I entered my first semester of teaching confident in my ability and smug about my qualifications. After four years of study in biblical languages and English literature, I figured I knew my material. But I failed to take one thing into consideration: the students.

Seventh graders, it turns out, are not impressed with academic records. They do not fall into hushed silence or stand at attention when you enter the room. The ill-fitting wardrobe and questionable grooming habits of the newly minted college graduate do not inspire awe in middle schoolers. Sure, most of my students were respectful. But they were not impressed.

One student, whom I'll call Stewart, was particularly unimpressed. He was the only son of a single mom and attended our small, rural Christian academy because his grandmother believed it would do him good. I often wondered whether she ever considered how much good it would do the rest of us. He didn't listen. He could not sit still. He had the "inside voice" of a lawn tractor. And in his mind, he was always a victim.

If this conversation never took place, it might as well have:

"Stewart," I say as if I'm doing him a great honor. "How did you answer number four?"

"Mr. O'Brien," he says as if he were speaking to me for the first time in ages, "guess what I did last night."

"No, Stewart. I want you to tell me how you answered number four."

"Okay." He pauses. "I went shopping with my grandmother."

"Stewart," I interrupt. I'm in control.

"And she bought me this jacket to wear when I'm riding my dirt bike."

"Stewart." (Less calmly.)

"And then we went out for pizza."

"Stewart!" I pound my desk. The other students look down at their desks, embarrassed.

"Geez." He slumps in his chair. "Why are you always so mad at me?"

"Stewart, just answer number four." I repeat the question for clarification: "What is a noun?"

"A comma. No, wait—it modifies something. No, I don't know … running. Is running a noun?"

My left eye begins to spasm.

For most of the first semester, I tried to summon the patience to deal with Stewart by appealing to an important Christian doctrine. He deserves my respect, I told myself, because he's made in the image of God.

It didn't work. It's true, of course, but it didn't offer me any specific direction for how to treat him. And that set me on a course to rethink what this doctrine might mean, at least in a situation like this.

Flexible doctrine

Christians have struggled for nearly 2,000 years to pin down what the Bible means when it says that humans are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). Beginning with Irenaeus in the second century, theologians have thought of the imago dei as an essential part of the human makeup. It's something every person—however righteous or despicable—"possesses." For the early church fathers, the evidence of the divine image was human reason or will or moral capacity. Evangelicals don't disagree, although contemporary thinkers have added the human impulses for creativity and community to the list of evidences that we bear God's likeness.

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When I tried to apply this understanding of the divine image with Stewart, the emphasis was on the dignity of the human person. If the imago dei highlights the ways we are "like God," then every person on the planet deserves to be respected, protected, and valued.

Yet the more I thought about it, the clearer it became that we apply this doctrine with remarkable flexibility. We assert that everyone bears the divine image, yet we think differently about unborn children and convicts, our grandmothers and disrespectful seventh graders. It's easy to treat people with dignity if that dignity is being reciprocated. But when someone breaks the cycle—a convict commits another crime, an unruly student doesn't respond to patience or kindness, or someone makes your life a living hell—you suddenly need something more to work with than "he deserves my respect." Such was my experience, anyway. So I turned to the Bible for help.

My search of the Scriptures turned up only two passages related to the proper treatment of image bearers. The first was in James: "With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness. … My brothers, this should not be" (3:9-10). This set a boundary: I was not to slander the boy.

The second reference was all the way back in Genesis: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man" (9:6). This set me another boundary: I shouldn't kill him.

By Christmas, it had become difficult for me to keep either command. Because I was completely stymied by Stewart's conduct, I found some consolation in recounting his bad behavior to my fellow teachers. All of them had had him in class. They understood. And while I never seriously considered offing the kid, I was frequently horrified by how tempted I was to violence: to shake him or spank him or at least sting him with rebuke. The passages from James and Genesis only told me what I couldn't do. But they chastised me nonetheless. They set necessary limits.

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Turning the Tables

Then the Holy Spirit did a remarkable thing. He brought two biblical concepts together for me in a way I had not considered before. I read these words from the apostle Paul: "[Christ] is the image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15a), and "we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory" (2 Cor. 3:18).

Together these passages helped me to recognize two things. First, for the most part, the New Testament does not speak of humans bearing the image of God. It speaks instead of Jesus incarnating the perfect image. And it speaks about people being transformed into the image of Christ. That suggests that the image of God is not simply something I have; it's something I am called to embody in increasing measure.

This realization put me in good company. The Reformers were convinced that humans all but lost the divine image after Adam's fall in Eden. There remained echoes of God's likeness in every person, but the divine image was, in John Calvin's words, "frightfully deformed." The only way to restore it was to be hidden in and transformed into the likeness of Christ, the perfect image. Martin Luther explained that God "takes pleasure in restoring this work of his [humanity in his image] through his Son and our Deliverer, Christ."

The upshot was this: I realized that my behavior toward Stewart should not be determined by his status as an image bearer, but by mine. Jesus alluded to this when he commanded his disciples to love their enemies. Why? Because as "sons [and daughters] of our Father in heaven," we are to be perfect as he is perfect. In the context of this passage, being perfect means treating the unrighteous just as you would treat the righteous—not on the basis of their sin but based on your "perfection." For me, this meant that I was called to bear the image of God to Stewart, however he behaved.

This perspective on the image of God has broader implications than the fair treatment of seventh graders. We're often encouraged to recognize that the immigrant or refugee or sex worker is made in the image of God. But what about the dictator or the rapist or the convict? How would our ministry change if our focus was incarnating the image of God to the poor and the oppressed as well as to the powerful and the offender? It seems to me that the doctrine of the imago dei has less to do with who we serve and more to do with how.

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I found a wealth of direction from Scripture on how to apply this new insight. If God is slow to anger and abounding in love (Ps. 86:15), then I should be too (James 1:19). If he opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (Prov. 3:34), so should I (James 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:5). In short, because I am called to display the image of God, I should imitate him, with the Holy Spirit's help. This is not an easier calling. In fact, it's much more demanding. And it doesn't provide concrete guidelines about what to do next in any given situation. But still, it's clearer than "treat him with respect" and more helpful than "don't slander" and "don't kill."

I wish I could report that this revelation made everything better. It didn't. I still struggled with Stewart on a near-daily basis. But I realized, at last, that my struggle wasn't really with him at all. It was with me. And as soon as I recognized how far I had to go to be an accurate representation of Christ, I became much more gracious about Stewart's faults. He served quite a lot of detention. But I served it with him, because I realized that I, too, am in need of transformation.

Brandon O'Brien is assistant editor for Leadership journal and BuildingChurchLeaders.com.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles by Brandon O'Brien for Christianity Today include:

Novel Teachers | Learning real-life lessons from imaginary ministers. (March 2, 2009)
A Jesus for Real Men | What the new masculinity movement gets right and wrong. (April 18, 2008)
Emergent's Divergence | Leaders hope decentralizing power will revitalize the movement. (December 18, 2008)

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