the Bible was first being written 3500 years ago, a human king was said to be the image of the gods. In his wisdom, God inspired the authors of the Bible to use language that at that time was only applied to royalty. In the Bible, all people are made in the image of God, the king of kings; therefore, all people are royalty. Third, In Genesis 2 we read that God formed all the parts of creation like an attentive and careful gardener. But only one part of the garden received the very breath of God to fill it with life: the man. All other creatures breathe air, but we human beings breathe the very breath of God.
These Scriptural ways of setting humans above the rest of creation led one author to write:
It is hard to overemphasize the revolutionary impact of the idea that humans are made in the "image of God." Human life is uniquely precious to God, and each person is infinitely valuable to him. This was a powerful idea that was behind the many differences between the humanitarian laws of the Torah compared to all other cultures of the time. Through the statement that "God created man from the dust and breathed the breath of life into him," we can see the amazing paradox that unlike the rest of creation, we are the direct work of God's own hand, and unlike animals, we receive our spirit from God himself. We are as insignificant as dust, and yet we bear the imprint of God himself!. . . Certainly we will treat each other with respect when we realize that we are looking at God's own handiwork, and a reflection of God himself. (Dr. Lois Tverberg, “Looking at the Creation Account Hebraically,” from the email newsletter, En-Gedi Article, July 2006.)
Humans are different from the rest of creation. God sees his own reflection when he looks into the face of every human being on earth. Because God sees his image in people, we must too.
B. Recognize the image of God. . .
1. Recognize the image of God in yourself.
The children’s page of the October (2007) Banner makes this wonderful suggestion:
Do you sometimes forget how precious you are to God? Here’s a way to remind yourself every day: write [the words] “The image of God” on a piece of paper and tape it to your bathroom mirror. Every time you look in the mirror, you’ll see God’s special creation looking back at you!
Sometimes other people might drive you down by how they treat you or ignore you. You might feel low and worthless because you are out of work, or your last child just left home, or your rebellious son is making a mess of his life, or you made significant mistakes in your past and live with deep regrets, or you feel frustrated by the limitations which result from your disability. But when God looks at you he sees his own image. Take a good look in the mirror today and gaze at the image of God. (If you use the children’s message suggested below, take out the mirror and show it to the congregation.)
2. Recognize the image of God in other people.
We are experts at recognizing our differences with other people. We size up others and note how we compare: richer or poorer, heavier or thinner, prettier or less pretty, more muscular or less muscular, more spiritual or less.
God notices differences too, but he pays little attention to the differences that are so important to us. God does not want anyone to perish, but wants everyone to come to repentance. He cares deeply whether or not people commit their lives to Christ as Lord and Savior. But on one real and significant level, God doesn’t see a difference between people. God can look at any human being and see his image. Anyone! Since God sees himself in every person, we need to recognize God’s image in every person too. We realize that our differences from other people are not as important as our fundamental bond. We train ourselves to notice that bond by saying to ourselves:
I have mental illness, and she does not. We are both made in God’s image.
He uses a wheelchair, and I do not. We are both made in God’s image.
His skin is dark and mine is light. We are both (let congregation say) made in God’s image.
I walk clumsily, and she walks gracefully. We are both made in God’s image.
He makes much less money than I do. We are both made in God’s image.
She has five children, and I have not been able to conceive. We are both made in God’s image.
Their daughter has autism and our daughter does not. They are both made in God’s image.
He is blind, and I can see. We are both made in God’s image.
So what does it matter? Let’s apply what we have learned about the image of God to...
C. Ministry with people with disabilities
As we think about ministry with people with disabilities, we need to begin with a definition. Just what do we mean by “disability.” Most people hear that word and think only of some physical or emotional condition that makes it difficult for someone to carry on one or more of life’s basic activities. While that’s true, it’s only half true. Thinking of disability that way locates the disability only in the person with a disability. But society also creates disability by the way we construct buildings and programs. For example, a person in a city who must use a wheelchair will be disabled in getting around town if that city has no graded curbs. But if the city installs graded curbs, the person in a wheelchair can travel from street to street without the curbs getting in their way. The same can be said of steps, and restrooms, and small print bulletins and the way we set up our Sunday school programs. These and all kinds of other things can set up or reduce barriers to participation by people with disabilities. So as we talk about ministry with people with disabilities, let’s remember that the disability is not just in a person, but also in response to that person by everyone else in church.
To begin talking about ministry with people with disabilities, let’s start with...
1. The power of a preposition
Notice I said “ministry with people with disabilities” rather than “ministry to people with disabilities.” If we talk about ministry to people with disabilities, we set up a contrast between people with disabilities and people without disabilities. This kind of language suggests that people with disabilities receive ministry, while nondisabled people do ministry. Genesis 1 does not say, "All you who are not disabled, rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." God gives gifts to all of his people. A healthy church recognizes and welcomes the gifts all its members bring to the ministry of the church, including people with disabilities. For example, Ryan is a young man who has Down syndrome. We might be tempted to think of him only in terms of his Down syndrome. But God doesn’t. God sees him as an image-bearer and as a recipient of God’s spiritual gifts. And so he is. Ryan is a prayer warrior in his church. He keeps a list of people he prays for every night including people who are not his family members. “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16b) If we want to unleash the gifts of all of our members, be sure not to overlook anyone, or assume that the person with a disability has nothing to offer. He does!
