Reflections and Blog

Recovering Human Dignity

This past Saturday we wrapped up our version of the In His Image: Recovering Human Dignity biblical counseling conference from ACBC (The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors). The conference was a great time of instruction, fellowship, and discussion. For today’s meditation, I thought I would briefly share some of the takeaways from the different conference messages so that, even if you weren’t able to attend, you can still benefit and even have your appetite whetted to join us next time.

Plenary 1: Who Is Man?
Dale Johnson started off the conference by having us consider Psalm 8. Many in our culture would insist that man’s meaning is self-defined; we are whatever we want to be. But Dale Johnson points out that this effort at self-exaltation tacitly grants that man has no objective meaning and, thus, no real dignity. To understand who we really are, we must first understand who God is, and understanding who God is leads us to recognize our dependence on God for everything, including life and salvation. Yet humbling ourselves to accept what God says about us is the only source of true dignity, for we then realize our position as image-bearers of God.

Plenary 2: The Decline of Human Dignity
In our second plenary session, Denny Burk explained how “expressive individualism” has led to the decline of human dignity. Expressive individualism is the idea that essential human happiness consists of defining your true self (according to your own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings) and then freely expressing that self outwardly. Expressive individualism necessarily leads to the redefinition of sexuality, marriage, and gender in the name of authenticity and self-fulfillment. Yet the Bible makes clear that the self is not a reliable guide, either to what is true or to what is beneficial. Sin has broken the mind and made feelings unreliable (Jer 17:9; Rom 1:21; Eph 4:17-19). One may, therefore, feel a passing satisfaction in going against God’s design to realize felt identity, yet the ultimate effect is self-destructive. Thus, loving others does not consist of permitting self-degradation in the pursuit of self-expression but standing up for what God says in the Bible about identity, sex, marriage, and gender.

Breakout 1: Helping Others through Infertility, Miscarriage, and Adoption
In our first breakout session, Jeremy Pray gave us very practical instruction about counseling those dealing with infertility and miscarriage. On the one hand, Jeremy stressed the need to listen to and lament with those who are experiencing this kind of profound, prolonged, and personal suffering. On the other hand, Jeremy stressed the need to ultimately direct the sufferer to where true hope lies: not in the changing of one’s situation—in this case, in successfully having children—but in God and in the gospel. Even a good desire, like the desire for children, can become idolatrous. More than satisfying our desires, God is interested in making us more like Christ and in our finding full satisfaction in Christ (James 4:3; Jn 4:13-14).

Plenary 3: Treating Others with Dignity in a World of Partiality
In our third plenary session, Virgil Walker had us consider God’s image in connection with issues of racism and partiality. Virgil urged us to beware of those who would urge us to fight negative partiality with a new positive partiality toward a previously oppressed group (cf. Ex 23:2-3; Lev 19:15). Virgil also sought to counter the idea that biblical justice means that everyone should end up in the same place (so called “equity”) or even start in the same place of life advantages. Not only is full equity in the name of justice impossible to achieve (due to simple differences in our physical makeup) but such a goal tacitly accuses God of wrongdoing, since he clearly did not give the same life advantages to everyone (Ex 4:11). Rather than insisting that we be allowed to run the exact same life race that others run, we are to run the race that God specifically marked out for us (cf. 2 Tim 4:7). Furthermore, we are to embody the same impartiality to externals as God does (Rom 2:11), treating each person we meet with dignity simply because that person is made in God’s image (James 2:1-9).

Plenary 4: Dispelling the Darkness of Abortion with the Light of Christ
In our fourth plenary session, Camille Cates shared her own testimony involving abortion in an effort to help us better understand and minister to abortion-minded and post-abortive persons (you can find another version of her testimony here). Camille stressed that even though she was a Christian and knew that abortion was wrong, she let her own desires and fears as well as the pressure of others move her to choose abortion. Yet not only was the surgical procedure terribly traumatizing, the guilt of what she had done haunted her for years and led her into further sin and self-destructive living. Even when she finally married and had another child, Camille was often anxious and depressed. It wasn’t until someone patiently began to open up the truth of Scripture with her that Camille found true hope and rest in Christ (cf. Mt 11:29).

Plenary 5: The Dignity of Those with Disability
In our fifth plenary session, Joni Eareckson Tada gave testimony about both what it means to be disabled and what it means to minister to families with disability. Joni emphasized how life-shattering disability can be, whether it comes by a sudden accident, birth defect, or botched surgery. Families with disability are strongly tempted to despair over how life will never be the same or to frantically (and vainly) try to put the pieces back together to recover a “normal” life. But Joni stressed how a life of brokenness by disability can actually become more beautiful and courageous than it was before. Joni used the analogy of the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which a well-loved but broken piece of pottery is patiently put back together with gold lacquer. In this form of art, the cracks of the vessel are not hidden but emphasized in order to show the artists’ skill in repair. The vessel ends up being much more attractive (and glorifying to the artist) in its broken-and-repaired state than in its state of wholeness before. So it is, Joni said, in the life of every Christian, but especially those living with disability (2 Cor 12:7-10). A disabled person, in choosing to glorify God and serve others in the midst of brokenness, becomes a powerful testimony of the grace of Christ. This gives the disabled person renewed purpose but is only made possible by a vital relationship with God emboldened by the promises of Scripture.

Breakout 2: Counseling the Dying
In our second breakout session, Tim Pasma led us through the very practical question of how to counsel the dying. Tim stressed that just because someone will pass away soon does not absolve us of our biblical responsibility to minister to that person. We need to help the dying brother or sister continue to grow in Christ, deal with sin and doubt, and prepare to meet the Lord. We therefore cannot afford to avoid the subject of death with the person but must help that person come to understand that his death will be his last act of worship to Christ on the earth. Ultimately, the dying believer should want others to see Christ both in how that believer lives and and in how he dies (Phil 1:20).

Plenary 6: Human Dignity and End of Life Issues
In our sixth and final plenary session, Adam Tyson walked us through the issues of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide from a biblical perspective (you can find another treatment of this topic from Adam Tyson here). Many today argue that human dignity should allow for voluntary termination of life; people should be granted this act of autonomy and freedom from suffering. “Death with dignity,” i.e. legally assisted suicide, has become increasingly popular in Western countries (and is legal in NJ for the terminally ill). Yet Adam showed us from Scripture that the right to life and death are in the hand of the Lord and not to be stolen from him; just as we depend on God for everything else, so we depend on him for our day of death (Ps 139:16; 1 Sam 2:6; Eccl 8:8). Moreover, freedom from suffering is not the ultimate priority for the Christian, rather the glorification of God in whatever situation he puts us (1 Cor 10:31; Phil 1:20). While Satan would love people to think that they gain freedom and dignity by voluntarily destroying themselves, Christians must help people see that true freedom and dignity are found in Christ and in Christ’s way of holy suffering.

While most of these messages are not available for free online streaming, those interested can purchase all of the conference messages (including the 50+ breakout sessions) at ACBC’s store page. The set of conference recordings is currently discounted for pre-order ($60) and will be available November 1.

May the Lord enable us to truly uphold the dignity of every person made in God’s image by ministering his word in truth and love (Eph 4:15)!