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Mike Cosper delivered a message during a breakout at The Gospel Coalition’s 2019 National Conference titled “Made in the Image of God for the Good of the World.” During the session, he discussed God’s image and many of the characteristics of our Creator that people are meant to reflect. Cosper then detailed three ways that reflecting the image of God is meant to bring about good in the world around us.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Mike Cosper: My name is Mike Cosper. I’m excited to be here to talk about this.
Actually, worked with LifeWay on a longish Bible study, specifically on the topic of the image of God. And it really covers the image of God from a variety of angles, far more than I can get into today. For me, what’s been interesting to me to think about over the last few weeks, as I prepared for this was to think about how can we think about the image of God situated in the culture that we live in now, situated in our particular cultural situation?
Why does the image of God matter to our ongoing cultural conversations? What does it have to say about how we live with a faithful presence in the modern world? And when I think about the image of God, I always think about this story, this friend of mine, this guy named Bert. When he was a kid, his stepdad ran a pawn shop.
And one day this guy comes into the pawn shop with a bunch of stuff to sell, amongst them an acoustic guitar, and he sells this thing. And his stepdad felt bad for this guy. So, he went ahead and bought the guitar, even though the guitar looked like a piece of junk. And he thought, you know what, I’ll take it home, I’ll give it to my stepson. So, he does.
And Bert has this thing for the next several years, he learns to play guitar on it, he was just always sitting in the corner of his bedroom, in the corner of his living room. He’ll pick it up and strum on it. Doesn’t think much about it. And one of the years later, he becomes a pretty well-established musician in our city, and he was saving up money to buy a guitar amp.
And so, he decided to see if he could sell this thing, and get maybe a couple hundred bucks for it to apply towards his amp. So, he goes to this place called Guitar Emporium, a real famous vintage guitar shop in Louisville. And another friend of mine is this old banjo player, a guy named Steve Cooley. Steve was behind the counter that day. And he brought in a few things to sell.
And he’s handed to the guy, and he goes, “Yeah, and I got this old guitar. It’s probably a piece of junk. But I thought I’d have you take a look at it.” And my friend Steve takes a look at it, and does one of these, and immediately goes, “Where’d you steal this?” And Bert was like, “I know what you’re talking about, man. This is my guitar. I’ve had it forever, tells him the story.”
And he goes, “Wait right here.” Steve goes, “Wait right here.” And he goes across the street to a barbershop. And out of the barbershop, comes the owner of the guitar store with the aprons still around him, and his hair half cut, and he’s rushing across the street. He comes in, and he looks at the thing. And he goes, “You stole this, didn’t you?” And he’s like, “No, dude, I didn’t steel it.”
He tells him the story over again. He’s like, looks it over, and he goes, “Okay, I’ll give you $5,000 for it.” And my friend Bert, probably stupidly, my friend Bert goes, “I’ll take it.” Because it turns out this thing was a pre-war Martin Guitar. And if you know anything about vintage guitars, these are the most treasured acoustic guitars in the whole world. There’s a very rare, this thing was probably worth $30,000 or $40,000.
And here it had been in just almost like a decoration in the corner of his living room for all these years, not knowing what it was, or what it was worth. And I love this as an analog for the Imago Dei because I think the Imago Dei is something that it’s a reality for every human being on this earth. And it imbues us with a unique dignity, unique glory amongst all of creation.
And yet, it’s something that is glossed over, forgotten about barely paid attention to, distorted by sin, and dimmed by sin and suffering. So, I think what I want to talk about today, and as we dig into this is what is the image of God? I want to talk a little bit about what are some of the characteristics that I believe we are meant to reflect from our Creator?
And what are some of the things that stand in the way of us being able to do that effectively? To give just a little foundation for this, you can really see this in the book of Genesis. There’s an emphasis on man being made in the image of God throughout the book of Genesis. Obviously, Genesis chapter one starts, then God said, let us make man in our image according to our likeness.
They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole Earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth. So, God created man in His own image. He created them in the image of God. He created them male and female. Then, Genesis 5:1-3, talking about the birth of Adam’s son, Seth. It says this, on the day that God created man, He made Him in the likeness of God.
He made them male and female. When they were created, He blessed them and called them mankind. Adam was 130 years old when he fathered a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. And so, from this, you see, there’s an interconnected meaning between being made in the image of God, and being born the child of someone. Seth was made in Adam’s image, just as Adam was made in the image of God.
So, there’s something, and throughout the scriptures, you see almost interchangeably, this language of child of God and image of God. These are very common ideas. And then, once more from the book of Genesis, after the flood, God warns the people about murder, and does so reflecting on drawing the value of human life out of the fact that they’re made in God’s image.
Genesis 9:6, he says whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image. Psalm 8 talks about the worthiness, and the glory of humanity, and says that we’re a little less than God. Starting in verse three, in Psalm 8, it says, when I observe your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon, and the stars, which you set in place, what is a human being that you remember him.
