There are moments in our lives when people are placed in our path to challenge us to clarify the way we communicate something. One of those moments for me came several years ago when a young homeless man named John, listening to our church’s outdoor service on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, asked a question I had naively never before considered. With his hair matted and clothes disheveled, he sincerely asked me, ‘How can God love me?’ My immediate passionate response included words from my favorite scripture, Psalm 139:14, which I have prayed over my own sons and students for years. I exclaimed, “Because you are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’… for His purposes! He made you in His image!” In my own mind I knew how powerful those words were because I knew the effect they had on my own understanding of my value and worth. The man paused though, and he stared at me with concern in his eyes. He then asked, “What do you mean by ‘fearfully’? That sounds so scary.” In that moment, I realized the importance of using clear language to meet people where they are, so God’s magnificence may be clearly understood.
Distilling the divine nature of God’s image down to attainable language that is meaningful to students can pose some challenges for Christian educators. To plant seeds of understanding of the beauty, grace, and love that the Heavenly Father has for us—that He would create us in His likeness—is a tall ask. However, my conversation with John those many years ago still stands as a reminder for me to always consider what my students may not understand on their way to deeper learning. Such is the case with the immense responsibility of helping them grasp what it means to be ‘made in God’s image’.
Thankfully, the work of Donovan Graham in Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth to the Classroom has equipped me with important language for the task. In this foundational text, Graham expounds upon God’s various character traits describing the essence of His image. Introduced to the book during my graduate work, I have since used his clear, specific adjectives to help my students explore what it really means to be God’s image-bearers. Below is a brief explanation of what I have used this year with my 8th grade Literature students, and I pray it may inspire the right words for other teachers as well.
Summarizing the richness of Graham’s insights into the simple tables below allows students to glean key adjectives that describe God’s image. As we delve into each character trait it is with a focus on knowing that God is the main character introduced in the exposition of God’s Greater Narrative. The more we know His character, the better we can understand His story.
Keeping Bloom’s Taxonomy in mind, we first look at just the list of traits on the left and take time to consider what they might mean or look like in our classroom, school, or home. We then look closer at the right side of the table and explore the scriptures and examples Graham shares. This alone, while sharing wonderful insights, generates nothing more than a surface-level, define-and-recall, one-and-done activity. Intentionally weaving these traits into more complex, critical thinking activities and making the language part of the subject vernacular is what reaps the most profound student understanding.
In my literature classes this year, students read Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan for their summer reading. This is a powerful story filled with dynamic characters who experience major and minor arcs as they come together to support the main character, Willow Chance, after she loses her parents unexpectedly. Rather than just quizzing our students on what they read and moving on, my fearless 8th Grade English team embraced the idea of using the text as a vehicle for analyzing the different characters through the lens of Graham’s image-bearing traits. Reflecting first on each character collaboratively to consider all the evidence that supports the various image bearing traits, each student chose one character on whom they wrote their analysis. While some students wanted to focus on the negative aspects of a characters’ trait, knowing our future texts, I encouraged them to seek the good—to find the hope first. For the ‘image-marred’ would come soon enough with our next novel, George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
As one might imagine, learning about the life of Josef Stalin provided a stark contrast to God’s image-bearing traits and clearly illustrated the realities of the table below. As discussions around the text evolved, students began to see more clearly where sin has corrupted the human experience.
Our remaining studies in literature include: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the history, poetry, and art of The Harlem Renaissance, and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Integrating God’s image-bearing traits into each of these studies 1) provides a rich Biblical lens to clearly see all humanity, and 2) affords deliberate opportunities to consider where God is at work in the midst of darkness.
While it is ultimately Christ’s work in us that transforms our hearts and minds, planting seeds and knowledge of Him in our students is the greatest calling a Christian teacher has. Helping our students understand what it means to be made in God’s image offers clarity with common language, inspires self-worth found in Jesus, and ignites compassion for all humanity.
Graham, D. (2009). Teaching Redemptively: Bringing Grace and Truth into Your Classroom (Second Edition). Purposeful Design Publications.
Lee, H. (2014). To Kill a Mockingbird (Enhanced Edition) (Harper Perennial Modern Classics). Harper.
Shakespeare, W., Cast, F., & Audio, S. S. (2014). Romeo and Juliet: The Fully Dramatized Audio Edition. Simon & Schuster Audio.
Sloan, H. G. (2014). Counting by 7s (Reprint ed.). Puffin Books.