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The image of God in dementia: Part 2

October 2019 | by Alan Thomas

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Last time we thought about God’s image in us and on the importance of relationships to a proper expression of this. We observed that God himself is a God-in-relationships. We saw that people with dementia continue to live in God’s image and have value in relationships with other people and with God. In the New Testament we are taught that Jesus Christ is God’s true image and that as Christians we are being made into his likeness and thus re-made into God’s true image.

Christ the true image

As the second and last Adam, Jesus is the true man and thus the bearer of God’s image accurately and fully (2 Corinthians 4:4). Unlike all other humans his likeness as a man was not corrupted and darkened by the effects of sin. Uniquely he was able to display exactly the likeness of God to us. He rebuked Philip for failing to understand that anyone who looked upon him was gazing on the Father (John 14:9).

True gazing on the beauty of Jesus is not physical but mental. It involves comprehending his character. We too can look with such understanding on the glorious manifestation of God in Jesus Christ. By beholding his glory we are transformed by the Spirit into that true image of God (2 Corinthians 3:18), renewed day by day into the perfect image of our Creator (Colossians 3:10).

This is what we were predestined for (Romans 8:29) and this perfect image and likeness to God we will, one day, fully receive in heaven when we enjoy God at last in our resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15:49). As John declared: when we see Him we will be like Him (1 John 3:2).

Moving in opposite directions

The problem is we seem to be moving in the opposite direction don’t we? As we grow older we find ourselves getting physically weaker and, it would seem, less useful in the Lord’s service. We find our mind wandering during services of worship, we struggle to summon up the mental strength to pray and during prayer our thoughts often drift away.

With sickness it is worse. With dementia it is worse still. How then can it be true that we are being transformed day by day into God’s likeness? How can it be true that we are being renewed into the image of Jesus Christ? Is it really the case that we increase in Christlikeness through sickness and dementia?

Paul was acutely conscious of this mismatch between his outward appearance and the inner reality of what God was actually accomplishing in him. For him it was not just the effects of sickness or ageing which decayed his frame but the impact of multiple persecutions on top of his episodes of sickness.

He summarises some of his afflictions to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11). Earlier he explicitly referred to the effect of these afflictions on him and on how he appeared to others. He was deeply aware of how his injuries had wrecked him in body and soul, and he felt like a man on his deathbed (2 Corinthians 4:8-10). He appeared a battered and feeble man. His appearance led to ridicule by others, especially at Corinth.

But Paul knew this outward appearance was far from the whole story. This was the first Adam in him being destroyed by these afflictions in this fallen world (2 Corinthians 4:16). In body and soul he was dying. His whole fallen self, what he called his outer self, was damaged and was wasting away. However, in Christ his inner self, was being renewed day by day. Paul was able to look beyond his light and momentary afflictions and place them in their eternal perspective.

The decay of his outer self in Adam was a transient earthly process, whilst the renewal of his inner self in Christ would be eternal. As Paul gazed day by day on the beauty of Jesus he was being made more and more like Jesus, more and more like God’s true image, maturing in his character and relationship with God. His outer and inner selves were moving in opposite directions.

Renewal through dementia

So the man with dementia experiences the same kind of daily destruction of the outer self inherited from Adam. The disease wastes away the body and mind. Outwardly this is obvious to all of us who know and love him. But for a Christian man this is not the whole story. It is not the important story. The important truth is that inwardly God is renewing him, as he did Paul.

We don’t see this when we look on the outward appearance. We see the outer self wasting away. With our eyes we see a weakening body, but we also comprehend an increasingly confused mind: a woman with dementia not recognising her own daughter, not remembering she has grandchildren, and struggling to put sentences together. In this outer self we observe the horrible effects of the Fall which grieve us in their devastating effects on the one we love.

But at the same time we know that God is at work inwardly. In the inner self he is working that glorious work of transformation

Inside and unseen by us his Spirit is making her more and more like the Jesus she loves. Unknown to us, except by faith, he is daily making that new Christlike woman who will emerge triumphantly at the resurrection in her powerful and glorious and Spirit-empowered body, at last seeing Jesus and being like Him perfectly.

Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.