A son of man that you look after him. You made him a little less than God, and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him the ruler over the works of your hands, you put everything under your feet. So, it’s a remarkable thing. And it’s something that again, the scriptures emphasize that there’s something unique about humanity amongst all of creation that were made in God’s image.
And that language is startling. That Psalm 8 would say that he made us a little less than God. C.S. Lewis has this great quote from The Weight of Glory, where he says that if you ever saw a human being in their full glory of their full worthiness, it would be a creature that you would be tempted to worship. And that’s why, because we were made in God’s image.
Now, with all that said, we’re also left much to ourselves to flesh out what being an image bearer actually means. Because the scriptures don’t give us an exhaustive list of the features of being an image bearer. They really don’t go into a whole lot of detail regarding what image bearing means. The emphasis primarily, is in terms of human dignity, and perhaps most importantly, and that we are able to, and appointed to imitate God in some particular ways.
Some of this is innate. And this is an important thing to keep in mind is that we can’t help, but being image bearers. There are ways that we’ll get into here in a moment where you can think about this. And you can see this at work that, for instance, with regard to creativity, every human being has a creative side. It’s something that as children, we can’t help but express.
So, there’s something innate about being human that we are going to reflect God’s image whether we intend to or not. But of course, again, since and suffering, distort the capacity, and diminish our ability to imitate Him. For our discussion today, I’m going to mention three ways that we bear God’s image and talk about how we can seek to do that intentionally.
And as the title of the session indicates, I want us to talk about how we can do this for the good of the world. Those three ways are, number one, our capacity for relationships. Number two, our capacity for culture making. And number three, our capacity for wielding power. So, that’s relationships, culture making, and wielding power. And in God, we can see all of these characteristics.
We see all of this at work. We see it in God as Trinity, God is creator, and God is Lord. And let me flesh that out a little bit. In the Trinity, we must remember that God is three persons, and that these three persons live in relationship with one another. Throughout the Bible, you see that for instance, in the Old Testament, God is bringing glory to himself.
But is through the prophets, promising this glory to come, this goodness to come when the Son of Man comes, when God’s Son is going to be made incarnate and come. At Jesus’s baptism, God shows up, and says this is my son with whom I’m well pleased. He glorifies the son. The son throughout his ministry is giving glory to the Father, and talking about how his whole life is meant to display the glory of the Father.
Paul talks about that, how the glory of the Father is on display in the face of Jesus Christ. And then, the Holy Spirit as well. You see in the words of Jesus at the end of the book of John, when he’s foretelling about the coming of the Holy Spirit. He’s glory sharing. He’s saying that a greater glory is coming through the Spirit. I love the way J.I. Packer talks about the ministry of the Spirit.
He tells a story and keeping in separate the spirit about going out for a walk one night, and walking past this church that was lit up by floodlights. And he thought about the floodlights, and recognize that the floodlights don’t exist for their own glory. You don’t see floodlights, and go, “Wow, that’s a beautiful floodlight.” You see whatever it is that they’re illuminating.
And that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is like a floodlight. It is meant to shine light and shine glory on the Father and the Son. The Church fathers would refer to this as perichoresis, this idea of glory sharing. It doesn’t mean dance. People will say that it means some dance of the Trinity. That’s goofy. And it’s not actually what it means. But it does mean glory sharing.
And it means that there’s this exchange of glory, this exchange of love, this exchange of praise that takes place between the members of the Trinity. And that relationship is the relationship that we’re meant for. If you think about the way we want to bless those that we love, our friends, our family, that thing, there is a glory sharing that happens. We want to celebrate them.
We want the best for them. That’s a reflection of being made in God’s image. Second of all, we see God is creator. In humanity, there’s this capacity for culture making that has its roots, and God is creator. And there’s an interesting pattern that you see in Genesis one and two with regard to this. The first is that in Genesis 1, God makes everything from nothing.
He simply speaks it all into being. But in Genesis, chapter two, He takes the dirt, and He forms it, and breathe life into it, and it becomes Adam. He takes a rib, and He forms it, and it becomes Eve. And in that, you see the pattern I believe that God has given to us for how our own creative work is supposed to be done. We don’t make anything from nothing. We don’t have that capability.
But we can take creation, we can work with it, we can, in a sense, breathe life into it, and it becomes something different. So, you cut down a tree, and you cut down a tree in a forest, and you carve it into a violin, or you take all of these weird industrial elements, and you combine them together, and you have an iPhone.
At some point, somebody discovered that if you pluck a string a certain way, you can change the pitches of it. And the next thing you know, you have this evolution of music. God makes by remaking, and that’s how we make. We make by remaking. In fact, the gospel itself is an act of creation, and that God has taken something that was broken, and dead, and breathe new life into it, and it becomes something new.
