We all have an image of ourselves which we protect, whether we realize we are protecting it or not. This is a built-in function of the human machine. Humans were programmed with image-protection because they were made in the image of God. The preservation of that image is essential to creation’s welfare.
This makes sense when we realize what the Creator intended to do with his human images. He meant them to be placed all over the earth. In ancient times, kings placed images of themselves along the borders of their land to remind people who was in control.
There is a parallel in the contemporary world. Leaders like Mao Zedong, Kim Il Jung, and Saddam Hussein all placed giant banners of themselves in major cities, or erected statues of themselves at busy intersections. These images were intended to remind people who was in control, to assure the doubter and intimidate the rebel.
God’s intention was not to frighten the world with his living images but to bless it. They were to be a source of comfort and encouragement to all who saw them, both humans and animals. Unlike a tyrant’s images, God’s images were alive, and he intended to rule the world through them. In the Book of Genesis, God states: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
Because God’s image was central to the security and welfare of creation, he programmed “image protection software” into his image bearers. But that image was defaced by our father Adam’s – and our own – subsequent rebellion, and it continues to deteriorate. Yet the built-in image protection system remains operational.
With the image of their creator damaged and growing less distinct, humans create their own image and then fight to protect it. Much of the insanity that happens in our world stems from men and women trying to protect false images of themselves. People will live in denial, “deceiving and being deceived,” as St. Paul put it, rather than see their image defaced.
This is even true when the image is not a flattering one, for images are not always fashioned to exalt. They are more often fashioned to protect. Think of Paul Simon’s, “I am a rock, I am an island. And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.”
Because this is true, people will fight even to protect the images that thwart their happiness: the loner, the rebel, the outcast, and the curmudgeon. “Victim” is an unflattering image, but many people cling to it. It affords a kind of status to some and provides an excuse to others.
A person’s image protection system may lead them into foolish behaviors to prop up their image. Hence, people who image themselves as “the smartest person in the room” may be incapable of admitting that they do not know something. Instead of listening to others, they do all the talking. If they happen to lead an organization, their image protection software has the potential of ruining many people’s lives.
It can get worse – and has. Imagine the leader of a nation with a faulty image protection system. He has for years imaged himself as the tough guy. Now his mind supplies reasons to maintain that image even though doing so means going to war against another country. He is unable to consider evidence for or against war objectively. It is all filtered through his own distorted image.
The self-righteous person will for the same reason be unable to admit being wrong. The “loser” will not be able to admit having won. The “winner” cannot acknowledge having lost.
The way to repair this problem is not to disable the image protection software, but to restore the original image for which it was designed. This is the point of spiritual formation through discipleship to Jesus. Its biblical goal is nothing less than for humans “to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”