The belief that we were made in God’s image is almost universal in Christianity. It’s so foundational, that many Christians construct their view of ethics, style of relating to others, and entire sense of self around this concept. However, in what manner we’ve been patterned after God, or what existing as his “Image Bearer” exactly means, is often debated. Some Christians assume a physical, or at least symbolic, celebration of masculinity (more properly, maleness) is what God copied into our world, and use this to construct patriarchal systems of political and family life(1). Others focus on the creation story and the human capacity for creativity(2), discarding any gender-specific interpretations of God’s intention. The debate fascinates me, but for more than theological reasons. Despite the importance of a coherent theology, I can’t help but approach this from the perspective of a survivor. The image I have of God has been an embattled subject for my entire life. Some would call it a battle for my soul. Others would call it a battle for ideological purity and social control in Evangelical sub-culture. I don’t know what I would call it. But I do know it’s a battle I haven’t escaped from unscathed.
I think it started when I was six. I’d accompanied my father to a youth camp he was speaking at. I don’t remember why I was the only one who went with him, but I do remember being excited to fly on an airplane and that it was the day I read my first comic book(4). At the campground, a little boy I was playing with started talking about his little brother. He’d died as an infant a short time before, and this boy told me calmly that it made him sad because his little brother hadn’t had a chance to accept Christ, so he was in hell. I cried. I told him that wasn’t how it worked. I said children weren’t old enough to understand, so God wouldn’t send them to hell, because he was merciful and fair. This was unquestionable. What I was describing is what evangelicals (and others) often refer to as the “Age of Accountability”, meaning that sin must be something that is enacted by a free moral agent, and children didn’t have the necessary psychological or personal development to be this. Later, my father preached a sermon where he described a dream he’d had as a child. In his dream, his his family had been accepted into heaven, but he hadn’t. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen my father cry. This sermon frightened more than anything had before, but not because of the description of hell. It hadn’t occurred to me before that my father was frightened of anything, or that his own salvation was something he had ever doubted, especially as a child. I realized that his conception of God and salvation was more complicated than the one I had, and a tiny crack began to form in the image that I carried with me.
Several years later, at a different camp I attended, a different boy was sexually assaulted by his peers. The boy was sent home. I never heard any of the counselors describe the event as a sexual assault(5). It was wrong, but the perpetrators were only children, after all; They couldn’t have really known what they were doing. At that same camp, I saw young girls berated by a female counselor for their choice of clothing. The dress code was strict, and if girls broke it, even slightly, they were subjected to an anger and suspicion usually reserved for acts of violence. I and my peers were told that girls needed to “be responsible”, and “protect your brothers in Christ”. I knew at the time that this wasn’t fair, but it was clear to me that the woman who said and did these things reflected her own image of God with a brilliant and consistent accuracy. I also know it wasn’t an image I liked looking at.
As a teenager, I confided in a person that I trusted that I’d been feeling depressed for a long time, and I was concerned I might need professional help. This person told me that if I turned the matter over to God, he would make me happy. It didn’t work. No matter how faithfully I prayed, studied the word, or participated in church, my symptoms persisted. I wasn’t angry at God for this; by this time, I’d begun to understand that God could look differently to different people and that was normal. But I was angry at the people who saw my depression as a lack of faith. It was brought up on occasion as proof that my heart wasn’t in my activities, that I was “going through the motions”. They knew this, because God was a God of healing, and I was still in pain. God expected more of me than succumbing to my illness, so they reflected that expectation.
It didn’t happen all at once, but this conflict is what finally shattered the last vestige of similarity between the God I was shown as a child to the God I had grown to believe in. I didn’t want to reflect an image of a being who demanded I not have any problems while also condemning me for existing. I didn’t want to look at people and expect to be disappointed by them, while calling it love. This didn’t look merciful or fair to me. Admitting that I was not what I was raised to be, even to myself, had a price. I had to admit that there would be a permanent rift between myself and people I cared deeply for. I had to face that the community I was raised in no longer felt like mine. I lost the sense of unified purpose and understanding that had been present in nearly every social interaction I’d had since birth. I also had to start rebuilding a large part of myself, and for a long time, I had to do it alone.
In retrospect, I’m very glad for what I went through. I’m very glad that I had to struggle to put an image of God together from my earliest experiences. Because it hasn’t gotten any easier as an adult. I still find people who, in their attempts to reflect the image of God, impose their own image onto him. I know that I do this as well. I still have to regularly peel back my most deeply held beliefs and assumptions about what part of me is made in God’s image, if any, and it still hurts. It still has a price, and it always will. What’s changed for me, is that I’ve stopped seeing this as a failing of mine, and instead see it as a responsibility. Faith should be a struggle. Claims about absolute morality should be deeply questioned. Assertions that the will of God is known by a lone group or person should be met with the gravest skepticism. Conflict should not be shunned. The alternative substituting the gaps in our image of God with ourselves; and experience has taught me that there is nothing more dangerous or painful than that.
(1): Douglas W. Philips is a good example of this.
(2): Check out Dorothy L. Sayers and “The Mind of The Maker”.
(3): I think the Incredible Hulk was fighting Captain America, although i forget why. Anyone who can find this piece of my childhood gets Jedi hugs.
(4): I only discussed this with people peripherally involved with the incident. I don’t know how the boy’s family or friends reacted.