Imago Dei

Imago Dei

Bearing the Fingerprints of God

The Rev. John F. Bradosky

Bishop Emeritus

North American Lutheran Church

Bishop John Bradosky

While it is clear that we were created in the image of God, I am even more moved by the process God used to create us. “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). The word “formed” is the same word used in other places in Scripture to refer to the work of the potter (e.g., Isaiah 45:9).

Genesis 1:27 ESV

I have enjoyed watching potters create and possess a variety of their creations. I am not a potter, but the process is similar for every artisan I have observed. They select and cut a piece of clay according to the size and shape of what they are going to create. They add water to the clay to make it pliable. Then they center it on the wheel. Centering is important. I have watched beginners try to form clay that is not centered on the wheel and witnessed it spin out of control and fly off of the wheel. Once the clay is properly centered the potter keeps the wheel spinning and surrounds the clay with their hands. They start to lift the clay by applying pressure with their hands from the center out and from the outside in, patiently shaping and molding their creation to the desired thickness and form. When you look closely at each potter’s creation you will discover what are called “throw lines.” These lines are from the pressure of the potter’s fingers upon their creation and the smallest of those lines are from the tiny grooves in the fingerprints of the potter.

Such is the imagery from Genesis. God selects just the right amount of clay,  adds water to make it pliable, centers it perfectly on the wheel, and patiently molds and shapes us with just the right amount of pressure from within and without. He has the wet clay all over His hands and what He has formed bears the “throw lines” of the Creator. We have God’s fingerprints all over us. No other part of creation bears this level of intimacy with the Creator. He not only forms and shapes His creation but, once completed He lifts it off the wheel and brings it close enough to breathe into its nostrils the breath of life.

Even though the potter is the same, each piece of pottery is unique. When we are willing to look closely at our own life and the lives of those around us, we begin to see God’s fingerprints giving expression to the breadth and depth of His creative capacity and the wonder of His love for all that He creates.

I must confess that it was not until the death of our son that I began to appreciate the precious uniqueness of every person created in the image of God. It was only at his death and the overwhelming sense of loss that I began to reflect on the fact that no one else in this world would ever think the way he thought or express the feelings that he felt. No one would ever dream the way he dreamed or use imagination in creative play the way he did. No one would ever use their body or words to express love and affection like he did. No one’s clothes or tennis shoes would ever smell the same. In his absence, everything from the most complex to the most basic elements of his existence seemed to have infinite importance. The fingerprints of God were everywhere in his life.

What was transformed in me after Joshua’s death was an overwhelming desire to look for the fingerprints of God in every other person’s life, not at their death, but now. I learned that all we have in this life that brings meaning, purpose, and fulfillment are relationships—with the Creator through His only Son our Lord Jesus Christ and with the people He has given to us to love and care for, our neighbors.

Seeing in others the infinite worth and value that God has placed on their lives—in their creation and in their redemption—changes everything in our way of living and interacting with others. It changes our approach to people who think about things differently, who have different values and experiences, who share different political opinions, and who possess a different worldview. Unless we begin by looking for the fingerprints of God in their lives, we will never get close enough to love and care for them. Not only will we have no redemptive impact in their lives, but we will also deprive ourselves of the redemptive love that God may be intending for us through them.

This changes the nature of how we care for one another as family. It is so easy for a family to identify one member of the family as “the problem,” and, failing to see the fingerprints of God in their life, compromise healthy relationships by focusing every negative feeling on that one individual. Creating a “black sheep” of the family is destructive not only for that individual but for the entire family. No one can learn or grow from the unique personality of the one who, like every other member of the family, also bears the fingerprints of God in every aspect of their life.

The same is true for the pastor who looks at the member of the congregation who seems to object to every decision the pastor makes, as the one who is preventing growth in the church and is responsible for the adversarial relationship. Some pastors have responded by ignoring, publicly humiliating, or demanding that “the troublemaker” move to another congregation. How seldom we think that the problem may be with our own leadership or that there is anything that the Lord may want us to learn through their perspective. Such an opportunity cannot become reality until we begin to recognize the fingerprints of God in their life and treasure their unique gifts. Only then can we draw close enough to learn and grow from one another.

