Recently a local public-television station reran a series I had loved as a girl. Watching a few episodes again as an adult was a delight, and I found myself pondering what it was that so touched me about the story. I realized that the heroine of the series always appeared to live her life to a very high standard, and I most admired that about her. From her academic work to her relationships and everyday interactions, it was clear that her expectations of herself were high, and she consistently endeavored to meet them. It felt invigorating and encouraging to watch someone live with this kind of integrity, even during struggles.
In the Bible, the word “standard” is sometimes translated as “banner,” because it referred to a flag that was literally lifted, often during battle. Isaiah 62:10, for example, is an exhortation to “lift up a standard for the people.” We think of a standard as a principle or ideal, something to aspire to. And as we strive to think and live in a way that raises that ideal, I’ve found that it can have a powerful influence for good.
Mary Baker Eddy, the discoverer of Christian Science and founder of the Monitor, describes “man’s original standard” as “the spiritual man made in the image and likeness of God” (“Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896,” p. 186). That is the ultimate ideal. Instead of being mere mortals trying to attain that high standard, the image and likeness of God is who we really are – how God created us – according to Genesis, Chapter 1. The way to “lift up a standard for the people” is to bear witness to this truth by claiming it for ourselves and others, and striving to live in accord with it.
The one who best lifted up that standard for us is Jesus. Mrs. Eddy refers to Jesus as “the highest earthly representative of God” (“Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” p. 52). But is it unrealistic for us to strive for the standard he reached in his work? Not according to Jesus himself, who said, “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12, New Revised Standard Version). Christ, the divine power that Jesus expressed in doing his great works, is present today to guide us in our efforts to emulate Jesus’ example.
In my own life, when I taught literacy classes in a prison, people often questioned me about the experience, expecting the inmates to be very difficult students. But every day as I worked with these men, I sought to see each of them according to that “original standard,” as the image and likeness of God, good. The crimes of which they had been convicted were very wrong, of course, and there needed to be correction. But correction in its deepest sense could come through the understanding of the inherently good nature of their spiritual identity, which could still be discovered and proved, and the inmates responded to this view. Almost without exception, they were the most respectful, appreciative, and dedicated students I ever encountered. Despite the world’s view of them as lesser or undeserving, holding up the Christly standard of their identity supported them in their efforts to be better individuals, and it helped me to be a more effective teacher.
I believe that by making our best effort to live the standard we were created to lift up – embracing our identity as the image and likeness of God and looking at individuals in the same way – we can stir others to emulate these spiritual ideals more fully.