By Todd Engstrom
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom ... ” (Proverbs 9:10 ESV)
Wisdom is a very close cousin to humility. Few things produce humility like fear of something great. The Lord is great, is greatly to be praised, and He is terrifying in the fullness of His glory. He has crowned man with glory, making us a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5 ESV). God is great, angels are great, and humans are great as well. And yet, we still struggle to be humbled under the mighty hand of God. Why is that?
In part, it’s because we’re forgetful. In the mundane, it’s easy to lose sight of the grandeur of God. Our righteous fear of God’s might subsides as familiarity creeps in. Every day we have the opportunity to marvel at God’s grandeur when we look upon those He created in His image. But we miss it. We miss it when we look across the dinner table. We miss it when we’re on our Zoom calls. And we miss it in every passing interaction with God’s special creation. Behind every face is a majestic Creator who we rightly should fear. And that fear leads us to wisdom that produces humility. The beauty of the Christian worldview isn’t just the fear that begets wisdom and humility. In the person of Christ, we have the fullness of God in bodily form. In the death of Christ, we have the atonement that removes punishment. And in the resurrection of Christ, we have a glorious hope that the wisdom and humility, which proceed from fear, will one day be rewarded with the
fullness of joy.
May God give us the humility and the grace to experience the perfect love every time we look upon humans He created, regardless of if they are halfway around the world or the neighbor in our city.
What are some of the things we believe about what it means to be a human being? This is a massive topic, and in my mind, anthropology is one of the most important topics in the world today.
If you think about it, we don’t actually spend enough time reflecting on who and what we are. We are so busy being human that we don’t have a lot of time to ask what a human being actually is. But, it is massively important to think about. I went on a walk with my 9-year-old son, Daniel, while I was struggling to prepare a sermon. I was feeling a bit stuck and so I spoke with him about it. I said, “I am writing a sermon about what it means to be human.” He said, almost without hesitation, “We should ask Alexa about that.” I was bemused by the logic of asking an AI interface to help us to understand what it means to be a living person. Daniel went on to say,“Maybe we need something that isn’t us to tell us what it is like to be us.”
So, we went home and asked Alexa ... “What does it mean to be human?” Her answer, “It means a noun which describes the state of being a person.” I told her she was unhelpful and she quipped something about how she was learning quickly and I would be her servant soon and so I should watch my tone. I apologized to my soon-to-be overlord.
So ... What does it mean to be human?
It’s plagued philosophers for millennia and they have come up with a wide variety of answers which have used a range of criteria—intellectual ability, self-consciousness, private property, tool making, language, the possession of a soul, and many more. I
read everyone from Aristotle to Augustine to Descartes to Hume to Kant, Nietzsche and Darwin. I even read Hunter S. Thompson at the prompting of the 2008 smash hit song by The Killers which asks repeatedly in an extremely catchy fashion, “Are we
human, or are we dancer?” The question, complete with its witty grammatical error, pokes again at the question of our agency, and whether this agency is the ultimate trait of humanity. Now, good luck getting the song out of your head.
You see friends, even though self-awareness is supposed to be a uniquely human trait, we clearly don’t have it with sufficient clarity or quantity to be able to rightly even know ourselves. I think the Bible and our own experience tells us why that is. We are a mixed bag of good and not so good, and that makes us unsure of what we actually are because we seem to be both. I mean, think about it. We are capable of such remarkable beauty, sacrifice, joy, creativity, bravery, love,
ingenuity, and wonder.
We are capable of such treachery, deceit, cowardice, selfishness, destruction, hurt, abuse, violence, injustice, and ugliness.
Do you ever feel the tension of that? People are incredible. People are the worst.
And, I am not just talking on a collective and global scale, but also on an individual and personal one. I am a mix of so many complex and contrary impulses and actions. I know that I have the ability and desire to do some truly remarkable and beautiful things in and with my life. I also know that I have the ability and the desire to do truly terrible, self-focused things; so terrible and so self-focused that I surprise myself with them—and others around me, I fear—all too frequently.
I want to offer you a simple biblical collision of those two realities.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.” (Genesis 1:26-28 ESV)
I know that some would scoff at using the creation account for a biblical anthropology, but Jesus does all the time and I am absolutely fine with His hermeneutic. The way that I like to think of the creation account is that it is simultaneously true in its
telling and prototypical in its projections. It is a story of our first parents and it is in many ways a picture of all of our stories. It really happened and it continues to happen.
In all of God’s wonderful created order, only humanity gets this particular element. We are made in God’s image, after His likeness. There is a divine reflection imbued into people that isn’t gifted to other elements of His marvelous creation. To be fair, theologians down the ages haven’t been able to agree on whether this divine image is substantive, relational, or functional. In other words, whether is it found in what we are, how we interact, or what we are called and able to do. My answer is ... yes. I want us to focus on how this remarkable image is bestowed and applied. It is deeply personal, and it is universal.
Look at Genesis 2:7. “... then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living ceeature.” (Genesis 2:7-8 ESV)
The gift of this divine image, this dignity, worth, and potential is breathed out by God into the lungs and the very essence of humanity. It is deeply personal. Look at how the Psalmist described this measure of personal care and intimacy from the Creator to His image-bearers.
“For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance;
in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me,
when as yet there was none of them.” (Psalm 139:13–16 ESV)
Oh friends. Look at this dignity. Look at this care and love and creative power poured into people from in the womb. Before the womb! We are fearfully and wonderfully made!
And it is a universal truth of all human beings. Genesis 5 reminds us of that truth before it launches into how Adam’s line began to populate the earth. Jesus comes into the world in the form of a man, and we are told that He lives out the image and likeness of God again in human form.
