Icons and Idols in the Image of God

This article is a continuation of the one I shared with you last week. You can read the first article by clicking HERE. In it I discussed the image and likeness of God as two separate things. The image of God is eternal and unchanging within us. It is the structure of our consciousness and an unearned gift from God. The likeness of God, on the other hand, is something into which we are meant to grow. God has left our creation incomplete so that we may complete ourselves. By growing into kindness and all the other virtues, we complete our creation. It is a gift which we give back to God.

An image is always a reflection of something else. If you have a photograph of your children hanging on your wall then you recognise them in it instantly, yet you also know that the photo can never be the fullness of who your children are. It is not them, it is an image of them.

We can change the likeness of an image without changing the truth about what it represents. If we use filters in our pictures we can take away our acne or even give ourselves eyes like a cat, but that does not change our true face. We can either be an image which is truly like God or we can be an image which is distorted and changed.

In religious art, a painting which reflects an eternal truth is referred to as an icon. In essence, our souls are a work of art, a self portrait by the ultimate artist. We are a holy icon which reflects the image of God, through which something sacred can be seen that is beyond the physical work of art itself.

The thing that makes us different from a painted icon one might see in a church is that we have free will. We are a painting which can grow and change. The condition we find ourselves in now is not the same as our original creation. The likeness of God, unlike the image of God, can be horribly disfigured, and often we find that it is so.

When we no longer live according to the image of Christ shining in our hearts we typically create a new image over top of the original. We create an idol made by human will and there, within the temple of our hearts, we worship it like a golden calf.

There is a fine line between an idol and an icon. We can paint new images of God within our hearts that are crude and even violent. We can create God in our own image if we are not mindful. But this false image of God is only a phantom, an illusion, it is not the true image which remains forever untainted. The images which we create tend to be full of contradictions and therefore we have an internal conflict between what is right and wrong. The image of God in its purity is always good and has no contradictions, therefore it is always at peace. As Columbanus said,

“Let us not paint the image of another; for they who are fierce, full of anger and pride, paint the image of a tyrant. Just as false knowledge is uncovered, so too a false image is revealed to be a phantom. For truth is distinguished from falsehood, justice from unrighteousness, love from malevolence, commitment from carelessness, fairness from injustice, affection from pretense, and both paint images upon us which are mutually opposed. For righteousness and unrighteousness, peace and conflict are opposites. In case we should introduce tyrannical images into ourselves, let Christ paint his own image in us, as he does when he says: ‘My peace I give you, my peace I leave you.” (Trans Oliver Davies)

The peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding, is the eternal ground of goodness and love within us. The image of God deep within us is undivided love, a compassion and mercy which is peaceful and free of conflict. Love, the mother of all virtues, is unchanged within us and simply waiting for us to draw it forth into our lives. It is the unearned gift of grace which no darkness can overcome. God has given us a beautiful gift and has blessed us doubly with the capacity to return the gift. 

If we were only a piece of art, existing statically in the manner in which we were created, we would be a limited beauty. But God wants us to be co-creators with her and so she has given us the opportunity to bestow a gift ourselves. If we are truly the image of God then we are creators as well. We are not mere empty vessels which need to be filled, we are living beings who create our own images.

The likeness of God which we grow into will be unique for each person and it is the gift which we give back to our creator. God has graced us with the capacity to create and, like a mother who cherishes the macaroni art of her toddler, God receives this gift lovingly from us. Columbanus described this by saying, “Whatever virtues God sowed in us in our primal state, therefore, he has commanded us to return to him.”

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