Communing with God through and among others requires the discipline of recognizing people for what they are: persons in the image of God. The second commandment is almost hidden away among many others in the law, occurring in Leviticus 19:18.
`You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)
The phrase, “as yourself” may simply mean, love your neighbor with the same esteem and benevolence you grant yourself. Paul says in Ephesians 5:29 that no man ever yet hated his own flesh. We are built with a kind of natural affection for our own wellbeing, health, comforts, and joy. Some commentators have taken the phrase “as yourself” to mean, “for he is as you are”. Either way, the rationale is the same: love your neighbor with the kind of love you have for yourself, since you are of the same kind. For you to treat him exactly as you treat yourself, it must mean you are of the same kind. And what kind is that exactly? If I must love my neighbor because he is as I am, what is he? He is made in the image of God. And this is why you love him: because he, like you, is made in God’s image. He reflects God’s image, albeit in broken ways, and in that very reflection is the beauty of God that is to be found and loved.
We find this kind of thinking in other Scriptures.
Whoever sheds man’s blood, By man his blood shall be shed; For in the image of God He made man. (Genesis 9:6)
The punishment of a murderer with death is not as a deterrent, or as rehabilitation, or as a warning to others. The reason given for the ultimate penalty is that someone who murders a human being has done something to the image of God. A murderer destroys an effigy of God. Spiting the beauty of the image of God is punishable with the forfeiture of one’s own life.
Similarly, James says,
But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God. (James 3:8-9)
What you say to people or about them, in some ways you say or do to the image of God. Human beings are made in God’s image, whether they are believers or not. That image is marred, to be sure, but it is there nonetheless.
Theologians have debated what that means exactly. It’s clearly what differentiates us from the animals, and to some degree, the angels. Nevertheless, we struggle to understand its precise meaning. It perhaps refers to personhood, with freedom of choice. It could refer to humanity’s creative side, the ability to shape and make meaning out of the world. It could refer to humanity’s ability to dominate nature, to take control of it and rule over it. It’s probably a combination of these things which taken together, set humanity apart as those that show forth many of the excellencies of God. Perhaps the image of God is God’s beauty uniquely refracted and reflected through the spirit/matter hybrid that is mankind.
Whatever it is, by itself it gives humanity worth and dignity. Our value is not in ourselves; our value is in being the image-bearers of the Creator. Similarly, we do not love other human beings as ends in themselves, we love them as reflections of the beautiful triune God.
Communion in Reflection
Communion is enjoying the beauty of God. This discipline calls us to form the habit of seeing another person as one of God’s works. It is primarily a discipline of recognition and admiration. As unique as snowflakes, fingerprints or voices, so is each human. Every person reflects another unique instantiation of the image of God. Every human’s story is another thread in the grand tapestry of God’s story.
People are reflections of God’s handiwork in each one’s unique appearance, personality, history, talents, vocation. We should wonder at the simple uniqueness of every human, reflecting our Lord’s beautiful and infinite creativity.
Personhood is a more beautiful reflection of God than galaxies of stars. The confluence of the mind’s powers of reason and imagination, and the heart’s extraordinary range of affections produces moral choices that dramatically affect eternity. Tozer spoke of the terrifying reality of this: “We know by bitter experience the woe of an unsurrendered will and the blessedness or terror which may hang upon our human choice.”
As man uses these to shape and order the world, for good or ill, he marvelously reflects God. Art, science, technology, medicine, jurisprudence, economics, war, statecraft reveal that man cannot help reflecting his Creator, whether in submission to him or not. Man is a meaning-making creature, shaping the raw material of nature, ordering the world according to a pattern, and pouring praise on God as the ultimate source of man’s genius.
For these reasons, we can love our neighbor, be he enemy, stranger, acquaintance, colleague or family. To practice this discipline is to see humans not as ends, but as means: reflectors of God in their uniqueness, personhood, and creativity. We discern between distortions of God’s image (which nevertheless point back to the original), and reflections of it. We may phase between direct and indirect communion with God. As we simply love the image of God in another (or grieve over its distortion), our communion with god is indirect. At times, we return to God directly, thanking him for the work of his hands, praying he will beautify it through the gospel and sanctification.
Among fellow believers, the potential for enjoying God even more grows. Now the image of God is being restored in Christ, and we are coming to look more and more like Him. In fact, my Christian brother or sister will be one of the best manifestations of God to me in this age.
No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us.(1Jo 4:12)
The phrase, “No one has seen God at any time” is given because during this age the invisible God is loved when we love what is most like him. A few verses later, John says the same thing:
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can1 he love God whom he has not seen? (1Jo 4:20)
The clearer the image, the more we will enjoy God’s beauty. Undoubtedly, we will be convicted over distortions of the image in ourselves, either by contrast, or simply by comparison. We will find moments to confess and consecrate, and find a deeper conformity to the perfect Man, Jesus Christ, and find a deeper communion with him.
This is a discipline of recognition. Lewis captures this well: “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”1
- C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York, NY: Harcourt, 1963, Mariner Books edition 2012, Kindle e-book), 75. [↩]