There is much more we could say about the relational aspect of the image of God, but a second and no less important aspect is critical. In his wonderful work called The Liberating Image, Richard Middleton suggests that royalty is a primary expression of the image. He sees the image as “the royal function or office of human beings as God’s representatives and agents in the world, given authorized power to share in God’s rule over the earth’s resources and creatures.” Before the distortion of rule and the abuse of power, men and women, together, were given the royal ambassadorship (Gen. 1:28-30). In a world that sends muddled messages (men are perverts, men are power hungry, men are abusive, men are addictive, men are distant, men are emotionless), a man’s identity is regal, dignified, and purposeful.
When the younger son returns in Luke 15, the father races to him in order to bless him. Theirs is a relational reunion. But it is so much more. The father restores the son’s dignity. He gives him the family ring, signifying his royal sonship. He robes him, covering his old and tattered garments, his wounds, his nakedness, his palpable signs of undignity. He puts sandals on his feet. He organizes a celebration feast fit for royal dignitaries. It’s all very regal, and it’s all very important in the symbolic world of Scripture. Original hearers would have noted the resonances with the royal image in Genesis 1. This should have brought joy to all who heard it.
I had a client whose family modeled life after the hit 80’s and 90’s television show Married with Children. His Dad was much like Al Bundy, a bumbling idiot who lived for sex, beer, and television. Emerging into his 20’s, my client was unsure of what real masculinity looks like. He’s internalized something very real, however. He is unstable, unsure, even bumbling, at least in his own estimation. He critiques his every move. He lives mired in self-contempt. In front of women, he clams up and becomes immobilized, believing he has nothing at all to offer.
At his church, he’s told that self-esteem is not language that can be found in the Bible. He’s managed to find a church where all of his worst fears are confirmed. He’s reminded each week that he’s a sinner, that there is nothing good in him. The God he knows does not lavish love and bestow dignity. The God he knows barely tolerates him. He’s depressed. And confused. And has no sense, at all, of what it means to be a man.
Men like this work 8-6, and can’t wait for Fridays. They live the curse in Gen. 3, as they work not out of some inherent sense of dignity or royal ambassadorship in the world, but out of survival. They numb to and cope with the pain of life in any number of ways, some which are stereotypical (sex, alcohol, tv) and some not often discussed (suicidality, eating disorders, gender confusion). Or perhaps they can’t work. Self-sabotage plays itself out in constant job changes or instability. Or maybe they’re addicted to work, using it as a drug, unable to separate themselves from their accomplishments. No matter how it plays, it’s a different story than the one God intended, a different trajectory from that of royal dignitary to the King of Kings.
What does this mean for men? At a societal level, it means that part of what it means to see the Kingdom come and God’s will be done is seen in men becoming who they are – ambassadors of the King. We see ourselves caught up in a larger mission, a mission to see the reign of God expand in the world in which we live. This begins where we live, work, and play. It begins in our homes and our offices, on the playground and in the pub. It means that no action we can take is somehow neutral, unaffected by the King’s reign in our hearts and in our world. Our “faithful presence” in the world, to borrow J.D. Hunter’s language, manifests in lives of fruitfulness, flourishing, integrity, justice, wisdom, and love. Our strength, as men, becomes a source of blessing, not aggression or violence. Our vulnerability manifests itself in self-surrender, not passivity or avoidance.
I, for one, do not prefer this vision for men growing out of an ancient initiatory tradition manifesting today in the warrior man, championed by those who call men to their primitive wildness. There is an element of truth in this. But God bestows his image to men and women, and its particular royal manifestation in a man invites not wild, outdoorsy masculinity, but purposeful, engaged, and missionally-driven masculinity. Whether in the cubicle or in the wild, men are called in a particular way. You don’t find masculinity outside of yourself, but the Spirit reveals it as something born in you, bestowed to you in the original image. At a societal level, it could be extraordinary if men regained a sense of missional passion as royal ambassadors of the King.
At a personal level, this bestowed identity counters the narratives we learned in our homes growing up, or on the playground, or even in our subcultures. When a man asks, “Who am I?” his answer is generally derived from a combination of influences, not least from his father and other key relationships in his life. How masculinity was defined in your family or culture, at some level, influences your answer to the question, “Who am I?” I’m a nobody. I’m a failure. I’m a breadwinner. I’m a success. I’m a sissy. I’m a lawyer. I’m gay. I’m wealthy. No matter the answer, it does not touch the deeper identity as a child of the King, a royal benefactor called to bless, to love, to steward, to suffer. As men, we’re ruled by a variety of cultural scripts which we often bless as normative, in large part, because it is what our traditions taught us to be. But there is something deeper, our truest humanity anchored in God’s image, seeing restoration and renewal as we participate in the life of God through the Spirit. The most truly human person ever to live, Jesus himself, embodied this royal life as God’s kingly Son sent in love and for mission. He invites us to embody it in our time and place today, whether in a cubicle or on a cliff.