Transcendence and Identity

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“Then God said, 

Let us make man in our image, 

after our likeness…

So God created man in his own image, 

in the image of God he created him; 

male and female he created them.”

(Gen 1:26-27)


By Stephen W. HIemstra

For us as Christians, our identity is secure—we are created in the image of God. If you want to know who you are, look at Jesus, God’s son and our role model or, as I have said colloquially, Jesus is my denominator. Jesus is the measure of all things human.

So why the interest in identity?

If God the father seems illusive and Jesus is just a man, then the whole denominator analogy falls apart. Like it or not, Americans have a problem with the transcendence of God. The fascination in the identity question is therefore a mirror image of God’s evaporating transcendence or, in other words, if God is not real, neither are we.

The Problem of Dysfunction

Being created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) may sound quaint to postmodern ears, but it becomes terribly important in understanding the implications of idolatry, the worship of images other than God. Think of idolatry as a hierarchy of priorities. 

The First Commandment makes this point: “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exod 20:3) The Second Commandment reinforces the point of the first one (Exod 20:4-6). Centering our living on the one who made us gives life meaning and stability. Not doing so, leads to many flavors of dysfunction.

Idolatry and Priorities

The focus on carved images in idolatry suggests pagan temple worship, as the Psalmist makes light of:

Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. heir idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Ps 115:3-8)

The key verse here is the last one: “Those who make them become like them.” Image theology implies that we grow to become like the god that we worship, even if we worship idols. Our number-one priority, which is a question of identity and attitude, is effectively our god (Hoekema 1994, 84). Giglio (2003, 13) writes:

So how do you know where and what you worship? It’s easy. You simply follow the trail of your time, your affection, your energy, your money, and your loyalty. At the end of that trail you’ll find a throne; and whatever, or whoever, is on that throne is what’s of highest value to you. On that throne is what you worship.

Idol worship threatens all that we are because over time we become like the god that we worship.

Idolatry Hampers Spiritual Formation

Focusing only on time, how much time do you spend each week in activities contributing to your spiritual formation as compared with other activities? 

Many men spend much of their free time in shoot-them-up video games, often developed by the armed forces for training soldiers. Is it any wonder that, in spite of the fact that automatic weapons have been available since the 1920s, it is only in the last decade that we have seen a rise in mass shootings in public places in the United States unrelated to any political or economic agenda? Intensive activities form us and become part of our identity—spiritual formation is not the only formation that takes place.

Poor formation leads us to worship idols that let us down. When our idols crash, we experience an existential crisis because we must completely reorganize our priorities, which is never easy (Hos 8:4).

The Problem of Suicide

Consider what happens if your number-one priority is work and you lose your job. In spite of record low unemployment, anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and suicide are at record levels in the United States, and have contributed to a decline in life expectancy (Bernstein 2018).

Amidst the high level of suicide (Tavernise 2016), two age groups stand out: young people under the age of thirty and older white men, a group not historically prone to suicide. Among young people, the typically reason for attempting suicide is a broken relationship (idolizing a person); among older men, the typical reason is a lost job (workaholism). Both problems suggest a tie to idolatry.

Death by suicide is just the tip of the iceberg according to Mason (2014, 28):

Based on large national surveys, for every fourteen suicides per hundred thousand people each year, approximately five hundred people attempt suicide and three thousand think about it.

If psychiatric problems, such as addictions, anxiety, and depression, have a spiritual root, then talk therapy and medication can only ease the pain; they cannot solve the problem. A solution requires dealing with the root cause.⁠1

God’s Love

Because we are created in the image of God and are commanded to love him and only him, God’s jealousy is part of his care for us. The Jewish daily prayer, known in Hebrew as the Shema (the name), goes like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut 6:4-5) Loving God above all else serves to vaccinate us from some serious problems.

Reclaiming Lost Transcendence

The problem of lost transcendence arises because the world screams at us and attempts to drown out the still, small voice of God. Although God has created us and, in sending Jesus Christ to die for ours, has saved us, we need to make room in our lives—both mind and body—to hear God’s voice. 

The whole point of the spiritual disciplines is find space in our lives for God. It is possible to “fake it until you make it” with spiritual disciplines, but this is actually a fool’s errand because God stands outside of time and space—he can approach us but we, being limited in time and space, cannot bridge the gap on our own. Bridging the gap is the work of Christ.

In some sense, our faith in Christ gives us the strength to pursue the spiritual disciplines. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9)

When we express faith in this way, the Holy Spirit enters our hearts and bridges the gap through out faith in Jesus Christ. Transcendence becomes a reality when we experience salvation and we find a firm identity in Christ.


1 May (1988, 14-16) defines addiction as: “A state of compulsion, obsession, or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will and desire” and specifically relates it to idolatry.


Bernstein, Lenny. 2018. “U.S. life expectancy declines again, a dismal trend not seen since World War I.” Washington Post. November 29.

Giglio, Louis. 2003. The Air I Breathe. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Publishers.

Hoekema, Anthony A. 1994. Created in God’s Image. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Mason, Karen. 2014. Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains, and Pastoral Counselors. Downers Grove: IVP Books.

May, Gerald G. 1988. Addiction & Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions. New York: HarperOne.

Tavernise, Sabrina. 2016. “U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High.” New York Times. April 22. Online:, Accessed: 13 March 2017.

Transcendence and Identity

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Value Of Life

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