Ephesians 2:10 says, for we are His workmanship, and that word workmanship has beautiful meaning that doesn’t quite translate in English. It’s a beautiful work. It’s a compelling work. It’s meaningful. It’s a meaningful work. And then, third, with regard to power, we see that God is our Lord. That He uses His power to make, and to sustain the world.
His power reveals his kindness in His care for His creatures. We’ll talk more about this towards the end here. But you see that God does not discriminate between the good, and the evil, and the way that He blesses the world. And also, his power reveals His concern for justice. You see, God concerned for orphans, and for widows, and for sojourners, and strangers throughout the scriptures.
And this concern is an expression of power that the powerful should be concerned for those who are endangered, for those who are powerless. Now, what I think is really helpful in thinking through this is actually, turning this into a series of negations. And looking at what God is not, as a way to start understand how the image of God in us gets distorted, and where we need to be doing some of our work in order to be serving the world around us.
So, with regard to the Trinity, we can see that God is not alone. God is not isolated. God does not put himself first. The various members of the Trinity are busily at work exchanging glory with one another, praising one another, celebrating one another. God is creator. God isn’t passive. God works. He makes. While in judgment, He can destroy. In redemptive history, He’s primarily constructive, and busy with making and remaking things.
And then, finally, with God as Lord, He’s not a cosmic bully. But on a cosmic calendar, He doesn’t tolerate bullies either. God uses His gifts for love and care for those who are in the most need. So, from here, it’s easy to see how as image bearers, we’re meant to reflect God’s character in similar ways. We’re meant in our capacity for relationships to live self-sacrificing and outward lives.
In our capacity for culture making, we’re to be constructive to work, to make things, to leave the world better than we found it. And third, in our capacity for wielding power, we’re meant to care for the weak and the vulnerable. We’re meant to steward well, the power that we have. Now, we can take any aspect of this and press down into it for a while talking about relationships, culture, making your power.
You could also just go and read Andy Crouch’s recent books, which I actually would highly recommend that you do. But for today, I want to ask what keeps us from fully living as image bearers? And what are some of the cultural conditions that are pushing us against our design as God’s image bearers? And this brings me back to these negations. I think these are key features in our culture.
So, for instance, in relationships, we’re meant to live in relationship towards one another. We’re meant to live outward lives reaching out to those who are like us and unlike us. But the gravity of our culture is towards tribalism and towards isolation. Tribe tribalism is, it may sound at first blush like it’s in some way connected to relationships. But at the at its heart, it’s distrustful of relationship.
Tribalism is about distrust of the stranger. In his book, Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg talks about this in great detail. And what Jonah talks about is he says, there’s this unique phenomenon that happened around the time of the Enlightenment, that liberal democracy, and capitalism came into the world. And the way Jonah makes the argument, and I think I have a bone to pick with a few elements of his argument.
But what Jonah is essentially saying is essentially, he’s saying that liberal democracy, and capitalism had this way of leveling out the hierarchies of the world. So that if you were born poor, you had the opportunity to advance yourself, or if you were born rich, you weren’t guaranteed that you were going to be okay. Or if you were born of this tribe, it didn’t mean that you couldn’t shift identities, or connect with people of different tribes.
Because what happened is people who had money, people who had resources wanted to find ways to exchange them with one another. And so, suddenly, you had to build bridges with people who are different than you because they had something you wanted, or you might have something that they wanted. And the exchange, the financial exchange that took place for to level the playing field, and started to bring people together.
And so, you saw a leveling out of society. I think Jonah is more optimistic about how successful this was than I would be, necessarily. Particularly, when you think about racial justice, or gender equality in our culture. But nonetheless, I think you can see that the general gist of the argument, there was this movement towards a leveling off a movement away from tribalism.
And what he argues is tribalism was the way of the world up until this point, that you just trusted outsiders, that you cloistered yourself, you protected your community. And what he begins to argue with in the book is that we’re seeing a shift in the last decade back towards a tribalism, back towards a distrust of the stranger, back towards an attitude towards people who are different from us, defining them in hard boundaries of either you’re in or you’re out.
So, for instance, on the right, we see this in the rise of white nationalism. That’s a tribalism. That’s a tribal identity that people are holding on to, with a sense of pride, with a sense of identity, with a sense of hostility towards people who are not like us. But that’s not a standalone phenomenon. Because on the left, you see the whole world of identity politics, which again, is a tribalism.
We’re going to band together with people who are just like us. And we’re going to, in a sense, declare war on those who are different from us. And what being made in the image of God says is nobody is really that different from you. At your heart, at your core, what matters most about you is that you’re made in the image of God.
And so, these identity barriers that we like to throw up and say, this makes you different from me, this makes you in, this makes you out. You’re a star bellied snitch, and I’m a regular snitch, if you read Dr. Seuss. Those distinctions, those differences are insignificant. And it’s up to us, I believe, as the church to bear witness to the fact that those differences aren’t significant.