2. Double hospitality.
When Sarah’s church welcomes her into the church’s programming, hospitality doubles. Sarah’s autism means that she has a number of learning differences from other kids her age. But Sarah’s congregation decides to make work of including her. In consultation with Sarah and her parents, the church developed a plan for including Sarah in church school. They looked at her unique needs and gifts, what she likes and doesn’t like, what the classroom needs in terms of extra staffing, and they make it work. Sarah needs constant supervision; so her church didn’t leave that task only to her parents, who already feel exhausted from watching her all week. Instead, they gather a group of people who spend time with Sarah, get to know her, help her experience Christian love, learn the Bible in the ways she can, and keep her safe. For two blessed hours every Sunday morning, Sarah’s parents know that Sarah is safe, cared for, loved, and growing in her relationship with Jesus Christ through the ministry of her church. The hospitality of Christ is doubled. Sarah is included in the full life of her church, and her family is too. Of course the opposite is true. If Sarah were rejected by her church, her family would be rejected too. So a wise church will listen carefully to the Bible’s
3. Double warning.
The Bible doesn’t talk much about the image of God after Genesis 1. But two scripture passages refer directly to our being made in God’s image. Both warn us that disrespect toward any human is disrespect to God himself.
Genesis 9:6 (TNIV): "Whoever sheds human blood, by human beings shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made humankind."
James 3:9-10 (TNIV): "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God's likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be."
When we exclude people with disabilities from our worship by our barriers of architecture or communication or attitude, we exclude God from our worship. When we exclude the boy with autism from our church’s programming because it seems like too much trouble, we are excluding God from our church programming. Every person is God’s self-portrait. When we insult another, we insult God.
4. Healthy churches are willing to pay the price.
A moment ago I mentioned three barriers we erect against people with disabilities: barriers of architecture, communication, and attitude. We don’t do this intentionally of course, but it happens without thinking, without considering how our actions will affect people living with impairments of one kind or another. We erect barriers of architecture when our buildings are difficult if not impossible for people with disabilities to use. We erect barriers of communication if people with hearing or sight impairments are excluded from parts of our worship or programming because we have not provided an alternative way for them to participate. We erect barriers of attitude when we ignore or pity people with disabilities, or keep them separated from the rest of the church fellowship. Real inclusion begins when we work at eliminating these barriers and work at developing a relationship with a person with a disability, learning his name, his likes and dislikes, his needs and gifts. So here are specific ideas I have for how we can make our own congregation a more inclusive ministry:
(Pastor/worship leaders: you will need to complete this section. May I suggest you use the tools included with this worship resource pack to help you determine the best “next steps” for your congregation. We have included two questionnaires for council/care team members to use to interview people with disabilities and their families; an accessibility audit to look at your church’s architecture, communication, and attitudes; and a church policy on disability to have a specific commitment your congregation can make to work at ministry with people with disabilities. Perhaps doing the questionnaire with families in church brings out the need for a respite care ministry. Or you could ask that the Building Committee do an audit of the building, with one member doing the entire audit in a wheelchair; the Worship committee look at the communication barriers section; and the council work through the attitudes section of the audit. You might find specific barriers in any one of the three sections to highlight in your message for your congregation to overcome. Disability Concerns has many additional resources on our web site including this message and other worship resources in a digital format. To access it navigate to www.crcdisabilityconcerns.org, then click on the “Resources for worship” link.)
Statistics show that about 18% of the population in North America lives with a disability, and 10% lives with a severe disability. We can think about people with disabilities as a minority group, a large minority group, in fact. But one fact distinguishes people with disabilities from all other minority groups. People with disabilities are the only minority group to which anyone can belong. Does the population of our church reflect the population at large? If we were showing the kind of welcome the Bible challenges us to show, the percentage of people with disabilities in our church should be greater than the percentage in the population at large because the community knows we are such a warm and welcoming body.
But that’s not easy. Including all people in the life of the church is costly. But we don’t do it alone, and we don’t do it in our own strength. The Bible does mention one person by name who is the perfect image of God. Colossians 1:15, 19, and 20 (TNIV) says, “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. . . . For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” As we fix our eyes on Jesus, the one perfect image of God, and experience his Spirit working within us, we recognize that all people have infinite value because all are made in God’s image. We see that each one’s value arises from their being made in the image of God – like the silver quarter. The value comes from what it is made from, no matter how so-called “disabled” the quarter becomes. As images of the king of kings, we are all royalty, and we treat each other that way. Amen!