Two weeks ago, I left you with a story that was hard for me to write, especially since altogether, it looked pretty bad and despairing. But I needed to tell that story in order to tell this one: how I’ve readjusted my image of God. I was a theology/philosophy major in college, which my best friend and I jokingly called the “phil-the” major (filthy, get it?). And while it gave me the tools I need for Biblical study, I was still struggling with using theology to create rules about what is right and what is not. Since I’d been raised in a fairly legalistic mindset, hearing more about sin than about love, it was hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that love also meant eternal punishment, as much of the way we sell theology from the pulpit. This God seemed distant, judgmental, and never responded to any of my prayers.
But, in my sophomore year of college, I had a bit of a revelation. I’d been involved in Campus Crusade for Christ since the beginning of my college years, and attended a big conference over the winter break each year. One of the sermons given at this conference had a line that stuck with me – the preacher was talking about seeing a homeless man on the street. The preacher passed the guy by, until preacher’s father pulled him aside and said, “Son, that man is your brother.”
Despite all the talk and care I’d given to caring for “my brothers in Christ” by watching how I dressed, how I acted, and keeping my purity intact and quiet, I’d never thought to apply brotherly theology to the social justice realm. The idea that poor people weren’t lazy good for nothings but instead people who shared in the grace and Body of Christ was something that, I’m ashamed to say, had never occurred to me.
I had Othered them so completely that I’d failed to acknowledge their basic humanity.
It would take a few years for that to really, truly sink in – a semester at Oxford helped, but it wasn’t until I was in Waco, TX, living in an apartment with bars on my windows that I truly began to understand what the Image of God is.
Saying that we, as individual corporeal beings, are the image of a Triune God is nonsense to me. We are not three persons in one being and God is not corporeal except as Jesus - that’s very much talked about as God shedding portions of his power in order to become human, not that humans are literally already God’s image (cf. Philippians 2 and the concept of kenosis, which is worth researching).
In order to be in the image of a Triune God, it had to mean something more than this individualistic, highly American, “faith is a private journey” talk I’d been getting most of my life and we sin individually and take individual steps.
You see, we American evangelical Christians are good at using the call to community when it suits us. We tell women they must care for their brothers’ lusting, and that brothers must protect their sisters’ purity by not violating another man’s future wife. We call on brotherhood and community when someone asks potentially divisive questions, and use the “community” of Christ as a shaming tool.
But what we don’t do is recognize that community is the image of God itself. God is three persons in one, working in perfect harmony together. God is, by Their very nature, a communal individual. Servant communing with King, with bonds of love making them equals. Son, God, and Holy Spirit, tied together with bonds of love, not rules.
That is what the image of God means. That revelation is what changed my life. The oppressed are not merely brothers, but people without whom the image of God is incomplete.
American evangelicalism has done a lot to obfuscate and destroy the necessity of the Trinitarian nature of God. The first time I heard of the Holy Spirit, I was 18 years old, in my Christian Thought class in college. “God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity” was a line with no meaning to me – and I came from a mainline, Baptist church in the heart of America.
We’ve reaped great damage by rending the Trinity from its necessary parts and individualizing it. “I just need Jesus” is nonsense, though the life of Jesus is an important filter. We no longer understand what it means to be made in God’s image and instead persecute, shame, and guilt our brothers and sisters instead of following the principle the Trinity follows – which is love. Love. Always love.
I’ll be covering this more in depth as the series continues, but this hopeful, loving, gracious image of God is what keeps me going and keeps me believing. It is, I believe, a way grounded in orthodoxy and yet heterodox to the way much of the American Christian church operates. And it is worth discussion.