That those differences aren’t the defining matters for who we are, and aren’t defining matters for how our culture is going to live, and operate, and focus. Both of these together, nationalism and identity politics are attack on the doctrine of the Imago Dei. They both emphasize what makes us different over and against what we have in common.
A second, I believe attack, on the Imago Dei is a growing phenomenon of isolation. And in particular, technological isolation. Sherry Turkle puts it like this in her book, Alone Together. She says technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy.
Digital connections, and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our network life shows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to one another. We’d rather text than talk. Someone just the other day said to me, “Man, don’t you hate it when somebody responds to a text with a phone call?”
And what’s funny is I’m that guy. I’m always the guy that’s like, “I’m just going to call you back rather than have to fiddle with my phone.” Part of it is because my vision is so bad, I can never see what I’m typing. But I think this is a really common phenomenon. We become more and more comfortable with mediated interactions, where there’s a device that separates us from somebody else, and mediates the way that we connect.
Because what social media offers us is the ability to curate our lives. We can take our best moments, our most beautiful moments, and we can put them online for the world to see. And so, what happens is I go online, and I see your curated life, and it looks beautiful. And I look at my life, and I see all of the mess of it. And I think, “Man, that’s despairing.” And that’s the phenomenon, social media does lead to greater depression, greater use of social media leads through higher rates of depression and despair.
Because you see the curated lives of others that look beautiful, and you see the mess of your own life. And what real relationships do, and what they require is that we press into one another’s mess. You experience the fallenness, and the suffering of others when you’re in real community with them. And what technology does is it allows you not to have to participate in that.
It’s amazing to me as a pastor, to see the way people use social media, and how, because I’m a pastor, and because I’m involved, behind the scenes in some of these people’s lives, how blatant, and how false their online personalities are. There’s one example that just gets me every time I see a post. There’s a couple who will post these just blushing praises of one another, of how this is the best husband in the world, I’m so in love, I can’t believe, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and vice versa.
It’s a back and forth between these two online, it’s a huge love fest on Instagram. It’ll make your stomach turn. Because behind the scenes, they’re a mess. It’s a disaster. And every pastor in the church has, at some point, gotten a 2:00 AM phone call from this couple going, “I don’t know how we’re going to make it.” And this will be on the same day that there’s some loving screed to one another online.
And even with the way some people approach their online personalities, whether they appear really vulnerable. Even that is something that is very much under control. Laura Turner wrote an article about this, and she referred to it as curated imperfection. I think that is a great term, curated imperfection, I’m in control of how much of my mess that I see because I look brave when I show you certain aspects of that.
A couple of other phenomenon technologically that are driving us towards isolation that I just think are interesting and worth noting. One is the rise of technology in religion. Now, you see this in some very overt ways in Christianity with things like online church and all of that. And I think there’s interesting debates to be had about that.
I think there’s ways that that serves the church because you can serve shut-ins and people who can’t make it otherwise, et cetera, et cetera. So, I don’t want to throw that baby out with the bathwater. But let me throw these two out. The first is that there’s a 400-year-old Buddhist temple in Kyoto that recently installed a million-dollar robot. That’s a priest that gives sermons and interacts with worshipers.
And what’s interesting is with Buddhism, this almost makes sense because of the role that idols play in Buddhist worship. That something that’s not sentient would have more of a powerful place in an act of worship. But nonetheless, it’s the replacement of a priest with a robot. And before Christians get too proud, there’s a robot called SanTO, San, capital T, capital O. And it’s like Google Home, but it’s a little priest.
And you can confess your sins to it, and it will absolve you. And if you express anxiety or sadness to it, it will read you comforting scripture verses. And this is a little startup that’s expected to make millions of dollars and probably will. And then, the last place where I think technological isolation is really significant and easy to see is in the world of sex.
Data shows that people, recent study that just came out last couple of weeks, lots of people are talking about it online, that people under the age of 30 are having sex less than ever before. Why is that? Well, I think pornography is definitely a factor, but also is just the general lack of authentic human connection. Notably, one thing that is on the rise is the rise of sex dolls and sex robots.
Those are getting used more, and more, and more. I think once you start looking at our culture, and looking at these two factors, tribalism, you’re in or you’re out, and isolationism, you won’t stop seeing it. You’ll see it everywhere. You can see how also the kingdom of God invites us to a very different ethic. Because the church is made up of all tribes, tongues, and nations. And they’re made into one new man, as Paul puts it.
Likewise, I want to just stress the difference between solitude and isolation. This is just a pet concept for me. Because I care so much about spiritual disciplines, that when we talk about isolation, we’re talking about loneliness. We’re talking about separating ourselves from others for the sake of ourselves, for the comfort of our own heads and hearts, the comfort of our own anxieties. But one of the things that you see in scriptures is the importance of solitude.
