What does it mean to be made in God’s image? Many theologians and philosophers down through the ages have offered their best thinking to this question, and the question is so large that there is no pithy answer. To be made in the image of God means more than we can possible understand, given that it is impossible for any creature to fully comprehend his Creator. To be an image-bearer means many things, and Gregory of Nyssa, in his essay On the Making of Man offers this important insight: “the fact that [human nature] is the image of that Nature which rules over all means nothing else than this, that our nature was created to be royal from the first.” In other words, humans are royalty. Not just some humans, as we have seen throughout history, but all humans. Every person is cosmic royalty because every human being was created in the image of God. We were designed to be little-rulers of God’s vast creation, representing him in wisdom, courage, and humility.
We must be virtuous in order to faithfully execute our royal office.
That last part is the key. We must be virtuous in order to faithfully execute our royal office. In the end, it is virtue that separates us from the animals. In making us in His own image, God has, according to Gregory, marked us with the virtues of “purity, freedom from passion, blessedness, alienation from all evil, and all those attributes of the like kind which help to form in men the likeness of God: with such hues as these did the Maker of His own image mark our nature.” God created us to be like Himself, limited only by the fact that we are created beings and not Being itself. This limitation does not apply, it would seem, to goodness. While we never be The Good, we can be – and by the transformative power of the Spirit will one day be – good. We will be so good, in fact, that our desires will align perfectly with our nature (as God intended it), that sin will be impossible for us. But all of this will not happen until the resurrection, for it is impossible to achieve perfection in this life.
What we can be, however, is virtuous. In fact, the pursuit of virtue is required by our station. It is virtue that makes us human. It is virtue that makes us kings and queens. To neglect virtue – whether from laziness or the wrongheaded assumption that, since we are saved by grace there is no need to be good – is to reject the divine imaged-ness of our nature. It is to say to God, “You do all the work, and I will just sit back and wait to enjoy the eschaton.” As Jesus might say, “You wicked and lazy servant!” Is God your servant? Is the image bearer above the one whose image he bears? Again, from Gregory, “There is a great difference between that which is conceived in the archetype, and a thing which has been made in its image: for the image is properly so called if it keeps its resemblance to the prototype; but if the imitation be perverted from its subject, the thing is something else, and no longer an image of the subject.” You are the image of God; therefore, be the image of God.
To be virtuous means to be faithful to our Creator, to live in accordance with the intention for which He created us. You cannot find out who you truly are by indulging every desire, following your heart, or realizing your dreams. Undisciplined, those inevitably move us further from our truest selves. The only real path to self-realization is self-denial. As the Lord told His disciples, “Whoever wants to find his life must lose it.” If we are, in fact, created by God to be royalty, we must educate our desires in the way of Jesus. We must put on the virtues, even when it feels fake. (Honesty is a virtue, but authenticity – as we understand it – is not. It is important to learn the difference.) We cannot rule God’s creation in wisdom, courage, and humility until we learn to do those things which we know we must do even we do not want to do them. We will only become our true selves by putting on virtue, which comes only from obeying the commands of God rather than the commands of our desires.