As a sports official for more than thirty years, I learned that the best way to deal with a coach who seems to object to every call is not to distance yourself but to get closer. Honor their perspective. Ask them what they saw. Admit that if a situation happened the way they saw it you could have missed it. Acknowledging that you are imperfect is the best way to lead them to the same conclusion. Remind them that you both have a role to play in a common mission, the game, and promise to do your best. Recognizing the fingerprints of God in the unique lives of others enabled me to treasure the relationships with them above all else, even in officiating. The implications for every relationship should be obvious when we begin by looking for and valuing every person because they bear the fingerprints of God in their life no matter how hard it may be for us recognize those “throw lines.”

I have also learned that this way of valuing others is only possible when I acknowledge the sovereignty of God in my life and recognize my own role as the created and not the creator. While this part of the “potter and clay” imagery sounds simple, it is in fact the most complex and the most difficult. Attempting to usurp God’s rightful authority and power and replace it with our own has plagued human beings from the temptation of the Adam and Eve in the Garden to the present day. The prophets warn of its deadly consequences. “You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘You did not make me’? Can the pot say to the potter, ‘You know nothing’?” (Isaiah 29:16; cf. Isaiah 45:9 and 64:8). For the same reason God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house. “So, I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot that he was shaping was marred in his hands; so, the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, ‘Can I not do with you, Israel as this potter does?’ declares the Lord. ‘Like clay in the hands of the potter, so are you in my hand Israel’” (Jeremiah 18:3-6).

Those listening to both John and Jesus found their uncompromising call to repentance, and the announcement of the kingdom of God that had broken into the world through Jesus, difficult to accept and irritating to their normal flow of life and they dismissed both with this conclusion: Jesus said, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (Matthew 11:18). The pot seeks to master the potter, even dictating how His grace should function. It was clear that many who heard Jesus failed to acknowledge His sovereignty as Lord over the kingdom of God he proclaimed and preferred to trust in their own wisdom rather than His. Those who seek to master God do so at their own peril—and attempting to master God is always a form of self-destruction (consider Jesus’ words to the unrepentant towns in Matthew 11:20-24). Martin Franzmann in his book Follow Me “Discipleship according to Matthew,” writes,

No special revelation was given to the elite of the ‘wise and understanding.’ God’s sovereign grace came to men in such a way that all the greatness of man, including his intellectual greatness, evaporated before it, the revelation of His mercy made clear that there is no man so great that God needs him nor any man so small that God will not seek him. The wisdom of the wise which would master God blocks out the revelation of God. Only the beggary of the ‘little children’ can receive it.” Jesus’ conflict with religious leaders and teachers was often the result of their feeble attempts to master God and control others, to tell the potter, “You know nothing.1

Even Paul, expressing his anguish over Israel, quotes the passage from Isaiah 29:16 mentioned above. He writes, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? ‘Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:20). The issue is the sovereignty of God in the process of redemption and not our pre-conceived notion of what God must do according to our own limited view of life and the world.

I make no claims that I have done well or perfected any part of being able constantly to see the fingerprints of God in the lives of others or acknowledged the sovereignty of God in every aspect of my life. Rather, I confess my disdain for others as my first reaction when they disagree with me, and I confess my feeble attempts to master God while asserting my own will over His. However, I take great consolation in the biblical image of the potter and the clay because the potter has not removed Himself from His creation. He still has His hands on us.

These four things I have learned:

    1. Not to see myself as a finished vessel but clay that does not resist the potter’s hands.
    2. Staying centered in Christ is not something that I can do on my own. Every time I try, I become even more off-center and fall apart, flying off the wheel. Instead, I trust Christ, the Potter, to center my life in Him.
    3. To know that the pressure He exerts with His hands from within and without continue to reshape and renew my life for His purposes. He transforms my will to master Him into a submissive will of serving Him.
    4. Most important of all is to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is still breathing life into this lump of clay. That life is breathed into us through the Word of God and through the Sacraments. Through daily reading, study, reflection, and prayer, the Potter shapes, renews, and guides us with His Word. In His Church, the Body of Christ where that Word is read and proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered, He pulls us ever closer to Himself, into the intimacy of faith and into the intimacy of a community of believers filling us with a love that longs to be shared. That same Holy Spirit empowers us for the mission Jesus gave to His Church, to go and make disciples of all nations, equipping us to see His fingerprints in the lives of others.
  1. Martin H. Franzmann, Follow Me: Discipleship according to Matthew (St. Louis: CPH, 1961), 107.