And you see this particularly in the life of Jesus, who would regularly withdraw to pray. And something I’m fond of saying is that Jesus withdrew because he was perfect. Jesus withdrew because he was perfectly human. And to be perfectly human, we need a certain amount of solitude in our lives in order to be able to engage well with others, in order to be able to love them, in order to be able to live with them, in order to be able to listen to them.
And so, solitude is an important core discipline that enables us to be with others. It enables us for relationships. It’s something that we were made to do. It’s a rhythm we’re meant to live with. The second way, I believe our culture is pushing against the Imago Dei is in culture making. The gravity of our culture is moving away from meaningful and culture making work.
I think it’s probably easy for all of us to contrast the ways that work that’s meaningful, and fulfilling was work that’s dehumanizing, or disassociated work. What I mean by that, disassociated work, is work where the outcomes are far, far removed from the day-to-day grind of our actual jobs. And it’s interesting, if you look at industrial design, as a phenomenon, there’s a tremendous amount of effort for somebody like the Ford company.
Puts a tremendous amount of effort into making sure that there are employees who might spend eight hours of shift, driving one bolt into one door on one car, enabling them to be able to see the finished products of their work. Because if you get disconnected from the that finished product. If you begin to feel like you’re a cog in a machine, it’s soul destroying.
And the reality is that, yes, there are organizations that are very sensitive to this, but most of the world is not. Most of the world works in a condition of significant misery. And there’s all kinds of evil related to work, and evil in the form of human trafficking, human slavery. I would say even issues like wage inequality, reveal the fallenness of our culture of work.
More subtly, I think there’s a tendency in the world after the fall, and in our particular age, to be more destructive than constructive. It’s easier to be critical than to make things. It’s easier to make fun of someone’s creative work than it is to put your own creative work in the world. I have specific ideas as to why that is, and we’ll get to that in a minute.
Finally, power. And here, I’m just going to cave in all together and just let Andy Crouch speak a little bit. It’s not hard to see the power in our world is corrupted. And you can look at this on almost any aspect of our society. You can see the way that power has become twisted and inverted. We live in a world full of bullies. This is how Andy Crouch describes it.
He says power at its worst is the unmaker of humanity, breeding in humanity in the hearts of those who wield power, denying and denouncing the humanity of the ones who suffer under power. This is the power exercised by the moneylender, by the police who ignore and protect him, by the officials who would rather not confront him.
This power ultimately will put everything around it to death rather than share abundant life with another. It is also the power of feigned or forced ignorance, the power of complacency and self-satisfaction with our small fiefdoms of comfort. Power, the truest servant of love can also be its most implacable enemy. I think that’s absolutely true.
But the big mistake that we tend to make around power that Christians can often make around power is they can see the evils of power and go, “Well, we just need to give it up. We just need to relinquish power. We need to embrace weakness.” But Andy writes this to counter that. He says, “Remove power and you cut off life, the possibility of creating something new, and better in this rich, and recalcitrant world.
Life is power, power is life, and flourishing power leads to flourishing life. Of course, like life itself, power is nothing or worse than nothing without love. But love without power is less than it was meant to be. Love without the capacity to make something of the world without the ability to respond to and make room for the beloved’s flourishing is frustrated love.
This is why the love that is the heartbeat of the Christian story, the Father’s love for the son, and through the son, the world. It’s not simply a sentimental feeling or a distant ethereal theological truth, but has been signed and sealed by the most audacious act of power in the history of the world, the resurrection of the Son from the dead.
Power at its best is resurrection to full life to full humanity. Whenever human beings become what they were meant to be, when even death cannot finally hold its prisoners, then we can truly speak of power.” So, with all of that in mind, how can we as individuals in the church begin to redeem these aspects of image bearing, and work for the good of the world?
I think the answer to that in comes in two words, two ideas. And that is to embrace shame, or sorry, to face our shame and to embrace vulnerability. And I know those are super-hot buzzwords right now. A lot of you are probably groaning going, “Okay, here comes the Brené Brown nonsense. My friend Chuck DeGroat, has actually written a really great book on this from a Christian perspective, it’s called Wholeheartedness.
I really highly recommend that book. And as much as I hate cliches and buzzwords, personally, I can’t get past these two ideas when I think about what it takes to live with faithful presence in our world. I think when you look at the challenge of image bearing, it’s the challenge of dealing with shame and dealing with vulnerability. So, why shame?
Well, first off, shame is the first, and primary emotion that comes in the aftermath of sin. Adam and Eve found themselves naked and ashamed when they were caught. Shame makes us withdraw from relationships, and want to protect ourselves. Shame builds up in relationships, and drives wedges between people. And only by regularly exposing our weakness to each other, can we maintain intimacy.
