A fully biblical understanding of man—that we are at the same time humble creatures and redeemed divine image-bearers—can help rescue believers from the two “ditches” of self-regard.
Ditch 1: Self-Exaltation
A phenomenon that can be traced at least as far back as ancient Greece, has to do with the idea that self-understanding is the key to all wisdom.¹ In more recent times, this idea has led to solipsism, the belief that all one can be certain of is one’s own existence.² These ideas have gripped our modern culture in many visible and practical ways.
Within the realm of children’s entertainment, the Elsa character in Disney’s “Frozen” film franchise represents one example of the promotion of self-exaltation. Having undertaken an agonizing search for answers to her most pressing questions, Elsa ultimately realizes that the answer is in herself—she is her own hero—and in her most recent film she sings what seems to essentially be a love song to herself.³
Of course the impulse to glorify self-understanding and self-affirmation has found expression outside of fairytales as well. The world’s go-to guru Oprah Winfrey has said that the foundational base of her success is knowing herself. She explains in her own words: “I started listening to what felt like the truth for me. And I started to just, inside myself, think what do I really want to do… all of my best decisions in life have come because I was attuned to what really felt like the next right move for me.”⁴
As you might imagine, the rest of this blog post could be easily filled with examples of so-called self-discovery and self-love in the world around us. Perhaps some even more relevant or cringe-inducing examples have already occurred to you!
Ditch 2: Self-Abasement and Dejection
You might think that the sure and easy way to avoid the error self-exaltation is to emphasize man’s humble estate: that man is nothing—man is just a breath (Psalm 144:4), a worm (Job 25:6; Psalm 22:6), without hope that his best efforts could ever attain to the glory of God (Isaiah 64:6).
And while that might not be the worst impulse, at the same time be warned: Job, one of the most ancient characters in the Bible, followed that emphasis to its logical end—and it seems to have left him in a pretty bad way.
By chapter 7 of the biblical book bearing his name, Job’s experience of intense suffering has him reflecting on his nature as a humble creature, concluding that he is of so little importance, that God should just leave him alone and let him die:
“What is man that You magnify him, And that You are concerned about him, That You examine him every morning And try him every moment? Will You never turn Your gaze away from me, Nor let me alone until I swallow my spittle?” (Job 7:17-19, emphasis added; cf. 7:7a, 16).⁵
A Little Help from David and the Hebrews Writer
It is often instructive when later writers of Scripture refer back to earlier texts, as David does in Psalm 8:4, “What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?” (emphasis added).
That David is directly quoting Job here is unmistakable, and his intention in doing so is also clear: in Psalm 8, David is both connecting with what Job has said, and at the same time correcting his error.
Although David—like Job—knows that we are humble creatures of the dust (Genesis 2:7; cf. Psalm 103:14), in Psalm 8 he applies other key truths from Genesis 1-2 as well: man, created in God’s image, is made to rule, and (in David’s telling) does rule over all of God’s creation.
These are lofty thoughts indeed—thoughts that seem to have had David in a wonderfully exalted frame of mind. But it must be asked: is David’s description of man’s dominion in Psalm 8 consistent with his experience in his life? In a word: no.
Although David was appointed for glory in Israel, his experience was one of hiding in caves from a man who wanted to kill him (1 Samuel 22:1; 23:14). David knew massive sin and failure (2 Samuel 11:1-12:15). His body wasted away through groaning all day long as he kept silent about his sin and refused to repent or confess it to God (Psalm 32:3-4).
David knew curse. David knew futility. David knew pain and disappointment and deep groaning for relief.
So what gives? What explains the difference between Job’s experience and David’s words in Psalm 8? How was David able to be so uplifted concerning man, in contrast with Job’s pessimism and dejection?
These matters are further clarified by even later Scripture: in Hebrews 2:5-8, the Hebrews writer says that while “we do not yet see all things subjected to him” (just as David surely did not in his day), even so the truth about man’s ultimate dominion is assured by Jesus in such a way that one can speak as if it were already a present fact.
That is to say, the difference between Job’s outlook and David’s is a matter of the person and work of the man Jesus Christ!
Walking in Light of the Image of God Redeemed through Christ
Although the applications are many and varied for the truths Job was missing, their most direct relevance is to the general category of work.
Whether in terms of having and raising children (Genesis 1:28), or in terms of providing for oneself and one’s family (Genesis 2:15), the work of the creation mandate is made intensely difficult by the curse God instituted after the fall (Genesis 3:16-19).
It is for this reason that our hearts often resonate with Job’s in view of the low self-understanding he expressed in Job 7: “Is not man forced to labor on earth, And are not his days like the days of a hired man? As a slave who pants for the shade, And as a hired man who eagerly waits for his wages, So am I allotted months of vanity.” (Job 7:1).
Because of Jesus, however, the work we’ve been given to do is not vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
Jesus makes it possible for us to put off the old man and to be renewed in His image now, including in our work (Colossians 3:9-11, 22-23), and guarantees that our original purpose of ruling over all creation will still be accomplished when we finally rule and reign with Him on earth (Revelation 2:26-27). Again, this is such a “done deal” that we can think and speak of it (and be encouraged by it) as if it were even now our present circumstance—because in a true sense (by faith) it already is!
The world is wrong to exalt self, and Job was wrong to fall into self-abasement and dejection. But what great gain there is in seeing and savoring the truth about man’s creation in God’s image, in light of the renewal of that image through Christ, unto our originally intended purpose. This understanding of ourselves and our destiny can help us turn any seemingly vain task into the hopeful and purposeful pursuit of God’s glory.
⁵ Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations in this post are from the NASB translation.