This is Part 6 of the series: “Defining Spiritual Formation.”

A camera company once used this phrase in their ads:  “Image is everything.”  That slogan was used for many years.  It obviously touched a nerve in our culture. What matters most is how we come across to people.  It starts with how we look, then how we speak, then how we act.  What we wear, how we groom, what we accomplish, and how polished we are become the focus.  Nearly every magazine on the rack at the checkout stand is a testimony to this.  Headlines scream:  “How to get your bikini body ready in 2 weeks,” or “Clash Your Prints, Pop Your Colors” or “Be the Best Dressed Man at Every Wedding” or “The Sexiest Three-Minute Hairstyle.”  That last one came from a magazine titled, Allure.

When it comes to image obsession, one of my favorite examples is the line heard repeatedly on the Red Carpet as the stars are interviewed:  “So, who are you wearing?”  Not what, but who.  This is because we have been led to believe that if we are wearing the best designer’s clothes we, somehow, become fabulous.   Though I am critical of the way in which the advertisement (“Image is everything”) was intended I do not disagree with its point.  Image is everything.  Trying to put on an exterior appearance, however, is not everything, and in fact, is nothing.

Let Us Make Humankind in Our Image

The word image comes from the Greek word, eikon.  We learned in Genesis that each of was made in the image of God:  “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Gen. 1:26).  Every single person is an image, or Eikon, of God.  The image of God is not physical.  We do not look like God, nor does God resemble us.  Even though Jesus took on a human body and looked like us, the image of God in him was not a physical likeness.  The image of God is spiritual in nature.  The image of God is not something we can create or destroy.  It is deeply embedded into us, and cannot be avoided.

What is the image of God?  We learn from the Christ-event (incanation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus) that God is Father, Son, and Spirit.  We learn from this revelation that God is love.  At Jesus’ baptism we see this:

baptism of Christ

**Baptism of Christ by Andrea del Verrochio and Leonardo da Vinci

“And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17)

When Jesus emerges from the river the Spirit gently descends on him, and the voice of the Father declares he is the beloved Son.  The early church fathers used two important Greek terms to describe the nature and character of God:  perichoresis and kenosis.  Perichoresis means mutual interdependence.  The Father loves and cares for the Son and the Spirit.  The Son loves and obeys the Father and the Spirit.  The Spirit points us always to the love between the Father and the Son, and never to himself.

I also love the fact the perichoresis also means “dance.”  When you see two people doing ballroom dancing you see a perfect image of two working perfectly in harmony with another.  Unless it is me you see dancing, as I have two left feet as they say.  Perichoresis means mutual self-sacrifice.  The second work, kenosis, speaks to this directly.  Kenosis means to sacrifice for the good of another.  At the heart of the Trinity is the desire to give, love, forgive, and reconcile.  The Christ-event illustrates that beautifully.

What is the image of God in us?  It is our longing to be in intimate, authentic relationship with God, ourselves, and one another.  God has planted both perichoresis and kenosis into our very nature.  The heart of the universe is silently and invisibly pulsing with perichoresis and kenosis.  Adam and Eve experienced this kind of life with God, naked and unashamed, intimate with God and each other.  The story of the Fall explains that need inside of the human person to turn from God, to go on one’s own, to be one’s own god.  It is the basic temptation behind all temptations.

The too-narrow gospel (“You are a sinner, but God will forgive you if you confess and believe in Jesus”) leaves out any message about the image of God, which is the heart of the matter.  This is precisely why the limited gospel most people hear has failed us.  It tells you that salvation is getting your sins forgiven, that God is really mad at you for your sin, but that Jesus stepped in and took the blame, and that if you confess that he is Lord then God’s wrath is averted and you get to go to paradise when we die—regardless of how you lived.  The content of our character and the wellness of our soul is irrelevant.  This narrow gospel has led to failure and frustration—the failure of Christians to lead vibrant lives of moral goodness, and the frustration of living in what I call “Romans 7 Hell,” the place where we fail to do what we know is right, and end up doing what we know is wrong.