So, think about this in marriage. In our marriages, we sin against one another, we burden each other, we fall short, we fail each other, we disappoint one another. And if we don’t expose those realities to each other, “Hey, you’ve wounded me,” we don’t expose that to one another, then intimacy gets broken. It drives a wedge between us. And that’s true of every relationship.
And the fact is as fallen creatures, we are going to burn bridges. We are going to hurt one another. We’re going to wound one another. In our society at a grand scale, you see this, and again, these tribal identities, wounding one another, sinning against one another, hurting each other. And what we’re invited into as Christians is to be people who can expose that shame, bring it to light, and bring one another back together in confession and in repentance.
Shame also causes us to fear others because we’re unsure of who we are. If we don’t deal with our shame, if I don’t deal with my shame, and my brokenness, then I’m going to be insecure, because my identity is fragile. I become reactive to every perceived threat. Immigrants and strangers are scary because I’m afraid they might destroy my already fragile foundations of my personal identity, and my understanding of the culture around me.
Shame keeps us from risking rejection, and putting good work out in the world. This brings us to culture making, and how shame hinders culture making. When we’re kids, it’s easy to be creative. I mentioned this earlier. When you’re a kid, you can’t help be creative. But over time, you experience rejection for the creative work you do. You get a bad grade on something.
Your art project falls short of what you imagined it to be. Your musical skills aren’t what you hoped they would be. You can fall on the list. We all have a story like this. There’s some moment in our lives when we began to discover that we were not as gifted, not as wonderful, not as beautiful as we thought we were when we were five years old.
And so, with that, with that experience, we begin to hold back. We begin to learn to restrain ourselves, particularly creatively. We’re afraid of that rejection that’s going to come from whatever it is that we might have wanted to make, we might have wanted to share otherwise. So, we hold back. And this is something that artists deal with a lot, and talk about a lot.
I think almost every successful artist and entrepreneur I’ve known, or who I’ve heard speak in biographies and interviews, talk about the work that has to be done, just to overcome the basic insecurity of putting your stuff out in the world. Anne Lamott describes it like this. She’s a writer. And she says that when you sit down to write, all of your anxieties show up like a herd of cats.
And they gather around your computer, and they just stare at you until you learn to deal with them. You look at the lives of successful creative people who are making culture. And you’ll always find people, Christians and non-Christians, who either through prayer, or meditation, or journaling, or exercise, or some other tool are finding ways to deal with anxiety, and shame around their work.
Thirdly, shame leads to the other emotions that cause us to abuse power. And that might sound strange because we might go, “Well, how is shame behind this abuse of power?” It seems like we’re in a place of extraordinarily shamelessness. But one of the things that you see, and one of the things psychologists talk about, is that there’s such a thing as secondary and primary emotions.
And your primary emotions are things like fear, shame, and sadness. And what happens is when you experience those primary emotions, when you experience fear, shame, and sadness, your tendency is going to be to react to those things in a way that tries to cover them up. And one of the best tools on the planet, for covering up shame, covering up fear is anger.
If you look around, and look how angry our culture is, and you begin to recognize anger is a secondary emotion, anger is a Band-Aid, anger is something that’s laying on top of something deeper and sadder, it really exposes how sad and broken the world truly is. Think about how much easier it is to respond to someone with anger than it is to expose our vulnerability and express shame.
And again, I’ll just come back to marriage, come back to that core relationship. How much easier is it when your spouse calls you out? How much easier is it to get angry in response than to go, “Oh, my gosh, I’m broken, I failed, I hurt you?” It’s much more difficult to do the latter. So, to summarize, shame has the power to dim our light as image bearers because it causes us to withdraw from others, withhold our creative capacity, and abuse our power.
And as Christians, we have the greatest answer to shame in the history of the world at the cross. But it demands that we embrace vulnerability. At the heart of the gospel message, to borrow Tim Keller’s phrase, is the news that we’re way worse off than we think. And if we don’t embrace that core message, that first premise of the gospel, we will continually struggle with all we’re talking about here.
But if we recognize what a wreck we are, we can also recognize what a wreck everyone around us is. And then, we realize that there’s nothing left to lose. So, we can embrace vulnerability, which is an act of courage. And we can press into the world, and press into our identity as relational culture making, and power wielding image bearers.
This is particularly important for us to think about now, in a culture that’s as hostile as ours is towards Christianity. Christians in a secular age face more potential for shame and rejection than we have at many other points in history. And we have to, in a sense, be prepared for it. Be prepared for rejection. If we haven’t dealt with our shame, and we experience hostility and rejection from the world, our response is going to be to run to anger.
And we see a ton of angry Christians in the world right now. They run discernment blocks, they have toxic Twitter accounts, they rage tweet, they rage post thinking they’re being faithful. And actually, again, if you think about it, they’re exposing that shame. They’re exposing that insecurity. They’re exposing that sadness. By contrast, we’re called to love our enemies, and bless those who persecute us.
