Am I failing at life? Am I succeeding? And why do I exist in the first place?
These questions are huge, we all ask them, and thankfully the Bible helps us with answers in the form of a litmus test.
We are made by God to image him in the world. That’s our purpose. Genesis 1:27: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
But what exactly does this mean for my life?
Such a simple sentence can put you on a long search in the attempt to wrap your arms around the full implications. It turns out, what it means to be made in God’s image comes with a lot of right answers.
“Historically,” John Piper said in one Ask Pastor John episode, “people have said to be made in God’s image is our morality, our sense of right and wrong. Our rationality, our ability to reason. Our spirituality, our ability to relate to God. Our aesthetic sense — you don’t find too many monkeys creating Mona Lisas. Our judicial sense, the whole legal system, a sense of right and wrong and justice and injustice. And I think, frankly, all of those are true and aspects of what it means to be in God’s image” (episode 153).
And they all help to inform why we stand for the dignity of all human life, including the unborn, the disabled, the terminally sick, and the elderly.
The bottom line is, image bearing has a lot of right definitions because we are unique and complex creatures made by an infinite and gloriously multifaceted God.
But what I find especially interesting is how Pastor John focuses on one meaning that often gets missed, perhaps for its simplicity. But to find this one point, there’s not one place to go, not simply one book chapter on image bearing. How he explains our role as image-bearers is consistent, but it’s also scattered throughout John Piper’s articles, paragraphs in books, statements, interviews, and forewords. I’ll attempt to gather and superglue together the image-bearing picture.
First and fundamentally, to image God means in our most human selves, we are spreaders. In his foreword to Sam Crabtree’s book Practicing Affirmation, Piper writes: “The point of being created in the image of God is that human beings are destined to display God. That’s what images do. And the point of being redeemed by Jesus, and renewed after the image of our Creator, is to recover this destiny” (7).
The imago dei remains present even in fallen humanity, but in a marred and broken capacity. Redemption recovers some of the lost luster and amplifies the spread.
Next, in his seminal book Desiring God, Piper goes on to explain: “According to the text [Genesis 1:26–27], creation exists for man. But since God made man like himself, man’s dominion over the world and his filling the world is a display — an imaging forth — of God. God’s aim, therefore, was that man would so act that he would mirror forth God, who has ultimate dominion. Man is given the exalted status of image-bearer, not so he would become arrogant and autonomous (as he tried to do in the Fall), but so he would reflect the glory of his Maker, whose image he bears. God’s purpose in creation, therefore, was to fill the earth with his own glory. This is made clear, for example, in Numbers 14:21, where the Lord says, ‘All the earth shall be filled with the glory of the LORD,’ and in Isaiah 43:7, where the Lord refers to His people as those ‘whom I created for my glory’” (314).
Image bearers are glory spreaders. But this still remains rather abstract and can be made more concrete.
Piper illuminates his point with a metaphor of marble in a few paragraphs published in the book A Holy Ambition (2011). There Piper says:
Books by the hundreds have been written on the imago dei, as it’s called. It’s a huge issue.
I’m going to avoid the whole controversy and say something much simpler, and I think just as profound: Images are created to image. Right? Why do you ever set up an image of anything? To image it!
You put up a statue of Stalin, you want people to look at Stalin and think about Stalin. You put up a statue of George Washington to be reminded of the founding fathers. Images are made to image. So if God made us, unlike all the other animals, in his image, whatever it means in detail, this it means clearly: God is the reality and we are the image. Images are created to set forth the reality.
Why did God create man? To show God! He created little images so that they would talk and act and feel in a way that reveals the way God is. So people would look at the way you behave, look at the way you think, the way you feel, and say, “God must be great, God must be real.” That is why you exist.
God didn’t create you as an end in yourself. He’s the end, you’re the means. And the reason that’s such good news is because the best way to show that God is infinitely valuable is to be supremely happy in him. If God’s people are bored with God, they are really bad images. God is not unhappy about himself. He is infinitely excited about his own glory. (41)
We are made in the likeness of God to exhibit his presence on earth. From here there’s one more puzzle piece to bring into the discussion.
Back in APJ episode #153, Piper again picked up the point about statues, asking, “What would it mean if you created seven billion statues of yourself and put them all over the world? It would mean you would want people to notice you.”
Then he transitions from marble to mirrors, to explain how we reflect God:
Here’s the picture in my mind. I was created like a mirror. And a mirror that was supposed to be at 45-degrees with the clear reflective side pointing upward so that as God shone on it at the 45-degree angle, it would bounce off and it would make a 90-degree turn and be reflected out into the world.
In the fall, Satan persuaded me that my image is more beautiful than God’s image, and so I flip the mirror over. Now the black back side is towards God. It doesn’t reflect anything. Instead, the mirror casts a shadow in the shape of itself on the ground. And we have been preferring ourselves over God ever since.
And in salvation two things happen. The mirror gets turned around and we see the glory of God again and the defilement gets wiped off gradually and we begin to reflect God.
So I think being created in the image of God means that we image God. We reflect God. We live in a way, we think in a way, we feel in a way, we speak in a way that calls attention to the brightness of the glory of God.
So Why Do I Exist?
Putting all these pieces together we can see one precious implication for why God created us. We are spreaders of God’s glory. To be made in God’s image means, at a foundational level, we were created to show the world how precious and deeply satisfying God is. If people look at our lives and see only self-absorption, they get the light-sucking side of a mirror, and we fail to be what God fully created us to be, for we fail to cast the grandeur and magnificence of God back into the world.
For us to live out this purpose of our redeemed life, for our lives to shine with the glory of God, our self-centered sin must be overcome. That is what God is doing by his Spirit. We are being changed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15; 3:10; Romans 8:29).
Piece-by-piece, we are beginning to tell the world, through our lives and our words and our affections, that God alone is awesome. The praise of God’s glory will one day fill the globe, through us, and nothing will give us greater joy.
For this end we were created. For this end we exist eternally. For this end we turn back into the tasks and opportunities of our lives now.