Our knowledge that we are made in the image of God should determine the way we treat others...even bullies.
On March 5, 2001, shots rang out at Santana High School in Santee, California. When the bullets stopped, two students lay dead and thirteen others injured. The cause? Was this another deadly gang shooting?
The shooter, Charles “Andy” Williams, seemed the typical high school student. Sports. Honor roll. Drama. So why did he open fire on his fellow classmates? According to friends, Williams was bullied mercilessly. The result was deadly.
Such tragedy speaks to the seriousness of bullying. In fact, it has become an increasing problem among teens. Recent studies show bullying rising dramatically, surpassing substance abuse and sexual pressure as the biggest problem teens face.
And you have probably seen it firsthand. At your school. In your neighborhood. With your friends. In fact, for many the experience is all too real. Maybe you have been the victim of a bully and know just how painful it can be.
Bullying: More Than Just Physical
Let’s get clear on what a bully is. It is someone who intentionally intimidates or harasses others. You probably have the stereotypical picture of a bully in your mind: that student who is just a bit bigger than everyone else, knocks over anyone who comes near him while demanding their lunch money, and physically abuses the scrawny kid each and every day.
However, bullying is not always physical. Oftentimes it is dished out in the form of verbal or emotional abuse. It can be a barrage of taunts meant to belittle their target. It can be a simple turn of the shoulder or entire body, making clear someone is excluded from the group. Or it may be that daily stream of gossip intended to destroy the status of another. Indeed, non-physical forms of bullying are often more painful than the physical.
Whatever form bullying takes, at its very root is injustice. Clearly, nobody deserves to be bullied. No student should have to endure physical or verbal attacks. But why not? On what basis can we defend the bullied? Only Christianity offers an adequate answer.
According to Scripture, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26–27). For that reason and that reason alone, every human being has dignity, value, and worth. You see, our value is intrinsic, not instrumental. Okay, okay—those are big words but what do they mean? Simply put, your value and my value come from who we are (intrinsic), not what we do (instrumental). We are created by God and therefore, every single human being deserves to be treated with dignity. When the bully strikes, it is a violation of that dignity and the very intentions of the One who made us.
But get this: even the bully is made in the image of God. That’s right, and he or she has dignity no matter their actions. That is why Jesus can say something seemingly outrageous like, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27–28). This is not to say that a bully’s action should be tolerated in the least. Remember, God is not only a God of love and mercy but also a God of justice. Evil does not go unpunished. However, if you want to see all human beings through God’s eyes, even the bully, you must start here.
Indeed, considering the bully as loved and valued by God should radically alter your thinking and in turn, your actions. It should move you away from hatred, our natural response to the one bullying us. It should move us toward prayer—prayer for the person antagonizing us, prayer for the guy who just socked you in the arm for the hundredth time, prayer for the girl spreading rumors about you all over school.
Let me confess right now, it is a bit difficult to write this let alone do it! My natural reaction is to push back, to fight back, to belittle in return. I don’t want to pray, I want to make them pay. Of course, this is not God’s way but the way of the world, the way of the bully himself. As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am called to a very different path. I cannot escape His words: “...if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14–15). Or when he says, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).
Without doubt such a response doesn’t come naturally or easily. But imagine being able to respond to the bully in this way. Rather than harboring bitterness, anger and pain, you are able to let God transform them into love, compassion and prayer. Imagine being able to say to the bully, “No matter what you do to me, I love you because God loves you.” That is radical. That is the way of Jesus.
As you can see, the image of God is a foundational concept as we think about bullies and those they harass and intimidate. Surely this divine truth should guide our thought and action when it comes to bullying.
All right, let’s get really practical. Ask yourself these three questions and answer them honestly. Figure out which category (or categories) you fall under and then let God’s truth transform you.
Question #1: Are you being bullied?
If so, remember God’s truth.
First, remember you do not deserve this kind of treatment. God created you. You bear God’s image. Therefore, you are precious in the eyes of God Himself and you should be treated as such. Sometimes those who are bullied have a tendency to think they somehow deserve it. They begin to let the opinion of others shape their opinion of themselves. But what others think does not determine your value. Not even your own opinion determines your value. God’s opinion does. And his opinion is set in stone. He looks down upon you and says, “I love you because you are my child, my precious creation. I made you and no one can wipe that truth away.”