Listen to the passage, listen to Jesus teaching from the Sermon on the Mount. Starting in chapter six, verse 43, he says you have heard that it was said, love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, so that you can bear his image.
For He causes the sun to rise on the evil, and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Now, we might not think of it this way, uh-oh, I can switch to ghost stories if you want. We might not think of it this way. But God, the Creator, who sends rain on the righteous, and the unrighteous is actually engaged in an act of vulnerability.
He’s showing loving care for creatures who can and will reject Him. Jesus goes on, and He says for if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And that last line is a really interesting punctuation mark on the whole thread there, be perfect as your Father is perfect. Jonathan Pennington talks about it in his book, the Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing, a book I would highly recommend as well. And what he goes into is that the word that’s translated as perfect there is a Greek word, téleios.
And there really isn’t a great English equivalent for téleios. It’s often used as perfection, but that it’s not about moral perfection. He’s not saying be as perfect as God is, be as holy as God is, be a sinless as God is. Rather, it’s talking about a wholeness, you could read it as be whole as the Father is whole, or be wholehearted as the Father is wholehearted.
And that makes sense in the context of the whole passage. We have to have a certain wholeness, or wholeheartedness to love your enemies, and to make yourself vulnerable. We need to not need something, not need the validation of the world around us in a feedback loop in order to be able to love our enemies, and give our lives away to the world around us.
And in doing this, as Jesus says, in doing this, that’s how we live as children of God. That’s how we bear God’s image to the world. So, I think if we want to be image bearers that make a difference in God’s world, we have to go on a personal redemptive journey. It’s a journey with an odd contrast. We have to press into our shame. We have to expose ourselves and be vulnerable.
We have to experience, and understand our brokenness and sinfulness. And we have to make a certain peace with that. Not in don’t hear me that I’m being antinomian, not that we have to live with that forever. Not that we have to be content with being sinful. And not that we don’t want to put sin to death. But we want to be realistic, and honest about who we are, and where we are in our brokenness.
And know that by God’s grace, we are okay. He’s got us. That’s the starting place of the gospel. And it’s a place we never fully moved past from. That’s the redemptive journey that we go on. We press into our brokenness. We press into our weakness. We expose our shame. And then, we can press back into the world in relationships, culture making, and power wielding in redemptive ways.
We become whole by acknowledging that we’re broken. And yet, out of that brokenness, through vulnerability, by pressing into the world around us, we can reflect the image of the most glorious being in the cosmos. Think about that. In our brokenness, by pressing into the shameful parts of our lives, that’s the pathway to reflecting the glory of God to the world.
By God’s grace, I hope that the church can go on that journey. And that’s my prayer for each of you. If you want, we have a few minutes left, we can transition to some questions. People have questions, feedback. Yeah.
Speaker 3: In your creative process, is there a way when you’re creating content or thinking about trying to make the cat scatter? [inaudible].
Mike Cosper: Yeah. That’s a great question. The question was in my own personal process, creative process, do I have a routine, or ways that I try to make the cats go away? Yeah, for sure. I do my best creative work when I’m at my most disciplined with my life as a whole. So, for me, that means getting up really early in the morning.
It means trying to exercise regularly, which I’m not doing at the moment. But it means there’s a practice called morning pages. It comes from a book called The Artist’s Way. This is a great book. It’s not by a believer. But she deals a lot with shame and fear around creativity. And it’s really meant to unlock and help you understand the ways.
Again, this is for folks who are thinking about living a creative life, or doing creative work. How to unlock, and unblock yourself, and get at the reasons why you’re afraid to do that work. And anyway, she has a number of practices in there, but one of them is this practice called morning pages, where you write out, you free thought, free handwritten pages every morning just to get the words going, and get the thoughts moving, and get some of the blocked-up insecurities knocked loose.
So, that’s really significant for me, as a part of the process, and then the rest of rhythms of life. I think, again, looking at the lives of artists, and entrepreneurs, and somewhere I’ve spent a lot of time on in the last few years. And it really is consistent, every one of these people, some of them, they have just crazy routines of ice baths, and all this crazy stuff that they’re doing, just to try and go, “I got to get past all this emotion that will prevent me from doing my best work.” Yeah, that’s a great question. Yeah.
Speaker 4: I think one of the best ways for us to grow in our community is to learn how to enjoy what is created by God and other people. What would you say are some of the best ways for us to learn how to enjoy simply receiving creation?
Mike Cosper: So, one of the questions was, in order to do good creative work, we have to expose ourselves to other good creative work, whether it’s by other people or in creation itself. I totally agree with that. One of my primary outlets is writing, and writing lives or dies by reading well. And so, I think exposing yourself to good work in the field that you’re trying to do, again, whether that’s entrepreneurship, or business, or in the marketplace in some form, or if you’re trying to live as an artist.
