Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck enriched our understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God by emphasizing wholeness. The whole person and the whole of humanity display the divine likeness, explained Bavinck. Not just one human characteristic like rationality, but the whole person—body, soul, and faculties—images God. Nor does the fullness of the image end there. Only humanity as a whole, spread throughout all places and all time, “is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God.”

Bavinck’s insights about the image of God shed light on human wellbeing, individually and in community. His observations help us discern how to respond to our neighbors in need. Theology teaches us about God’s design for flourishing and shapes our approach to the task of organizing life together in community.

Reflection on the image of God, for example, will form what we think about wholeness and how we act for our neighbors’ welfare, both in the church and in the public sphere. Contemplating the doctrine of the imago Dei casts a vision for effective compassion that addresses the needs of the whole person, in the context of community.

Responding Relationally to Our Neighbors’ Needs

“We often think of needy people as those who lack material things. But people are complex,” writes Chris Sicks in Tangible: Making God Known Through Deeds of Mercy and Words of Truth. “Everyone has emotional, spiritual, relational, and material needs. Ministry is less compassionate, less effective, when it addresses one type of needs but ignores the others.”

A 2010 graduate of RTS Washington, Sicks led mercy ministry at Alexandria Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Northern Virginia for 20 years. He now serves as pastor of One Voice Fellowship, a multiethnic, multi-linguistic church plant that grew, in part, out of the extensive refugee ministry of the Alexandria church. Sicks has a passion for the work of deacons and deep insights about how congregations can share the love of Christ by serving their communities. Students in RTS Washington’s Institute for Theology and Public Life courses now benefit from the wisdom he has passed along in his book.

To be made in the image of the Triune God means we are relational. Effective compassion recognizes this reality by seeking the flourishing of the whole person and by pursuing relationships that nurture that wholeness.Sicks’ reflections on mercy ministry make clear that it is inescapably relational: “Real, incarnational ministry requires investment—of your time, your energy, your presence, yourself. But without those investments you have not made your love, or God’s love, tangible.” Relationships establish the context for ministry that communicates both in words of truth and deeds of love.

To be made in the image of the Triune God means we are relational. Effective compassion recognizes this reality by seeking the flourishing of the whole person and by pursuing relationships that nurture that wholeness. Because need is relational, so should the response be. But this is easy to overlook. Material needs can be the most obvious and urgent, overshadowing deeper issues of broken relationships. Responding to material needs also tends to be much simpler. Writing a check is faster and easier than the long-term, complicated work of building a relationship.

Yet neglecting relational ministry denies to those in need the most unique gift churches can share with them. After all, the church is built on the restored relationship made possible through Christ’s work of reconciliation. Having received such mercy, Christians should respond by desiring for others the wholeness that comes when relationships are restored, first with God and then with self, other people, and the material world. Sicks reminds us, “There is a deep connection between our comprehension of Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, and the ministry we offer to others.”

A Holistic Vision for Public Life

The flourishing of the whole person should also shape Christians’ approach to these issues in the public square. Over the past half-century in the United States, lawmakers have become more concerned with addressing material needs through public policy. Conditions in the U.S. have improved in comparison to the lack of access to basic sustenance faced by millions around the world. For that we ought to rejoice, but we cannot be satisfied. During the decades that material conditions have improved, relational conditions have worsened. Four out of 10 children are born to single mothers, and data indicate these children are at much greater risk of experiencing poverty. Deaths of despair, as researchers have called overdose and suicide, have markedly increased in the last two decades.

Broken relationships are at the heart of some of the most pressing challenges individuals and communities face today. While targeting material needs, policymakers must not overlook the importance of relationships to human flourishing.

Discerning the implications of theological principles in such contexts requires us to pay attention to concrete circumstances and specific policy details. One way to do this is by seeking out the expertise of others. Just as God designed the whole person in his image to flourish through spiritual, relational, and physical development, so he designed creation to flourish through humanity’s knowledgeable stewardship of its many facets.

Our common life depends on the competencies of various institutional spheres of responsibility. Family, church, government, business enterprises, and wide-ranging associations all contribute to human well-being. Each has roles to play in addressing needs. What Sicks points out about teaming up among individuals is also true at an institutional level: sharing the load is essential to bring all the necessary capacities and expertise to bear on challenges that hinder human flourishing. In particular, Christians’ experience in the life of the church shapes our conception of the range of potential responses to such challenges.

Our convictions concerning the imago Dei will influence our approach to our neighbors in need. How has God designed us and the world for flourishing? How should we approach the tasks of common life in light of that? As we search out answers to questions like these, our hope rests on the God who is renewing all things and whose common grace is at work today through his Spirit.


An adapted version of this article is available at The Gospel Coalition.