What Does it Mean to be Human?

The Vine

What does it mean to be “human”? Our culture provides two radically different alternatives.

You have no doubt heard the statement, “I am only human.” You may have said it yourself. In doing so we focus on our limitations, failures, or desires as humans. We make mistakes. We fail. We participate in all kinds of behaviors to satisfy our lusts. Beyond this our culture looks for its meaning through the results of scientific endeavors; according to modern scientific theory, humans are simply overdeveloped apes. All of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are understood and interpreted in the framework of biological drives. To be only human is to be little different than the animals.

And yet our culture still uses the word “humanitarian” with its original meaning; we speak of a person as acting humanely, and both terms refer to the higher aspirations we maintain. We aspire to do good, to care for other people and for other forms of life on earth, and to live a life full of meaning and value. No matter how much we learn about the skills and strengths of animals, human supremacy over all other animal life cannot be denied. If there is any hope for the earth, humans will have to prove to be a bit more than mere overdeveloped apes!

In Psalm 8:3-6 David meditates on our very question:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers / the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? / And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him but little lower than God / and crownest him with glory and honor.
Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands / Thou hast put all things under his feet.

David rightly wondered why humans would even matter in light of the huge universe in which we live. We are so infinitesimally small compared to our solar system, let alone our galaxy! What is man, that God would be mindful of him or visit him? And yet David also confesses what was established in Genesis: God has made man in His image, a little lower than the angels, and has crowned mankind with glory and honor, giving him dominion over His creation (cf. Genesis 1:26-31).

It is therefore not a matter of whether we are lowly creatures or honored stewards; we are both. God has made us as creatures within His creation: humanity was made from the dust of the earth on the sixth day along with the beasts of the field, and on an earthly level we are indeed members of the animal kingdom, part of the mammalian class, of the primate order, homo sapiens (Genesis 1:26, 2:7). Yet we are not overdeveloped apes: God made us in His image, and since God is spirit, His image involves the matters of the spirit, His intelligence and characteristics (John 4:24). God made man as His offspring, to share in relationship with Him (John 17:1-3, 23, 17:20-23, Acts 17:28). Functionally, God made man to exercise dominion over the earth, to keep it and tend it (Genesis 2:15). We therefore have all kinds of animalistic desires and inclinations, but God calls us to aspire toward Him in a higher calling, renouncing anything which hinders us from seeking after what God has deemed good, healthy, and honorable (Titus 2:11-14).

But what does true humanity look like? In Psalm 8:4 David spoke of humanity in terms of the Hebrew idiom “son of man,” and it would be a particularly promised Son of Man who pointed the way for us. Most people are acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, or the Son of God, yet He tended to speak of Himself more often as the Son of Man (e.g. Matthew 26:64). Yes, Jesus is fully God (John 1:1), yet Jesus is also fully man, both in the Incarnation and still in His resurrection (John 1:14, Colossians 2:9, 1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus is the embodiment of the image and character of God (Colossians 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). We should not be surprised, therefore, to find early Christians continually insisting on the importance of becoming more like Jesus and living like Jesus: to walk as He walked, to do what He did, to be shaped into the form of His conduct (Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 John 2:3-6). Jesus is the Son of Man, the perfect Human One (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8-9). Therefore, if we want to understand what it means to be human, and to see the best of humanity, we find in the life and example of Jesus of Nazareth.

Humanity is a double edged sword; a seemingly impossible contradiction. We are dust made in God’s image; we maintain great powers of mind and imagination yet remain confined to fragile bodies. We all too easily simultaneously justify our lusts and passions because of our limitations while yearning to be freed from what we feel are the oppressive confines of our bodies. We can always find reasons for discontent, but we must remember that we are God’s creation, and it was good (Genesis 1:26-31). We do well to accept who we are as humans, and not seek to be anything more or less than human. We ought not be less than human, justifying animal lusts and impulses which lead to our harm, the harm of others, and distress in the creation; instead, we must follow the Lord Jesus, maintaining our bodies in discipline, seeking holiness and righteousness in daily conduct, serving one another as good stewards of the gifts God has given us (Titus 2:11-14, 1 Peter 4:10). We also ought not aspire to be more than human, trying to play god or curse the limitations inherent in living as a finite, created being; instead, we must glorify God in our bodies, and rediscover the majesty in our design and function, and be content to remain as God’s creation (cf. Psalms 8:3, 139:13-16, 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

What is man, that God has considered him? Dust to dust, and ashes to ashes, yet made in God’s image to share in relationship with Him and obtain the resurrection of life in Jesus, the true Human One, whose example we ought all emulate. May we find true humanity in Jesus and live as good stewards of God’s varied gifts!

Ethan R. Longhenry