Early in Genesis, God reveals what just might be the single most important insight ever disclosed into who we are. The insight defines our strengths, reveals our purpose, and frames our relationship with God. It’s found in Genesis 1:26: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness….’”
For many years, like most believers, I had no idea what it means to be made in the image of God. It is sad that the spark in every one of us that tells us how we are like God goes unrecognized. How can we claim to know God if we cannot even see Him in ourselves? Then one day while preparing to teach a course on Genesis, I suddenly realized that I not only knew what it meant, but that my entire professional life had been based on that great gift from God.
Suddenly, I Got It
As I prepared my notes for the class, I reasoned that the “image of God” must entail those aspects of human nature that are not shared with any other form of life on earth. Its meaning must be found in the way God revealed Himself in the first chapter of Genesis. The most dominant picture of God in these early verses is that of His creative power at work.
Then it hit me: Being created in the image of God means that we were given both the ability and the drive to create. Among all living things, only humans have that ability. Of course, some animals and insects “make” things—beavers make dams, ants make large nests, etc. But these are fixed, limited abilities that allow them to survive. By any standard, humans are the only truly creative beings on earth.
Not only can we be creative, we are driven to create. Each of us has a creative spark of some kind. It may be working with our hands, writing, music, or athletics. From the children who draw crayon pictures of their families to the architects who for the first time walk through buildings that once had existed only in their imaginations, we all find pride, joy, and fulfillment in our creative efforts. No matter what our skill, we gain immense enjoyment from using it. While a life of pure leisure with nothing to do might sound attractive, the truth is that we have to be doing something to feel satisfied with life. We are lost if we don’t have a purpose. In some way, we have to be creative.
By training I am an electrical engineer. I have taught computer science and engineering for more than 20 years. All my professional life I had been using my skills to translate my imagination into reality. I have designed hardware and written innovative software. All that time, I never understood that I’d been using the spark of creativity that had made me “like” God. The enjoyment and fulfillment that I felt with a job well done was a reflection of the joy that God experienced when He looked out at His creation and declared it “good.”
A Revealing Story
I just recently saw the Oscar-winning documentary, Born Into Brothels, which tells the story of the children of prostitutes in Calcutta. It is a heart-rending story of these lost children and the attempt by one woman to change their lives. While it is not a Christian story, it does illustrate our need to be creative.
The documentary filmmaker, Zana Briski, tries to help a small group of children by giving them cameras and teaching them the art of photography. As a result, she opens up a whole new world to these children. For the first time they can truly be creative, and as a result they blossom. Her program is a success precisely because it taps into the gift of God: their need to be creative. For the first time, these children are given a means by which they can exercise that gift. It gives meaning and purpose to their lives. It brings them joy.
Yet humans cannot create in the same sense as God creates. Only God can create from nothing. We require raw materials. But there is a part of our creative ability that does not require raw materials. We can create in our minds. Our imagination is not restricted by the limitations that come with the need for materials. We can imagine anything, even things that we could never actually build. Perhaps in this way we are closest to the image of God.
More Than Intellectual
Understanding what we share with God and how He created us in His image is more than just an interesting intellectual exercise. For me, once I knew that my creative drive was modeled after God, I finally understood why it is so important to bring “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). My imagination is a gift from God. Yet in a fallen world I can use that gift to create beauty or to create filth. Unfortunately, mankind does an excellent job at both. If I am to honor God and thank Him for the skills He gave me, I need to direct all my creative abilities toward what will please Him.
Perhaps more important, I now understand what had been a very difficult passage for me. Jesus once said that if we look on a woman with lust, we have already committed adultery in our minds (see Matt. 5:28). I’d always wondered why imagining a sin is as bad as doing the sin. It never seemed fair to me. But if my creative imagination is not only a gift from God but the very essence of the image and likeness of God, then using it to contemplate sin is taking it to a place that God would never go. It distorts and vilifies the nature of God within us. Where once I might have tolerated and even entertained sinful thoughts, believing that it was allowable because I would never act on them, now I see them for what they really are: dark and horrifying in and of themselves.
Now when I write a paper, design a circuit, or take an idea to its natural conclusion, I experience more than just the satisfaction of completing a task. I turn to God and say: “Father, look at what I have just done, what do You think of it?” I picture Him smiling at my accomplishment like the proud parent who posts his child’s latest work on the fridge.
It’s sad when believers don’t see the image of God within themselves. But it is a joy to recognize the great gift that God has given to us all. It’s time to bring out the likeness of God in all believers. It’s time to use our creative gifts to serve God and one another.
The article originally appeared on www.adventistworld.org in June, 2010.
Richard Spillman is an author and university lecturer. He writes from Tacoma, Washington, U.S.A.