The Imago Dei is a mystery. How is it that we, made of dust, bear the image of God, the imprint of the divine?
A mystery we can embrace but not fully explain, theologians have debated its meaning for centuries. I believe our image-ness, so to speak, has more to do with what God is like, and less to do with our distinction from animals, plants and the rest of creation, which cries and out and declares God, contains to overflowing God’s glory, directs us to worship.
So if are made in the image of God, what does that look like? What is it about us that is God-like, God-imagish? Though we have intellect and reason, we are not omniscient.
Though we are at our best when we are fully present, it is beyond our capacity to be omnipresent.
Though we worship, so does the rest of creation.
Believe it or not, these questions flitted through my mind as I went for a run. It’s true: I discuss, even argue, theology, when I run. I ran reluctant: the day is cold and grey, uninspiring and wind chilled. Early this morning, I sat on the couch for a long time, drinking coffee and reading my devotional, thinking at least I was doing something worthwhile as I procrastinated. Finally, I swapped out my pajamas for running clothes.
What finally got me off the couch was not just my desire for fitness, but my hunger for community. I’m a part of a running group, where I feel welcomed, encouraged, challenged, loved. It feels a bit like I think church should: a community of folks who share a common love and a common goal, and support and encourage one another as we spur one another on to achieve goals.
I put on lots of layers and a baklava, telling myself there is no bad weather, just inappropriate clothing, and headed out the door to run against the wind, over icy sidewalks and frozen grass, alone. At least it’s not snowing, just windy and icy.
I run alone several times each week, so that I can run with others. The joy of running with my group diminishes if I don’t log some miles on my own between our gatherings. So my hunger for community gets me off the couch and onto the icy sidewalks.
I do this during the week:
So I can enjoy this:
So what does this have to do with the Imago Dei?
In the Genesis narrative, God creates, simply by speaking. There’s not a lot of discussion about it: light, dark, water, land all come into being with a brief pronouncement: “Let there be…” and there is.
But when it comes to people, God stops to talk about it—with…God.
26 Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
27 So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. (Genesis 1:26-28)
“Us”? “Our”? Why plural pronouns to refer to God?
“They”? “Them”? Why plural pronouns to refer to people?
Could the pronouns be a clue to our resemblance to God? What do these pronouns tell us about the Imago Dei?
God does not create just a man in his image, but human beings, male and female. Contrary to what some hierarchists believe and teach, authority is given not to “him” (the man) but to “them” –that “they may rule” and “subdue.”
The image of God is the image of community. Father, Son, and Spirit are all present in the creation narrative, and are the plurality to which “us” and “our” refer.
We were created for community. Which is why we’re always hungry for it. The Imago Dei as “male and female” does NOT mean we must be married, or that we’re incomplete without a partner, but rather, that God’s people, the church, is made up of both men and women, using their gifts and encouraging one another. We were made to do life together, with other men and women, in what Carolyn Custis James calls “the blessed alliance.”
In my work as a writer, lay pastor, speaker, and collaborator, I encounter people every day who are hungry for community. They feel that something is missing, and whether they realize it or not, that something is community. For all our connections, we often live isolated. And we were made for, created for, community.
Which brings me back to running. I run better in community. Before I joined my amazing running group, I ran, but never grew as a runner. I’d run occasionally, for a few weeks, give up, come back to it a month later. I never went more than two or three miles, never got any faster, never ran any farther, never actually entered a race to test my strength and limits.
But in community, everything changed. I grew as a runner. People encouraged me. And also asked, “what are you training for?” Which is runner-speak for “what is your next race?” The group encouraged me to set goals, and celebrated with me when I achieved them. We gather every Saturday morning to run, strung out in a long line of varying skill levels. ON trails or streets, we run, and then we gather around a table, in Starbucks or Panera or Christie’s, our favorite local coffee shop. We talk about running, and life, and our work.
I gotta say, it feels a lot like church, or maybe what church should be—a community of like-minded people cheering one another on and challenging one another to grow. It feeds my hunger for community. What if we asked one another, spiritually speaking, what are you training for? What’s your plan, spiritually? How can we cheer you on, help you to train, run beside you?
Community helps us to grow, by cheering us on, and challenging us to be better. Community is essential for the expression of the Imago Dei in the world. Together, we can do more than any of us could do alone. But I’ve got to show up in order to experience this. Specifically, I need to show up in two ways: in my own practice, and in the gathering.
If I don’t run during the week, (often, by necessity, in solitude), it will be harder to run on the weekends. Running gets easier if you do it more often. In order to enjoy a run with my group, I need to put in some miles on my own. And not just so that I can enjoy running group, and keep up—but so that I can encourage others in that group.
This also feels like a parallel to our spiritual lives. We need community, because we were made for it. But we bring our best selves to that community if we have spent time alone with God as well. We can encourage others when we’ve been filled by Jesus in solitude. We need to show up, in our own practice (of prayer, reflection, solitude), and in the gathering (our small group, our church, even our family).
In a now classic essay for Leadership Journal, Henri Nouwen wrote that when we want to do ministry, or find community, we often start there, instead of beginning with solitude. That’s a mistake, he said.
“Solitude is where spiritual ministry begins. That’s where Jesus listened to God. That’s where we listen to God….
It’s remarkable that solitude always calls us to community. In solitude you realize you’re part of a human family and that you want to lift something together.
By community, I don’t mean formal communities. I mean families, friends, parishes, twelve-step programs, prayer groups. Community is not an organization; community is a way of living: you gather around you people with whom you want to proclaim the truth that we are the beloved sons and daughters of God.”
If you are hungry for community, it’s because you were created for community. God made you that way. Ironically, perhaps, the first step toward that community might be to let God fill and strengthen you through quiet, prayerful solitude. That’s where community and ministry begin.
Not sure how to do that? You may want to start with a really simple devotional like Deeply Loved or Simple Compassion. You may want to just journal your prayers. You may want to just be still and know that God is there and sees you.
What does it mean to be made in the image of God? To live as the Imago Dei? It means we were created for community. The place to find community, ironically, is to begin in solitude, where we are filled with God and strengthened to run the race with strength and courage, knowing that we do not run alone.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Note: Another excellent resource on this topic is Community 101 by Gilbert Bilezikian.
More posts on running
More posts on solitude
More on community
Please leave a comment. Tell us about your hunger for community, and how that reflects the Imago Dei. Or ask a question about what you’ve read here.