What Does it Mean to be Human?

January 19, 2011


By Andy Patton

[Ed. note: This article is part of our series of weekly reflections, called Deep Down Things, published on Wednesdays.]

The phrase “human nature” has negative connotations. When someone says “that’s just human nature” they are usually talking about something sad. When someone says, “I am just a human” they are usually excusing their own limitations. But the word human ought not to mean something small or ugly or evil. It is glorious to be human. As Jerram Barrs said, “Human beings are more glorious than the earth, the stars, and the universe.” There is a lot of truth to that statement. The human who is simply being human is being something wonderful. We are not animals. We are not machines. We are not angels. We are simply humans, and that is a good thing!

Which brings up the question: What does it mean to be human?

When we look around at humanity today there is much in it that should not be there, but Genesis gives us a picture of what we were made to be clear of the fog of the fall. At the center of the answer to what it means to be human is this amazing fact found in Genesis, that we are made in the image of God. Certain things we share with God, and these are the core of our humanity. When we look at Genesis and the fact that we are made in the image of God what do we find in way of an answer to what it means to be human?

  • Rational: We are thinking beings. Someone once said, “Human reason is the greatest gift of common grace that God has given to man.” God has graced all people with the ability to think. We invent philosophies. We solve problems. We wonder. Animals are not rational in the same way that we are, and to deny this part of our humanity is to deny something vital to what it means to be human.
  • Relational: We do not live in an impersonal universe. We live in a place which in its most basic nature is relational. The reality of the Trinity means that personhood is not an accident. It has been said that creation was born of the “laughter of the Trinity.” God is himself relational and we are his image bearers in this. There are times and places for isolation in human life, but being immersed in the lives of others is part of what we are called to at our most basic level. It is part of what we are made to be, and a way that humanity can image and glorify God.
  • Moral: There is also a moral fabric to the universe and to our souls. When we violate this moral nature we become like a frayed cloth. It is no wonder that the things that the Bible says make up the moral life and the things that make for a healthy, loving marriage are the same. It is because morality, like all parts of humanness, are essential to human flourishing. Immorality is dehumanizing. It is not just breaking a rule on a list; it is going against the grain of our very nature.
  • Spiritual: The material is not all that there is to us. Francis Schaeffer used to hold up an apple when he was speaking to a group of people and liken it to the interaction between the material and the spiritual world. You cannot see the far side of the apple, but that does not mean it isn’t there. The apple is a single whole although you can see only half of it. That is what reality is like and that is what humans are like. There is more to us (that really is there) that you cannot see.
  • Embodied: We are spiritual but we are also embodied. We are physical. We live in the world of sunshine and dirt and food and that’s a good thing. We should rejoice in our bodies. They are not evil – they are a part of our humanness. We should take care of them and honor others bodies. Our bodies are subject to frailties, sicknesses, deformities, injuries and it all makes us long for a time when our full humanness is restored. That is exactly what the Bible promises – that not only our bodies, but the full gamut of the human experience will be restored and glorified and free of brokenness.
  • Dependent: We did not make ourselves nor do we sustain ourselves. We are dependent beings in every direction we look. This is a hard lesson for our culture to learn. We praise independence and self-sufficiency. Dependence is a dirty word, synonymous with weakness and neediness. The gospel, however, is only good news for the dependent and the weak and needy. We do not make the sun shine or the wind blow or seeds turn into fruit-bearing plants or the atoms of our own bodies cohere together. God does this. We are the dependent ones and the attempt to transcend our dependency can lead us into ruin.
  • Limited and Finite: Edith Schaeffer said, “It is not a sin to be limited.” This is another hard lesson for our culture. As we try to transcend our dependency we also try to leave behind our finiteness. We work long hours and push our bodies to the limits. We associate limitation with failure. The idea of living at a pace in line with human limitations is seen as laziness. Those products, like iPhones and instant messaging, that let us stretch our limitation in some small way, spread like wildfire. Christians should resist that tide. God made a day of rest and made it holy. Despite our drive to become as close to infinite as we possibly can we still spend 1/3 of our lives completely inactive in bed sleeping, and if we try not to sleep we literally fall apart.
  • Work: Work is not part of the fall. It is not an accident or a sin. We are meant to work. Adam had work before he ate the fruit. It is the curse on our work, not work itself, that is a result of the fall. Humans should use their hands and minds to make their world a better place, to give themselves to some work that will be a blessing.
  • Dignity and Honor: The fact that we are made in the image of God means that incredible dignity and honor is involved in being human. We are not a random collection of atoms that came to being by cosmic chances. We are created! We are shaped! The infinite God has bestowed his care on humanity and put something of himself in us and that means that because of the fall each of us wears a veil, however, behind that veil is a being who, as C. S. Lewis said, “If you could see it now you would be tempted to worship.” To quote Lewis again, “…Your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
  • Creative: God is a creator and, as bearers of his image, so are we. In Genesis God commanded our first parents to multiply and subdue the earth. That was a command to create wonders that did not previously exist. We are supposed to make art and beauty and bring goodness into the world. We are supposed to work at creativity and exercise our imaginations. J. R. R. Tolkien called humanity “sub-creators”. It was the idea the informed his work in creating the Lord of the Rings. He viewed making those stories as part of his calling, part of his responsibility as a human, and also they were his great delight.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jamie May 1, 2011 at 10:48 am

I love the thoughtful writings of Andy Patton… a great human being.

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