Image is a powerful influence in most cultures. How many magazine covers are air-brushed to remove facial blemishes, shrink waistlines, and enhance the looks of men and women who are already naturally attractive? Our culture seems obsessed with a fantasy image of perfectionism. Remember when HDTV first came out? Many of these same models and entertainers expressed concern that they could no longer live up to this fantasy image.
Mankind’s concern for physical appearance is nothing new. In Song of Solomon 1:6, a woman said she was worried that her lover might look down on her because of her dark skin – the result of her brothers having forced her to work their fields, probably while they stayed in the shade where it was cool. Even today, many cultures value lighter colored skin as a sign of power & privilege – those who had others to do their work.
Putting image ahead of God is as old as Babel in Genesis 11:4 where people wanted to make a name for themselves and draw others to them. Sound familiar? Most of us spend at least some time, money, and effort pursuing a better image. In the military, one of the most popular ways of pursuing a good image is exercise. Each time I deployed, I spent a lot of time in our homemade gyms. The exercise helped me relieve internal stress, but it was also my attempt to build my self-confidence. I got compliments from Soldiers in the gym and great feedback from my wife when I e-mailed her “before” and “after” photos of me. The emotional rush was powerful.
But outward appearances and inner satisfactions can be very different. We see people working out every day: jogging in neighborhoods, biking to work, playing basketball on a real court instead of a game system, heading to gyms instead of couches. And the trend is growing. But who are they inside? Each has their own struggles, but the search is the same: hope.
A wife hopes her spouse will hold her more often if she loses weight. A Soldier hopes to be promoted sooner if he can boast a PT patch for excellent fitness. A slightly older father hopes to draw his teenage son back by keeping up with him in the gym. A lonely soul hopes to muffle the cries inside by making their muscles scream louder than their sadness. We all need hope and we all need some exercise, but physical fitness can only deliver so much hope to change our self-image. Yes, exercise can make us feel better about ourselves, but only when we’re in shape. What about when we’re 70 and can’t stop our bodies from sagging? Or when we’re on vacation and don’t have the time or place to work out? Being in shape can improve our image only when the one who’s looking is looking for outward beauty. But where is God’s gaze?
In 1 Timothy 4:7-8, Paul says that physical training has some value, but only spiritual training can benefit us now and in the life to come. That’s because spiritual training in Christ focuses on the One who created us to be whole, body and soul, and can re-create us to be whole again. Satan wants us to try to polish our image frantically and lose our focus on Christ. Satan would have us be so busy that we forget our Savior and King who makes us more than “fit” to be with Him forever.
Self-focus is like looking into a mirror: it can’t produce any change. It can only bring pride or fear. Instead, we must stare into Jesus’ Word that frees us to live by His grace. (James 1:22-25) Seeing who He is can free us from fear or pride and strengthen us for bold service.
Consider “image” in Cain and Abel because of how they perceived God’s approval. Cain presented the work of his hands, but Abel trusted in the sacrifice of another’s life. Each trusted in a type of image and passed this to their generations. Cain’s line became so boastful until their pride was expressed in the 7th generation by murderous entitlement (Genesis 4:21-25). But Seth (whom God gave to Eve after Abel) and his line called on God’s name (Genesis 4:26). Their 7th generation was “Enoch, who walked with God and was no more” (Genesis 5:24). He did not die but went directly to heaven.
Jesus secures our image before God’s gaze. He clothed the naked, healed lepers, cleansed the filthy, forgave the guilty, and changed the wicked. By His grace and power, when the Father looks at us He sees Jesus‟ work on our behalf from start to finish. This is why He is called the author and perfector of our faith Who sat down after His finished work (Hebrews 12:1-2) and why He declared on the cross, “it is finished” (John 19:30). There is nothing we can add to our image! So why do we still try to “air-brush” our lives? Because we’re scared that others are going to see us as we really are. But God already sees all of who we are! He didn’t ask Adam and Eve where they were because He didn’t know! (Genesis 3:9) Jesus didn’t ask “who touched Me” in the crowd out of curiosity! (Luke 8:45) In both situations He was providing an opportunity for them to present themselves to Him – naked, diseased, you name it – and to experience something new. We don’t need a better self-image. We need Christ-image.
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