Our problem is that we are, to use Scot McKnight’s wonderful term, cracked Eikons.[1]  We are broken.

downtown through broken stained glass

**Downtown through broken stained glass, by Paul Sableman / CC 2.0

We cannot simply take off our sin like we can a jacket.  The problem is much deeper.  The problem is not outside of us; our brokenness is us.  That is why Christian spiritual formation is so important, and it begins with the right gospel.  Mcknight points out that we cannot start with a gospel message of salvation that centers on hell aversion.  We must begin with a gospel that begins with the Trinity—a community of joyful self-sacrifice.  Viewed in this way, spiritual formation becomes not merely the hobby of sensitive religious types, but the necessary work for all people.

Earlier I wrote about how we are all being formed spiritually.  No one can avoid it.  Every person is engaged in spiritual formation.  The question is, formed into what?  Though made in the image of God, we find ourselves committing the original sin, over and over.  What is that sin?  Most people make the mistake here of defining sin as “breaking a law” or failing to hit the mark.  This is why so many think they can stop sinning by sheer will-power, and fail, which leads to shame.  Sin begins by turning away from God, then oneself, and then others.  Sin is the act of rebellion from our true nature, an act of supposed freedom, wherein the focus, like that of Narcissus, is ones own self.  Once we turn from God, that original sin spreads like weeds, expressing itself in myriad ways.

Our true self, the one made in the image of God, longs for mutual interdependence.  It was designed for an intimate relationship with God.  Salvation, or atonement, then, means “to be renewed in the true image of God as women and men in Christ, to have our relationality restored so that our sinful selves, hopelessly turned in on themselves, are set free to be new creations in true divine and human koinonia [fellowship]” as Cherith Fee Nordling put it so well.[2]

Christian spiritual formation is the process in which God restores “cracked Eikons into glory producing Eikons by participation in the perfect Eikon, Jesus Christ” (McKnight).

The Image of Christ Reflected in Our Lives

So, the image of God in us is a longing for intimate relationship with God.  There is within us a capacity to rebel, to turn from God, which is the primal sin.  Of our own strength, we cannot heal ourselves.  There is no wellness of soul via our will-power.  So God stepped in and solved the problem.  In Jesus the un-cracked Eikon emerges, reconciles our sin debt, but more than that, invites us into his shared life.  I often quote a line from Bob George:  “Jesus gave his life for us, so that he could give his life to us, so that he could live his life through us.”  For, to, and through.  Jesus did not come to get us into heaven when we die, he came to bring heaven into us now.

A key verse for understanding Christian spiritual formation is this:

“And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18)

Let me unpack this important passage.  We who have put our confidence in Jesus and have surrendered to him as our savior, teacher, image of christLord and friend, can now see God.  Unlike Moses, we do not need a veil.  Because of Jesus, we see God. As Paul put it, “when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor. 3:16).  We are restored relationally.  We stare into the face of Jesus, much like we stare into the mirror and see ourselves.  But the difference is key:  we are not looking at ourselves anymore!  We are looking into the face, the visage, the image of Jesus.  We behold his glory.  Glory (Greek, doxa) refers to the beauty of Jesus.  As Paul wrote, “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation” (Col. 1:15).  And we who live as his apprentices, “have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10)

Looking at the face of Jesus is a metaphor for living as an apprentice of Jesus.  We look to him, listen to him, obey him, pray with him, trust in him.  As we do this, we become like Jesus We are being transformed into his image, by degree (remember, it is process).  As Dallas Willard writes so brilliantly, “Spiritual formation is the process whereby the inmost being takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself.”  All of this comes not from our effort to keep some law or avoid some behavior, it comes from the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit, as it were, directs our gaze.  The Spirit turns our eyes upon Jesus, as the hymn by Helen H. Lemmel encourages:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

This is nothing other than Christian spiritual formation.

The image of Christ, according to Mulholland, is the “the ultimate reality of human wholeness.”  The restoration of cracked Eikons is not simply to get people into heaven when they die.  The restoration of cracked Eikons into the glorious Eikon of Jesus is two-fold:  first, we become whole—not in heaven, but here and now in this life, and second, we become missional, willing and doing the good of others.  That is the subject of the last part of this discussion:  for the sake of self and others.


[1]   Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2007), Ch. 3

[2]  Ibid, p. 22