The Image of God
by Rev. Bjorn A.H. Boyesen
Such is the clear teaching of the Sacred Scripture. Many people may indeed have thought that it is not a true teaching. But in the New Church we simply take for granted that the Word is right. It seems quite natural to us to believe that God has created everything that is created, and has in addition put His mark on His creation. We expect that something of the human form should characterize all created things. And this is surely what the Writings mean when they say that all creation is like a stage or theater which reflects God-Man, that is, the Divine Human.
Everything is consequently more or less in the image of God. Some things may indeed resemble the Lord very slightly, while others are very much like Him - and man most of all. But we might legitimately wonder if also man might not be more or less like Him, and might thus in greater or lesser degree fulfill the Lord's purpose with him. And, if so, the first question must be, "What is God like?" And only when we have found some answer to this question are we able to form a reasonably correct concept of the Lord's image - that is, of ourselves.
It is obvious that we can never form any completely correct idea of God. We can only see certain self-evident truths concerning Him, and afterwards try to grasp something about Him as He reveals Himself in the Word in accommodation to our limited comprehension. Still it is important to realize that such an accommodated idea of God can be, and often is, correct, so far as it goes. It can give us a true picture of God - reveal a true image.
We learn from the Writings that God is infinite, eternal, omnipresent and omnipotent. These are axiomatic concepts; that is, they are self-evident truths which are the postulates for all further reasoning. Closely associated are such concepts as that God is love itself, wisdom itself and life itself. We also assume that He alone has life in Himself, and consequently lives from His own power. He alone is therefore infinitely, completely, absolutely free. We might say that He alone is, and was, and will forever be of Himself. He loves, thinks and acts of Himself - that is, lives of Himself. It is this that characterizes God.
And man, thus says the Word, is created in God's image! What then is meant by this?
Infinite and eternal man can obviously not be. But his ability to develop is indefinite, which is an image of infinity; and his soul is immortal, which is an image of eternity. Other creatures may indeed also develop, but within comparatively narrow limits. They may also be almost as it were immortal, not as individuals but only as regards the species or the race. Man alone can develop without any definite limit as an individual, and is immortal as a person. And in this he is the nearest image of God!
Man is not omnipresent, nor is he omnipotent. But his influence may spread far and wide, and he may exert considerable power. There is no definite limit to his influence and power. So, in these respects too man is an image of God.
Man is also able to be good and wise and useful. He has been gifted with the freedom to determine for himself to what degree he shall develop these traits. Thus he both lives and determines how he lives as of himself. He loves, thinks and acts as of himself. He makes decisions as of himself. And in all of this he resembles God. He is the Lord's most complete image. And if he develops this ability to live as of himself so far as this is possible, he may even become a likeness of God.
There is something marvelous in this expression, "as of oneself." It is also highly explanatory. The Lord does everything of Himself, but man acts as of himself from God. It is this which constitutes the image, and possibly also the likeness. The image is a spiritual thing, but the likeness is celestial. The image is to act according to the truth. It is largely a matter of the intellect. But man is created after the Lord's likeness first when he does the truth from love to the truth and the Lord. Then his life is also a matter of will. But in either case man's acting as of himself is a matter of response to the Lord's action. In the first case man responds primarily to what the truth requires of him - to what Divine law and order require. But in the second case he responds to what love demands. Yet always this acting as of oneself involves a sense of responsibility. It is the same as when the Writings declare that man is a vessel receiving life from the Lord, but at the same time such a vessel which, when the life inflows, seems to possess the life as something inherent in itself. The life can be used as its own. The vessel is responsible for how it uses it. And in the fulfillment of its responsibility the vessel finds its joy, its happiness and delight in life.
Thus life always inflows according to the form of the receiving vessel! And please note that it is not only the external form that matters, but especially the internal form. It is not man's external figure or shape that is important, but the form of his mind, the form of his thoughts and affections, of his understanding and will. And it is especially the character of this form that man is called upon to develop - whether or not it shall become an image of God! For the fact that man has the ability to become in some measure like unto God does not necessarily mean that he is like Him. If he really is to be like unto God, he must also actually learn the truth which the Lord has revealed to him in the Word, and he must also actually live according to this truth, and do this continually as of himself. The willingness, the driving force, must come as it were from inside himself, as it were out of his own free will, without any compulsion from other people.