Second, remember that God relates with you all too well. He tells us as much in Hebrews 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest [Jesus] who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” Remember that Christ Himself was bullied. He was continually harassed by the popular leaders and power brokers of His day. Think about it. Jesus was bullied to the point of death, “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). Indeed, his murder was the greatest injustice the world has ever known. If anyone knows injustice, it is Jesus. He can understand your pain in the deepest possible way.
Third, remember God’s people are there to help. So tell someone. Do not keep silent. Did you hear me? Do...not...keep...silent. Isolation is the worst possible thing for those being bullied. Bullying is already intended to isolate you in some way. It is intended to make you feel you are somehow less valuable than others. As bullying continues, this message is reinforced. And if that is all you hear, you will eventually believe it. So confide in your friends, share it with you parents, or tell your youth pastor or pastor. God has given us the community of believers so we can hear His truth reinforced by others. We do not have to go it alone.
In addition, the bullying needs to be stopped by the proper authority. That cannot happen unless a teacher, school administrator or parent knows about it. God Himself has put in place certain authorities to stop evil and injustice and to promote the good (Romans 13:1–7). So let them step in and give you the help you need.
Question #2: Are you bullying others?
If so, remember God’s truth.
First, remember the one you are bullying is made by God. The sin of bullying is a sin against God Himself. How we break the heart of God when we treat His creation with such contempt.
Second, remember your actions can inflict great pain on others. When I was a freshman in high school, I got off to a very bad start with one of my classmates, Joe. I can’t even remember the reason why, but clearly we did not like each other. And my response to Joe? I began to bully him verbally. I began calling him names. Every time I would see him around campus, I would make some demeaning comment. He would return the favor.
About a year after high school graduation, I accidentally crossed paths with Joe. I had just finished filling my car’s tank at a local gas station. As I was pulling away, I glanced over at another customer who had just started filling his tank.
It was Joe.
We made eye contact. Instant recognition. The look on his face quickly turned to disgust. Then he proceeded to raise his right arm and flash me the universal symbol of peace and goodwill. Okay, it was actually his middle finger. I did not respond but just drove off.
Fortunately, I had matured just a bit since my freshmen year and I reflected on the incident. That day Joe sent me a crystal clear lesson about the emotional pain I caused him through our high school years. I was awash with sadness and regret. To this day I wish I could find Joe again and ask his forgiveness for my actions.
Question #3: Are you watching others being bullied?
If so, remember God’s truth.
First, (you guessed it) remember the person being bullied is made in the image of God. They are to be treated with respect and dignity, no matter what others say about them or do to them.
Second, remember that Jesus did not stand back and simply watch others being bullied. He had the courage to step in and stop it. Do you remember the story of the adulterous woman who was brought before him in John 8? The Pharisees thought they would trap Jesus with a little “holy bullying.” They dragged the adulteress before Him. The woman had even been caught in the act. The Pharisees were ready to stone her. With stones in hand, they confronted Jesus. Even at the risk of physical harm, Jesus did not back down. He defended the woman until one by one, her accusers left. Then he offered her words of love and hope.
Indeed, Jesus always seemed to be on the side of the loser, the outcast, the bullied. Remember Zaccheus (Luke 19:1–10)? Remember the woman at the well (John 4:7–26)? Remember the blind, the sick and the lame? Throughout the Gospels, we discover a Jesus who seeks out the bullied. The next time you see someone being physically pushed around or verbally ripped apart, do or say something. Grab a teacher. Speak up and ask the bully to stop. Don’t sit back and do nothing.
Bullying: Everyone’s Problem
Unfortunately, bullying is a reality for everyone, whether you see it around you or experience firsthand. But we cannot respond to the world’s ways with the world’s ways, bullying in return for bullying. Jesus calls us to live differently, radically. On an individual level, our calling is to meet harassment and intimidation with the radical love of Jesus. As you do so, trust in His words: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).