Note: This article describes one of the ON’s Economic Wisdom Project Talks, designed to be used as class assignments.
At the inaugural Karam Forum, Bruce Fields of Trinity International University shared the story of Reverend Leslie – a man who worked hard, was extremely generous and held biblical convictions. After working as a janitor for most of his life, Reverend Leslie founded a church at 65, and pastored for the next 30 years. Fields holds up Reverend Leslie’s life of striving after the right goals as a model for how to faithfully live as an image-bearer in the modern world. This teaching tool is ideal for students to view and discuss in classes such as systematic theology, ethics, missions and other settings where issues of discipleship, vocation, flourishing and the image of God are covered.
Through the life and work of his beloved mentor, Reverend Leslie, Fields shows how believers are called to image Christ, a call which invites believers to “model God’s care and love to creation.” Image-bearing is not a static category, but a task and a privilege, one with deeply relational dimensions. Using Reverend Leslie as a model, Fields lays out the three spheres of image-bearing: community, accountability and grace.
The Triune God of grace exists as a community of love, and this aspect of God’s being calls believers to love their neighbors as themselves. Fields shares how Reverend Leslie loved others through his work as a janitor – striving to meet the needs of both his community and his family – and viewed his work as worship.
Fields points out that because of sin, perfect image-bearing is impossible. A sinful world requires that image-bearers keep one another accountable to the calling we have been given, resisting all that pulls us apart or promotes false forms of flourishing.
Finally, because of the presence of sin, Fields, argues that grace is a necessary aspect of faithful image-bearing. The call to image-bearing isn’t a legal demand for perfection. We strive to be faithful to what God desires of us, and we need grace when we fall short.
Flourishing for image-bearers is the striving for ideals informed by God’s revealed word. Striving to achieve God’s designs, while sometimes falling short, is a hallmark of our being image-bearers of God.
Through the deeply personal story of Reverend Leslie, Fields demonstrates that striving for the sake of flourishing is never easy, but it is necessary.
We have provided a few sample excerpts from his talk below. We hope you will find this a useful tool to provide your students with an understanding the particular practices that being a faithful image-bearers involves.
The Example of Reverend Leslie
[Reverend Leslie] was motivated to facilitate the dreams of others – like me, as well as his family and friends. I wanted to be like this man, I wanted to image him in multiple ways. I wanted to develop his type of character, with elements such as integrity, generosity, humility and the ability to laugh at oneself…I wanted to demonstrate one day before my family that the Lord graciously calls us to areas of service and equips us to perform works of service. These things I saw modeled in Reverend Leslie. In a number of ways, Reverend Leslie helped shape my understanding of God and imaging [God] from my early years.
Image Bearing in Christ
Over time I came to learn that we are most effective in imaging God and facilitating human flourishing when we are striving towards ideals that are informed by biblical and theological guidelines. The world advocates self-maintenance, the accumulation of wealth and power as flourishing…Human beings possess capacities to reflect, plan and move towards developmental goals, but image-bearing is more than just capacities, but has strong relational and functional dimensions. Human beings are image-bearers, but full imaging can be accomplished in Jesus Christ.
Image Bearing for Creation
I believe that Lauren Wilkenson is correct when he argues that imaging is humanity’s task and privilege, both to model God’s care and love to creation and to articulate creation’s love and worship to the creator. My focus here is the call to demonstrate care and love to God’s creation. This is not merely to maintain creation as is, but to develop it, which involves a wise exercising of work. When imaging God, we express praise and gratitude through our work of actualizing creation’s potential, to maintain life and to enhance life. Work provides access to dignity – so critical for the health and peace of mind of God’s image-bearers. Such dignity is a function of personal development leading to God imaging contributions in three spheres: community, accountability and grace.
Image Bearing in Community
Human beings are image-bearers of God in community. The Triune God exhibits a community within the unity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Millard Erickson observes a similarity between the love that humans should have for God and the love that humans should have for one another….For all human beings, the image of God entails a corporate dimension, facilitating a concern for the health of a community, with occasional attention given to individuals. Believers are cautioned to do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith. The church should demonstrate a concern for the larger structures of the society in which it exists.
Reverend Leslie viewed his janitorial work as a labor of love. First…he could provide for some of the needs of his family. Second, he helped the people working in the offices that he cleaned. They could work more effectively, with a more positive perspective, when they saw that the garbage cans were empty, appropriate places were dusted, rugs were vacuumed and the restrooms were clean. He shared that he would often pray and sing while he was working.
Image Bearing and Accountability
Augustine…embraced service to others through the power of God’s grace. Even as an influential bishop, he could speak of members of the church as “my fellow citizens, still on pilgrimage with,” and again, “they are your servants and my brethren, but you have willed them to be your children and my masters. And you have ordered me to serve them if I wish to live with you and share your life.” His accountability to others was designed and empowered by God. But our world is fallen and imperfect. Human violations of love and community result in traditions and policies to remind a populace of its ideal. Violations of the same may result in enforcement, and this is another aspect of communal accountability. Laws are required, because even grace produced imaging can fall into the temptation to control other image-bearers and potentially abusive relationships…Worldly forces press us towards autonomy as flourishing. Image-bearers of God however, should be advocates of flourishing, accountability and just practices for other image-bearers.
Image Bearing and Grace
We should on occasions extend grace to ourselves and to others, despite our inadequacies and many mistakes. Remembrance of grace can bring healing, when experiencing the inconsistencies in human relationships, individually and institutionally. Sometimes confrontation and correction are needed…yet we do not often behave in ways that reflect the responsibility that relationships in community. Here the need is not only information on what is right, but also the recognition that something is needed to empower proper response.
The other side of the coin of loving God is loving your neighbor as oneself. Reverend Leslie would go fishing during the warm weather whenever he could. It was an extension of grace to himself, to allow some space… to [enjoy] his surroundings [and] the opportunity to meditate…on a troublesome situation. He embraced the fact that he needed these periods of grace. He would also acknowledge that he needed to extend grace to others.
Worldly forces pull us towards the subjection of others through things such as guilt and fear. To the contrary, image-bearers of God should be advocates of flourishing grace and just practices for other image bearers.
Striving and Image Bearing
Reverend Leslie strived his entire life to accomplish much for the sake of others. Like many image-bearers, he worked towards certain ideals while never meeting them perfectly. His character was demonstrated in his continual striving, despite setbacks, disappointments and occasional failures. His dependence upon God for strength and encouragement, enabled him to look beyond himself to see the needs of others. And his continual construction of Bible-based conviction gave him both his sense of accountability to others before God and his extensions of grace to himself and others.
He often wondered if his efforts ever really accomplished anything. One may not see the fruit of his or her labor, but it may facilitate the flourishing of others. One thing is sure, without his faithful striving, his eldest grandson would not be standing before you today.