But let us be very careful lest we misinterpret this doctrine. The concept of compulsion and freedom can be interpreted in so many different ways. We should realize, for example, that what we call freedom of choice is not the same as real freedom. It is merely an ability to choose between various alternatives, as between good and evil; and this is a faculty or capacity given to every man by God. It is, in other words, only a prerequisite for freedom. On the other hand, if by freedom we mean the ability to do whatever we wish without regard to right, law, truth or order, then freedom with man does not exist except as an illusion or fantasy. The truth is that real freedom is not reached until man lives according to revealed truth from love. In other words, man's freedom is always relative - relative to the laws of order. Man is free and feels free only in the same degree as he lives according to revealed truth as of himself. That is why man must attain to freedom; that is, a state of genuine freedom must be reached, and, strange as it may seem, it must be reached through self-compulsion. It is exactly as the Lord said: "If you continue in My Word, then are you My disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:31, 32).
From this it should be evident that man can never attain to a happy life without any compulsion. The very fact that there is such a thing as truth, order or law involves in itself the need for compulsion. What is essential in order that man may feel spiritually free is therefore in reality not the absence of all compulsion, but simply that he must not be subjected - if adult - to compulsion from without in spiritual matters; that is, he must not be compelled by others than himself. But self-compulsion must exist. Man must learn as of himself. And ever since evil and falsity arose, he must even compel himself to live according to the truth. The Writings therefore even declare that ever since the fall, self-compulsion is the only possible beginning of freedom. The only thing of decisive importance is that the compulsion must be as of oneself. It is this that makes it the beginning of freedom.
All of this is only to say in doctrinal terms what some psychologists and experts on education have said in a different way, namely, that "motivation is a very powerful ingredient in all performance. Talent without motivation," they observed, "is inert and of little use to the world." They have noted that "geniuses are characterized not only by high intelligence, but by the desire to excel, by perseverance in the face of obstacles, by zeal in the exercise of their gifts." This would imply that truly useful people are constantly striving for greater perfection. It means that man needs more than competence in order to achieve high standards of performance. He needs to do more than either consent to or be willing to do a given work. He needs more than the willingness to cooperate. He needs enthusiasm and zeal! The men and women who do all they do with a living interest are they who are an inspiration to others. But he who only half-heartedly does what he cannot avoid gives rise to distrust and failing courage both in himself and in his neighbor. No human organization can ever attain to any strength, and still less any greatness, unless its members accept high standards of personal responsibility. In other words, character is, in the final analysis, of greater importance than competence. Where there is character, the competence can be improved!
To have character means to work and strive for that which one believes to be right and true, and to do this to the utmost of one's ability. Anything less is in reality to be faithless both to oneself and to God. The high ideal involved in the teaching that God strives to create man into His own image can never be achieved if man accepts mediocrity. For that is a travesty on God's image. But nor can it be achieved if man, in his own personal conceit, tries to fashion himself without Divine guidance. For that is a caricature of God. But at the same time, let us never forget that God is merciful, and mercy is part of His image in us.
Much of man's creation in the image and likeness of God is therefore a question of how we form our purposes and ideals. From where do they come? Whence are our principles and intentions? By what are we motivated? What do we desire to achieve either individually or collectively, either personally or as a church? And can we really separate the church from the individual? Is it the Lord or ourselves that shall rule? Is it our own personal and selfish cares and anxieties, or is it the Lord's teachings - His principles and ideals, His truths from the Word, His immense love to create and save us? The former leads to fear. Under its influence we are driven by impatient ambitions, but often dare little or nothing. We are too concerned with self. We clutch at our possessions and try to hang onto security, but sink into idleness and despair. We become incompetent and frustrated, and die in spirit.
The alternative is to let our minds be formed by the Word of God, and, in the New Church, by the Writings. And this is to be truly free - to be trustful and active in the Lord's service, both individually in our private lives and collectively in the life of the church. It is to realize that regeneration is achieved slowly through patient struggle against the native self. It requires both study of and obedience to the Word. It is to suffer oneself to be constantly taught and led thereby. It is to examine oneself both as to the will and the understanding, and to reject all ideas and desires which are opposed to the Word, to forsake one's personal prejudices and emotions. It is to do our work and also all other duties as the Word commands, and to support the church organization in the hope and trust that the Lord, through it, can lead us. It is to be helpful, creative, eager to do the Lord's work, and to do all this as of oneself and yet from the Lord, and thus to claim no merit for oneself, nor, therefore, to be worried about self. It is, quite simply, to obey the Word and trust in the Lord. For in the last analysis it is not man that regenerates himself. Regeneration is not really achieved, although it seems so and should so seem, but it is a Divine gift. For it is God that creates man. And God creates him in His own image. In the image of God He creates him.
-New Church Life 1988;108:3-7