Theology 101

The #1 Principle in Helping the Poor: We Are Made in God’s Image

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The world is ravaged by poverty and the way we strive to fight poverty isn’t working. If the goal is flourishing, then the means to achieve this goal is true gospel-centered love for the poor. We need principles to help us know how to help the poor out of poverty—principles that are biblically informed.

Let’s start with the first biblical truth and principle for flourishing: We are created in God’s image and should respect the dignity and gifts of each human being.

We Are God’s Image Bearers

Where does this biblical truth come from? We see it in the very beginning of creation. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

God created mankind, both men and women, in his image. No other living, breathing thing on this earth has the honor of reflecting the image of God in this way. Right away, we realize this fact is significant. We get to image God. What does this mean?

In his article, “Man—Made in the Image of God,” Don Dunavant writes,

Three authors provide helpful theological direction for us. Wayne Grudem pointed out that the words used in Genesis 1:26-27, “image” (tselem) and “likeness” (demut) in the Hebrew “refer to something that is similar but not identical to the thing that it represents or is the ‘image’ of.” Therefore, Genesis 1:26, “would have meant to the original readers, ‘Let us make man to be like us and to represent us.” Bruce Ware noted that “the image of God in man involves God’s creation of divine representations (images of God) who, in relationship with God and each other, function to represent God (imaging God) in carrying out God’s designated responsibilities.” Anthony Hoekema wrote that the image of God “describes not just something that man has, but something that man is” (emphasis his).

As image bearers of Christ, we are something different.

We are called to represent God, to be like Jesus, to live in relationship with God and one another, and to live life in such a way that we carry out the responsibilities the Lord has given us. We are made in God’s image and have the honor and obligation of reflecting God’s glory.

Being made in the image of God teaches us that we have value and dignity, and we should respect everyone since they are also image bearers.

The Fall and the Image of God

What about after the Fall? Were our image-bearing capabilities destroyed?

Genesis 9 provides some insight here. This passage comes after the Fall. In it, God blesses Noah and his family. He starts by telling them, as in Genesis 1:28, “to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” God then blesses Noah and his family, saying that he gives them every animal and plant. After listing all the types of animals and plants, God puts it more directly: “I give you everything.” Then the passage switches gear.

Verse 6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” While Noah and his family have dominion over all the earth and have been given everything, there are strict consequences for causing the death of another human being. Verse 6 shows us the significance of humankind. Our blood matters. Why? Because God made us in his own image. The fact that we are made in the image of God gives us worth, even after the Fall.

In his article, “Reflected Glory,” J.I. Packer shows us that our goal has remained the same, even though our image-bearing capability has been marred by the Fall. We are still able to and should image God, but we need Jesus who fully reflects God’s image, and reconciles us with the Father.

He writes,

We still bear the image of God formally…and so the unique dignity of each human being must still be recognized and respected…But we have lost the image substantially, and it takes God’s grace-gift of union with Christ to restore it fully (emphasis his).

We cannot image God perfectly. We need Jesus, who is “the radiance of God’s glory and exact representation of his being” (Heb. 1:3) to truly achieve this goal.

How Image-Bearing Affects Poverty Programs

As we fight poverty, we must consider that every single person is created in God’s image.

Dignity is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” or “a sense of pride in oneself, self-respect.” Poverty affects more than just material possessions. It affects the way the poor view themselves.

Many fail to account for people’s inherent dignity and their gifts and talents. Poverty-fighting programs should communicate to the poor, “You are of value, let me come alongside you and help you use your gifts and talents to grow.”

Instead, programs that provide handouts say, “I am better than you. You are in trouble, let me use my gifts and talents to help you get out of this mess.”

Think about Jesus as he came to serve the poor in spirit. He is our Savior. But that was not his attitude. He broke bread with tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. He was born in a manger, a carpenter’s son. He washed the feet of his disciples, even the feet of Judas Iscariot who was already contemplating betraying him. Jesus was the epitome of humility.

As it says in Philippians 2:8, Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” to save his people and care for their spiritual poverty.

We must embrace this same attitude on our journey in caring for the poor in a biblical and effective way. We must act with humility. If we truly believe that all people are made in the image of God, treating those we serve with dignity and respect must be at the core of any poverty-fighting program.

Editor’s Note: Read more about the core biblical principles for poverty-fighting programs in Kathryn’s booklet, Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty.

Help more people learn about the biblical and economic principles that lead to flourishing! Support IFWE today. 

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