In a world conditioned by perfectionist ideas of physical beauty, we can perhaps see the idea of perfection in the gods portrayed in classical Greek statues and other works of human imagination, but it is not as easy to see the image of God in actual flawed and broken human beings.
Yet, as Christians we know that every human is made in the image of God – not just the more physically perfect ones (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6). In fact, the Scriptures suggest God himself was purposely shaped in imperfect form as a human: “… He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:21), and that description certainly fits the Jesus of the Gospels who was not easily recognized and who slipped through crowds unnoticed (Luke 4:30, John 10:39). Religious art and movie casting notwithstanding, the second century writer Celsus may even preserve a tradition that Jesus was short and not attractive.
In any event, Christ’s evident compassion for the physically flawed and broken of this world, as well as the spiritually broken (Mark 1:40-45, etc.), perfectly illustrates the attitude of seeing every person as an image of God despite outer appearances. But in addition to the compassion and true acceptance we must have for those the world considers physically unattractive or undesirable for whatever reason, there is perhaps a second and less obvious way in which we can apply the principle that we are all made in the appearance of God.
The Book of Genesis tells us the story of how the patriarch Jacob cheated his brother out of his inheritance and how, after a length of time, the two brothers met again. The biblical account states: “Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men” (Genesis 33:1). Think about this situation. Jacob knew what he deserved from his brother and here was Esau, with a large fighting force, coming directly toward him. Jacob probably didn’t expect Esau to be at all friendly at this point, let alone brotherly.
We might well ask ourselves how we would have met Esau in that situation – with justification for our own actions, with mistrust of Esau, with fear? Humanly, it is easy to demonize not only our enemies, but also those we mistrust and are afraid of. We see their worst points and use those things to justify our own actions and thoughts. But notice what Jacob told Esau as soon as he realized he could speak safely with his brother: “To see your face is like seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10).
These amazing words show us clearly that Jacob was able to look past his own fear and mistrust and to see his brother as he should – as someone made in the image of God – just as Esau, as it turned out, was willing to see him. In that instance, such an attitude, such a viewpoint, avoided revenge and possible mayhem involving hundreds of people.
In our own lives this attitude can help us just as much in our own one-on-one relationships. If we, too, can learn to see even those we mistrust or fear as potentially bearing the image of God, no matter how their behavior may work against that identification, we are growing toward that image of God ourselves.