I’m struggling to give words to the idea that has taken up residence in my mind. It’s one of these ideas that has the power to remake us, to dramatically change the way we move through life, the way we see and treat each other, the way we govern, the way we argue, the way we neighbor. It’s related to identity, but it’s bigger than that. It gets at the heart of our being as humans. The big word for being is ontology, but that word isn’t common enough to resonate with most people.
A strange image from an old movie I saw decades ago starts to get at my idea. I remember very little about the movie other than the scene where some of the main characters took their skin off. This wasn’t a grotesque thing; they were actually aliens (no, this is not an article about aliens, although I do have one on Zion’s blog if you want to read about what the Bible and reality have to say about them). These alien characters were wearing a human disguise. Under their skin was a beautiful, light radiating creature. This, as you can imagine, was a great revelation to the non-alien characters who were astonished to discover the true identity of their companions. I remember them standing transfixed by the surprise revelation.
It’s that transfixed astonishment that has taken up residence in my mind because I believe, if we actually paused to reflect upon the opening chapter of Scripture, specifically what it says about mankind, we would have the same jaw-dropping experience as the astonished characters in the movie. Even more, beyond jaw-dropping, I believe we would discover reverent wonderment.
Consider what Scripture says:
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:27).
Because of our cultural moment and its fixation on gender, we are quick to notice the binary creation of male and female. This is well and good (and of critical importance!), but the reverent wonderment begins in the image. Mankind bears the image of God! And of critical importance to note, this image is an enfleshed image. In other words, we’re not suggesting, as with the movie reference, that the skin must be peeled off to see the divine image on the inside. Scripture is insisting that the divine image is imprinted on the whole person, body and soul. This image on the whole person calls for a reverent wonderment.
C.S. Lewis perceived this reverent wonderment and termed it the weight of glory (You can find and read his essay by that name online or buy the book). He wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
Wonder at his words: the holiest object presented to your senses. So, after the Lord’s Supper, the clerk ringing up your household necessities is the holiest object presented to your senses. The sweaty boys or girls on the opposing team who you are trying to block out or rebound over are the holiest objects presented to your senses. The elderly woman obstructing your hurried attempts to get your groceries in your cart is the holiest object presented to your senses. The obnoxious sibling who seems set on annoying you is the holiest object presented to your senses. They bear God’s image. There’s something more to their being than the surface-level things upon which our vision usually stops, and Scripture teaches us, fits our eyes, to see it.
Yes, they are fallen and sinful and this is a part of the story, but we are too quick to skip over the significance of where the story begins (and, subsequently, where the story is headed in the renewed creation where we will stand in our eternal glory reigning with Christ! More on this below.). Mankind bears God’s image! We are, if you will, princes and princesses on earth. Royalty. Our Father, the King, has dignified us with a dominion over His creation. Tell yourself, “I am royalty” and see if it doesn’t make you stand straighter and adopt a more dignified perception of yourself and your life.
This gravity of glory brings a holy dignity with it, a sacred sobriety, a hallowed weightiness. This is true for us and true for our neighbor. This is what Lewis is driving after in The Weight of Glory. He wants us to appreciate the weightiness of mankind’s identity as image bearers of God. He writes,
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
No ordinary people. They all bear the image. They are princes and princesses weighted with God’s image. No other creature in heaven or on earth is weighted with such dignity and consequence. Lewis stands in reverent wonderment at the thought. These people are not ordinary, not commonplace and therefore overlookable. They bear God’s image and they will either be reduced to immortal horrors in hell or exalted to everlasting splendors in the resurrection and renewal of all things. Thoughts of such magnitude must surely make us marvel and tremble.
And surely this must change the way we see each other, the way we treat each other, the way we speak to each other. Surely this must change the way we make contracts or engage in business or provide health care or provide service. Surely the reality of my neighbor’s nature as a prince or princess of God must weigh on me. It must press on me the great dignity I owe him or her. Lewis reflects:
The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.
This is what I mean by my title – “When Eternity Breaks into Identity: Reverent Wonderment before the Weight of Mankind’s Glory” – I’m trying to capture the weighty truth and significance of the image you and I bear. I want you to see yourself differently in the mirror. I want you to see your neighbors differently. I want you to see the image they bear. It is a heavy thing, a sacred burden, this divine image that we must bear up under.
And I want us to understand that seeing the sacred burden of this divine image exposes our culture’s obsession with race and gender and sexual identity as too small, these skin-deep identity markers that our culture elevates to the level of ontology, to the level of a person’s being. They are making small things big things, culturally temporal things eternal things, secondary things primary things. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting the questions our culture is asking are unimportant; I’m asserting that they’re mis-ordered in priority and that mis-ordering matters eternally. Race, gender, and sexuality are important, but these things come after the image of God and it gives clarity to them.
There’s no way rightly to answer the questions of race if we miss the divine image borne by the entirety of mankind, by every tribe, language, nation, and tongue. There’s no way rightly to appreciate sexuality if we overlook the divine image and so miss the inherent call in that image to holy sexuality that reverences the source of our image. There’s no way to understand justice if we neglect the image and so miss the inherent divine dignity borne by every image bearer (born and unborn). If we cannot rightly define the human person, i.e. discern his true nature, we will never be able to answer the questions that plague him.
We must begin with the weight of glory in the divine image. We have been supremely blessed with a sacred burden in the divine image we bear, a sacred burden that we are called to bear with dignity and solemnity – we are princes and princesses! – and a sacred burden that places a moral imperative on our relating to our image-bearing neighbors.
This is what Scripture would have us see. And the goal of this, the telos of this, is what Scripture would have us long for in the resurrection. The Apostle Paul, reflecting on the reality of suffering in this present age, points us to the telos of mankind’s divine image,
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
Paul sees what God has in store for His image bearers: an eternal weight of glory, an eternal standing as princes and princesses on the New Earth. We will rule with Christ! We will see the majestic glory that we now so regularly miss. This is what God has in store for every believing image-bearer. This is why Lewis wrote of such believing image-bearers as “everlasting splendours.”
That’s the idea that has taken residence in my mind. If I have not described it well, it’s because I lack the competency to put it in to words. I feel as if I need to surround each person with a stirring soundtrack and a radiant glow, something to help us see and hear and sense what Scripture reveals. Perhaps you can imagine such a thing. We would all do well if we could. My prayer for you is that you would be visited by my idea. In fact, my prayer is that you would welcome it as a permanent resident. How greatly the world would change if we stood together in reverent wonderment before the weight of mankind’s God-given glory!
– Pastor Conner