It happened fast. Smack! My giant three-year-old boy kicked my tiny eight-month-old girl in the head. She burst into tears. Horror flooded his face as he admitted to have done it on purpose. She had messed up his tower; he began to sob. I was surprised when I did, too.
A friend has often told me about her disappointment and sadness when her older child has been intentionally unkind to a younger sibling. What’s the big deal? I thought privately. That’s what siblings do. My sister and I went WWE on each other five days out of seven when we were kids. I never understood why my mom would get so upset about it. I honestly thought she should stay out of our business. This—whatever this may have been that day—was between my sister and me.
It’s never just between us.
“Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me.” Jeremiah 8:21
I’m the mom now. After all the tears dried and kisses were given for the roundhouse kick to the head, I sat processing the emotional groundswell as it receded. Seeing my older child intentionally hurt my younger brought out a visceral sadness. There are probably lots of reasons for that—he’s a boy, she’s a girl; he’s old, she’s young; she’s defenseless, he’s not. But a greater reality was at play, a reality of image bearing.
Seeing my children hurt one another made me think of my poor mom with new understanding. I felt sorry for all the times we broke her heart. Then I realized there is someone more important whose heart we break with our violence: God. My instinctive sorrow over my warring children is a reflection of his grief over his children’s discord. My response shocked me, but it shouldn’t have. God wrote it on my heart when he made me in his image.
As children of God, we hurt each other constantly, thinking the pain and retribution we inflict on one another has nothing to do with him. But we are wrong, it’s never just between us.
Why does God care about how we treat each other?
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35
Unkindness and violence between my children affects me because I love them; because they are mine; because they came to existence through my body; because God gave me the role of stewarding their lives. As their mother, I bear God’s image in my ownership of them: giving them life, nurturing, providing for and protecting that life. I, however, am just a shadow of the true life-giver, a broken image of him. How much more does God—the true, ultimate and holy Creator—have the right over the cosmic siblings of mankind, for whom he has undying love?
Scripture tells us that God cares deeply about how those who bear his image treat each other. In fact, more than 40 commands in the New Testament, the “one another's” of scripture, outline how we should interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He cares about how we bear with and treat his imagers because he made us to look like him.
He cares because of his character.
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4:8
God’s attributes are perfect and holy. Scripture tells that among them, he is love. When our trinitarian God formed dust into a man of his own likeness, “likeness” meant that this man was in essence, relational (Gen 2:18). How we treat one another is foundational to our identity as image bearers because the One whose image we bear is inherently, eternally, perfectly relational and loving. When we don’t reflect God’s character in how we treat one another, we misrepresent the One whose image we bear.
He cares because of his gospel.
"Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." John 15:13
While we constantly misrepresent the image of God in how we treat each other, there is one who never did. The loving, relational character of God is most clearly portrayed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our love for one another as disciples finds its source in the love of Christ (the gospel), which the love of the Father (God’s character) precedes. Remain in this love, Jesus exhorts (Jn 15:9-10). To remain in it means to extend and exhibit it toward others. This is where the gospel is displayed in a fallen world by the body of Christ. If we don’t love one another well, we not only aren’t imaging God well, we aren’t representing his gospel to a spiritually dead and physically dying world.
He cares because of his glory.
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. . .” Hebrews 1:3
Since God’s character is perfect in love, and he showed this in its most glorious state through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus, we can know that our participation in sacrificial, Spirit-empowered, gospel-centric love glorifies God. In obeying Christ, we reflect his image. His image is the radiance of the glory of God. Our grace-fueled love of one another also glorifies God as we display Christ to the world. And as we exhibit Christ through how we love one another, we participate in God's redemptive work to bring many sons and daughters to glory. When we love one another as God loves us, we perpetuate the power of the gospel to save those who are perishing, so that they too can give glory and worship to our infinitely worthy God.
Our apathy, cruelty, disregard and malevolence is never just between us. When we hurt each other, we hurt him. When we sin against one another, we sin against him. Even when we don't deserve one another's kindness and honor, the God in whose image we are made always does.
Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.