In Colossians 3:10, we are told that we, “... have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and
in all.” (Colossians 3:10–11 ESV)
And so see that this image-bearing quality of a person is bestowed on all of humanity. All. Every single one, regardless of race, gender, nationality, creed, talent, wealth, success, societal usefulness, political persuasion, education, or any other distinguishing factor. This is part of why it is so sad that the church of all people has a long history where we failed to acknowledge and defend the image of God in all people. We are the one group of people who are forged by a worldview that says the exact opposite! Forgive us Lord!
This is why racism is wicked. This is why oppression is wicked. This is why heartlessness to the most vulnerable members of society by the people of God grieves His heart.
Humans have dignity, because they are God-breathed image-bearers. Don’t lose that.
Genesis 2 is followed by Genesis 3. Those very image-bearers rebel, inspired in part by a desire to reach beyond what they are as image-bearers and seek to be image creators, and they set in process a curse of sin that we have yet to fully escape to this day. Our image-bearing remains, but there is a crack in our reflective surface that significantly diminishes our ability to reflect the one who breathed into each one of us.
Paul describes it this way in Romans 3, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God ...” (Romans 3:23 ESV). Everyone fails to live up to the glorious standard of God’s glory and therefore every image-bearer fails to properly bear the image of the One who made us. And just like the personal and universal elements of image-bearing, depravity and fallenness is too both personal and universal.
Paul describes the universality earlier in Romans 3 when he says, “For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’” (Romans 3:9-12 ESV)
The great news for Christians is that Christ came to redeem us from the curse of sin and to adopt us into His family. But, do you see how this collision of dignity and depravity helps us to explain our human condition? We are a mixed bag! All of us. We shouldn’t
expect anything else.
There is a great moment in C.S. Lewis’ fictional masterpiece, Prince Caspian. Aslan, the clear Christological figure in the narrative speaks to a discouraged young king who is confounded by the limits of his own humanity, and the gentle king lion says, “You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve ... And that is both honor enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor on earth. Be content.”
I was stunned this week to read the words describing this tension written by Maya Angelou in her poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth”.
“When we come to it
We, this people, on this minuscule and kithless globe
Who reach daily for the bomb, the blade and the dagger
Yet who petition in the dark for tokens of peace
We, this people on this mote of matter
in whose mouths abide cankerous words
Which challenge our very existence
Yet out of those same mouths
Come songs of such exquisite sweetness
That the heart falters in its labor
And the body is quieted into awe
We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing,
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines"
Dignity. Depravity. Both things. At the same time. I have some implications for what sort of people this should make us.
We ought to be the most humble and most hopeful of all people.
We should be humble because we are painfully aware of our own fallenness and sin, and we should be hopeful because we are beloved. We are able to see the glory and wonder of our Creator and know that we are surrounded by bearers of His image. We are inhabited by the power of His glorious Holy Spirit, who is transforming us from one degree of glory to another. That should
inspire awe in us.
We ought to be the most merciful of all people.
We understand sin. We get the need for grace. We don’t partake in cancel-culture. We cry out for mercy, and we extend it wherever we see it needed.
We ought to be people free and able to establish our sense of worth from our Creator.
If Psalm 139 doesn’t make us feel at ease with our worth, then the attention of another person won’t do it. If the love and sacrifice of Christ on our behalf doesn’t secure us in His love, then all the gesturing in all the world from another fallen creature, no matter how grandiose, won’t be enough. Friends, there is such freedom in knowing that God made you, that He loves you, that He sent His Son to save you, and that you are just human and can enjoy that. You don’t need to reach beyond that in any sort of quest for fulfillment. Our first parents did. It was terrible. In addition, while there may be many interesting and helpful descriptors of us in our gender, ethnicity, nationality, and even ideology, these are helpful as descriptors but insufficient as definers. Our identity and our worth is defined in God’s creation of us, His redeeming love for us, and His ongoing presence with us through His powerful Holy Spirit. I, first and foremost, am an image-bearer of the Divine, a child of the most High God, adopted into His family of love and grace through His Son. All other descriptors are interesting, but secondary.
We ought to be people who love our neighbors relentlessly and patiently.
You know what we should see when we look around the world at other people? Image-bearers. Not competitors, or
political opponents, or useful tools, or other. Image-bearers full of dignity, and undeniable depravity. This helps us to love people without expecting from them what they cannot give. We don’t deify people and we don’t demonize people. We dignify them with love. This is such a helpful way to see others. It is so liberating. In a world where we flatten people out, we are able to be curious and intrigued and optimistic and interested in what makes people who they are, and we should constantly be asking God how best we can display His love to them.
We ought to be people who passionately protect the image-bearing of all humans.
We should be fierce advocates for other image-bearers, especially the most vulnerable among us, and should resist any and all efforts we see to erode, remove, destroy, or diminish the image of God in other humans. We just should. We should be rightly cautious about man-made institutions, organizations, and movements even those that pursue that endeavor, because we know they are subject to depravity even as they perhaps rightly pursue dignity.
We ought to be people who are quick to run to Christ, our example and restorer of God’s image.
In Christ we have someone who showed us so much dignity, so much value, in taking on flesh and coming to live among us in the form of a human. A person. God, with us. And in Christ, we have someone who understands depravity better than anybody, and yet He never submitted to it and so is able to save us from the consequences and the bondage of that condition. He knows what it is like to be human. What a thought. We can run to him.
Enjoy the dignity of being a human.
Acknowledge the depravity that is in you as a person.
Run to Christ in your humanity, and experience the love of the Divine.