I once had a 1963 Chevrolet Nova Super Sport convertible that I enjoyed restoring. It was a rare automobile that represented a meaningful tie to my teenage years. As a teenager, I viewed the world as fresh and wonderful and full of promise. No doubt some of that golden aura attached itself to the Nova. When I drove it, old memories would come flooding back, not just mental memories but physical ones as cars of that era felt and handled differently than cars today. While my experience might have felt alien to a younger driver, it felt very familiar to me. That familiarity was the gateway that made those memories possible.
While it can seem pleasant to revel in nostalgia, we nonetheless understand that things often change for the better. That old car did not ride or handle as well as modern machines. When it was made, seatbelts were not mandatory. Today we not only have seat belts and shoulder belts, but we also have airbags that surround us in the event of a collision. Cars that we consider classics today were often death traps in a collision with their hard metal interiors. Prior to Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” most of us gave little thought to the fact that we were hurtling down the roads at high speeds with virtually nothing between us and eternity. There was no safety in the distance between our bodies and the steering wheel or the hard, metal dashboard. We concerned ourselves more with style than safety. Many of us saw the film “Mechanized Death” with its gruesome scenes while taking driver’s education, but no one, including the instructors, perceived there was any other option than driving these dangerous metal projectiles. With vehicles separated by no more than painted lines on the road as they hurtle headlong toward each other, perhaps safety should have been more of a concern from the beginning.
With style being the primary design focus there is little wonder that cars of that era are so appealing to collectors and restorers, today. In spite of the other issues, we tend to focus mainly on the positive aspects of the automobile’s history. As it is with cars, so it is with many things in life. We tend to interpret the past through the lens of what in our own experience was positive about it. While this is not necessarily bad, it can cause us to find it harder to see the flaws in our past experience, while readily identifying flaws in the present. For instance, we can wax nostalgic about the wonderful western cowboy movies of the past while forgetting the stereotypical portrayals of Native Americans. In movie after movie, they are portrayed as stupid, savage, drunken and cruel. Since this stereotype did not apply to most in the audience, it was overlooked – never mind that after seeing these scenes at the movies and on television, children acted out these same stereotypes in their play.
The same is true of music. Along with the movies, cowboy themes were popular in music as well. A certain style, known as Country and Western was very popular and continues to be, today. It so shaped an entire generation that the newer genre of Rock and Roll struggled to find its musical place. Yet, Rock and Roll survived and as a younger generation grew up to its rhythms, it has become established, too. Each generation looks back on its musical experience as the epitome of good music, often forgetting that what they remember as a golden musical era was perhaps once unfamiliar and jarring to the previous generation.
The reason it is important to understand all of this is that each of these things is a cultural expression that informs our experience. We tend to see these cultural manifestations as essential tests for what is true and good. But we should not allow the cultural aspects of our lives to become foundational, because culture changes over time. Instead we need to find our foundational security in those things that are consistent and eternal. Mankind was created in the image of the Godhead per the creation account in the book of Genesis. As such, man was created for eternal consistency no matter what his environment might be, for God is eternal and consistent. Culturally, man might live as Asian, European, African or any cultural subgroup thereof. Racially, he might be white, black, brown, red, yellow or various shades of these hues. Economically, he might be a member of the plutocracy or might run barefoot with only the clothes on his back. He might write and speak with erudition or have spelling and grammar so atrocious every school teacher would wince. He might play the cello in a chamber orchestra or bang the drums in a garage band. In spite of these cultural variables, a common humanity means a shared foundational bond.
We might reject that bond in favor of more ephemeral values, but because it is foundational, the image of God still calls us for fellowship. That bond is the very essence of Pauline theology as presented in the New Testament, including his letters to the Thessalonians. John, who is arguably the disciple who was closest to Jesus, put it most succinctly when he described the singular attribute that is the objectif principal of the image of God. He wrote, “God is love.” (See 1 John 4:8, 16)
If one is created in the image of God then one is created to love. It cannot be otherwise. A mirror can only reflect what it sees. If it is shown love, it cannot reflect evil. But in order to reflect the image of God, it must stand in his presence. We must daily seek His face by setting aside time to make that possible. We can find His image through prayer. We can find it through the reading of the Bible. We can even find it through our relationship with others. After all, God did not create only Adam in His image. Just as the Godhead consists of Father, Spirit and Son, His image may be seen in father, mother, and child. Perhaps the family is the only complete revelation of that image.
We often hear it said that the Decalogue is the representation of God’s character. If so, it is an incomplete one. At no time does the Bible state it is the fullness of God’s character. It is true that the first four commandments may be limited expressions of our love to God and the last six of our love to our fellow man, but if we stop there we fall woefully short of God’s image. The image of love is incomplete if it is only about what must be avoided. If I am careful not to steal from my neighbor but fail to share my blessings with him, my image of God is broken. If I am careful not to take God’s name in vain, but never lift my voice in prayerful thanksgiving, the image is broken. These things are not culturally dependent. They are foundational and eternal. They are who we were created to be.
When Paul writes to the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold fast,” he is calling them to declare in their lives the image of God. His desire is that they not allow that light of love to be extinguished. It is the only thing that distinguishes the Christian from those who do not follow our Lord. As Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35, NIV In other words, it is only as the image of God can be seen in us, that others may know we are His children. Since “God is love,” only love can reveal Him in us.
Love transcends culture, race, education, wealth, or even the kind of music we enjoy. Because it does, God’s image may be reflected in places we might never have expected to find it. His image is not dependent on what we wear or what we eat. It is not dependent on how sinlessly perfect our lives are. His image is love, nothing more nor less. This is why Mary Magdalene reflected the image of God when, in spite of her less-than-perfect life, she lovingly anointed Jesus with costly perfume. This is why those who had seen Jesus had seen the Father for His act of ultimate love virtually shouted the image of God from the cross.
We can chose to make our lives about everything that we feel we must deny ourselves in a vain attempt to achieve an austere perfection in order to please a demanding God. Many others have certainly chosen that path. However, if we truly wish to reflect the image of our Creator, we would do well to make ourselves conduits pouring forth at every opportunity streams of God’s reflected love into the lives and hearts of others in the parched world around us. Not everyone has the ability to do that, but God’s children certainly do, by design.
Scripture marked (NIV) taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.