When I used to teach English, not surprisingly, one of my least favorite aspects of the job was grading papers. Not because it could be tedious and time consuming, and not because there was often a significant difference between what I had asked my students to do and what they handed in, but because ultimately, I had to give them a grade. A, B, C, D, or F. To them, an A meant so much more than “Excellent work on this particular assignment.” It meant, “You are a smart and successful individual with an undoubtedly bright future ahead.” By the same token a low grade didn’t just mean “Below average or unacceptable work on this particular assignment.” It meant, “You are stupid and a failure and you’ll most likely never amount to anything.” Now, this didn’t necessarily hold true for all students at all times, but in general my students attached an undeniable significance to their grades. It was just one of the ways by which they measured their self worth and established an identity. That’s not what a grade is supposed to be, and that was never what I intended it to be, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. I tried to explain over and over that a grade provides feedback—here’s what you were asked to do, here’s how you did, now use that information to your advantage. I also readily admitted that a grade was a kind of evaluation, but not of their inherent value as human beings, nor was it a label that identified them as “good” or “bad”. It didn’t seem to matter. Their mindset about grades was so ingrained that by the time they came to me as seniors there was little I could do to combat that misguided paradigm, try as I might.
I struggled to understand how my students could let themselves be defined by their grades. Didn’t they know their worth as individuals wasn’t based upon whatever they did or failed to do? That a letter grade was not the final word on who they were, for ill or good? They apparently didn’t, and if you had observed my actions over the course of my lifetime, rather than just listening to my philosophical rants about grading while I was teaching, you would come to the conclusion that I didn’t, either. If we’re completely honest, how many of us can say that we have truly mastered the ability to live in such a way that we don’t measure our worth or establish an identity by what we do or don’t do? If you can answer in the affirmative to that question, come find me so that you can teach me your ways.
So if we don’t measure or identify ourselves according to our achievements or failures, how do we determine our worth or sense of self? As a Christian, I would say our value as individuals and a basic understanding of who we are comes from the knowledge that we are made in the Image of God. Because of that fact, we all possess intrinsic worth independent of the good or bad things we do, and we will always run into trouble when we lose sight of that measure. This concept of the Imago Dei came to mind the other day when I read yet another news story about some person or group of people offending or being offended by some other person or group of people. These stories are so ubiquitous that I can’t even remember which one it was. Nevertheless, it made me reflect on the way we as individuals and our culture as a whole tend to fall into the exact same trap as my students, carving out identities and measuring our value based on what we do or don’t do.
When our sense of self and self worth come from our career, our political beliefs, our parenting style, our superior intellect, our discriminating taste in music, the list could go on and on—no wonder we get so upset when that “thing” comes under attack, because it’s not just a criticism of that “thing,” it’s a criticism of the essence of who we think we are. How much less offended and offensive would we be if Christians actually lived out of the truth of Genesis 1:27 that “God created man in his own image,” which carries with it the imperative to treat everyone with love, respect, and dignity. People would still disagree with us, and we would still disagree with people, but how different would a discussion of opposing viewpoints look if it were built on a foundational understanding of the love, respect, and dignity that we owe others and that others owe us, simply for being created in God’s image? How would my life look different if I could translate this knowledge of the Imago Dei into my daily living, in both the way I view myself and the way I view those around me?