Lately, I thought a lot about Karen Swallow Prior’s book, On Reading Well, which is a really helpful book on really, reading as virtue formation. But it’s also just a good book on reading and thinking. So, I think that’s a great resource. You have to make time for this stuff. And it’s one of the things that to do our best work, to do our best culture making work, you have to make time to cultivate your curiosity, and cultivate your imagination.
And it’s easy for that to be one of the first things to go. Usually, that goes first. And then, spiritual disciplines, and habits, and routines that you’re doing to cultivate the creative stuff within you. That’s the second thing to go when we’re busy. And so, what you end up with is you end up with a culture full of people going, “I don’t have time to immerse myself in creative work.
I don’t have time to nurture my own creative side. And so, I’m just busy, and tired, and I’m frustrated, because I wish I were doing something else with my life.” So, yeah, it’s essential that self-care is way overrated in a lot of ways. But cultivating the imagination is, I think, essential to living well, and living joyfully. Yeah.
Speaker 5: Going back to how our culture is moving us away from meaningful culture making, what are some practical ways you can push back when you’re causing say, meaningless work that you’re working with just one piece of a cause, and you don’t see the whole picture?
Mike Cosper: Yeah. This is one of those points where the speaker has to go, “I don’t have all the answers.” Because it’s difficult, because I recognize that a lot of what I have to say in this talk comes from a place of privilege. Even for somebody who’s stuck in a factory job, who’s working 40 hours a week.
My friend Brian Koppelman talks about this, that there is the opportunity to find some outlet for yourself, even if it’s 30 minutes a day, or 20 minutes a day, or something like that, to find some time to do something creative that you think is going to make the world a better place. But even at that, that’s a place of privilege because there are people in the world who live in sweatshops, and are trapped in human slavery of various forms, and don’t have that opportunity.
And so, it’s one of the aspects of our condition of fallenness that not everyone’s going to get to live fully and freely as God intended them to. And that’s something that should make us weep. And make us pray for organizations that are working to fight against that, for sure. Yeah.
[inaudible] you say, what are the things church can do to cultivate better image [inaudible]?
Mike Cosper: Yeah. I think it starts with Sabbath. I think it starts with a posture of rest, where people can begin to learn to slow their own hearts down, and begin to pay attention to some of that desire that’s internal. And again, I think one of the experiences a friend of mine, who’s a pastor in New York City talks about is that everybody in New York City says, “I’m working 50, 60 hours a week, and I’m exhausted, and I’m just not.”
But people find time for Netflix. We find time for the escapes. Everybody finds time to escape. Because in some ways, you have to in order to be sane. And so, I think pushback on the narrative sum is important. But I think the first invitation for a lot of people who are exhausted, and who are at the end of their rope is an invitation to try to find rest and Sabbath. Yeah.
Speaker 7: Do you ever feel in your creative pursuits selfish? And if so, how do you bring back this [inaudible] relationship, right? Because in here, that’s what we’re called to do. So, in your current pursuits, how do you invite-
Mike Cosper: Yeah. That’s a great question. That’s a great question. Do you ever feel selfish in your creative pursuits? And if so, how do you push back in relationship? I think this is where I’d come back to this idea of wholeheartedness is so important. Because if we’re living in a wholehearted way, we’re not abandoning one for the sake of the other, for sure.
Brian Koppelman, again, I think he’s got a great podcast called The Moment, where he talks a lot about these kinds of things. And he’s not a believer, he’s a very rigid atheist, but I think very helpful on culture making creativity in particular. And one of the things he talks about is when his son was born, he recognized that he was on a career path that was going to burn him out, and make him miserable, and make him a worse father.
And so, he had to take the risk of becoming an artist. He believed he had to take the risk of becoming an artist in order to be able to be a whole person so that he could love his son, and love his family well, in the aftermath. So, I think that’s a helpful framework to just recognize that workaholism is not wholehearted living. And yet, if we’re not expressing the creative working side of our hearts, that’s not wholehearted living as well. Yeah.
Speaker 8: Going back to what he was talking about, when did you [inaudible] as a pastor in your experience do you begin to press back on those that you don’t [inaudible]? How do you begin to engage that conversation with the concept of Sabbath?
Mike Cosper: Yeah. So, the question is, how do you press back on folks who are perhaps hostile or resistant to the idea of rest and Sabbath? I served as a pastor for about 15 years before I got into what I’m doing now. And as the longer I pastored, the more I realized that with issues like that, in particular, it’s really difficult to break through to people.
I tend to think people almost have to come to the end of themselves on their own. They have to come to a place of brokenness where they recognize that within them self, and are able to acknowledge their need on their own. That’s right. That’s right. That’s right.
And then, pastorally, we’re present when they reach those broken spaces, and not with an I told you so, but with, “Hey, I think God has an invitation for you here.” So, well, I thank you, everybody, for coming. I’ll be around for a few more minutes for questions if… thank you.