Note to the reader: This is the third meditation about students based on the summary of theological writings on image bearing by C. John Collins. This week we look at the student as God’s representatives.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.
– II Corinthians 5:20
One of my jobs when our triplet daughters were little was to take their pajamas out of the dryer and put them away in their bedroom. One time they were sitting on their beds watching me indiscriminately stuffing the pajamas in their several drawers in the mistaken assumption that all the pajamas were alike. The girls were horrified: “No, Daddy, you put my pajamas in Laura’s drawer,” said Heidi. And the other girls chimed in indignantly as well. Even as little girls, they knew something about ownership and the proper management of resources. Their dominion included pajamas and they had definite expectations about their care. I didn’t make that mistake again! It was an early lesson to me that even the littlest among us are made by God to manage. It’s in their DNA as it were.
Increasingly theologians are making the case that to be made in God’s image is to say that humans are to represent him in this world. This idea comes from the first chapter in Genesis, where humankind is to take up the task of developing the hidden potential within the created order. In doing so, we represent God in the creative and the ruling tasks. The biblical text, Genesis 1:26-28, calls for humans to exercise dominion over the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea, and the birds in the air. We are in charge in the name of our God.
The argument for this approach comes from the practice in the ancient world of the ruler posting his image throughout the realm to remind the people who it is that they serve. In effect, the ruler is saying to his subjects, “You belong to me. Where you walk is mine, where you work is mine, and your lodging is mine. It all belongs to me! My picture, which represents me, is posted here to remind you of this reality, and don’t you forget it!”
When this view is applied to school, what emerges is a startling idea. Suppose you are the teacher of twenty fourth graders. If you’re like me, you will tend to think of all the things they don’t know or regularly forget to do, including their homework, or tying their shoes or combing their hair. But to start there, to start with their ignorance or inattention, means that you might overlook the most important thing about those students, which is that God put them in our classrooms as his representatives! They are God’s way of reminding us that all creation belongs to him, and now he is calling us to prepare these fourth grade image-bearing representatives to get ready to take up their labors in the world that God has entrusted to them. So, when students learn to read and write well, to draw well, to sing well, to understand math, and to learn to groom themselves and care for their possessions, they are doing what God made them to do. With hearts devoted to God, and with a full range of skills and values, they have their capacities to represent God well. What a compelling purpose for teaching and learning!
Given the centrality and fullness of this truth, it makes little sense for schools to put before their students alternate ideas for school purpose. But it can happen. Whenever teachers regularly stress to their students that they should do their best so that they can make good grades, or to get a reward, or to get into a good college, or to please themselves and others, they run the risk of putting an idol before their students. When personal fulfillment becomes the measure of student success, or status in the community becomes the measure of school success, then quite likely our proper purpose for school is being undermined. Students no longer represent God but rather are working for themselves: making better grades, getting into a prestigious college, or getting a high paying job, the real goal. And schools forsake their proper mission of equipping students to represent God in the world and strive instead to make a name for themselves as prestigious schools.
But there is a better way. Several years ago I was teaching Asian teachers in an east Asian country. We were discussing the important link between present classroom practice and our eschatological hope. One of the teachers took the link to heart and taught her students to see their work in the light of that hope. Later she passed along to me what one of her kindergarteners said and did in response: “Look teacher, I’m sweeping the floor,” the little boy said. “I want the floor to be clean in case Jesus comes back.” All teachers would do well to teach the same lesson to their students. God made students to represent him and his purposes in their work, and their good work is ultimately to make God’s name more luminous to the watching world in anticipation of the glad day when Jesus returns.
Go, labor on; spend, and be spent; Thy joy to do the Father’s will;
It is the way the Master went; Should not the servant tread it still?
– Hymn by Horatius Bonar