I never imagined that seeing a picture of Jesus could make my blood boil. I had previously held a tolerant view of the use of images and icons. I thought they must be helpful particularly to people who could not read. One brief encounter changed that view forever.
My time in India was drawing to a close. I had spent two months working on a mission station and had enjoyed the hospitality of a number of Christian families. Most of them had pictures of Jesus in their houses but I thought nothing of it.
In travelling around the countryside I could not escape noticing the shrines to various Hindu gods. At the roadside, in family homes, even on the dashboards of buses were tiny images of grotesque idols. Today over 700 million people worship these gods, following a religion that reaches back almost to the days of Abraham. Sadly one does not need to explore very deeply to discover the true identity of the deities at the centre of this religion. One revolting myth tells of the destroyer god, Shiva, beheading his father, the incestuous Brahma. The chief goddess Devi, in one particularly abhorrent manifestation, 'dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims.'* Hindu people are tragically enslaved to the worship of demons. They live and die in darkness and ignorance following a fatalistic religion which condemns the poor to perpetual poverty. The demons dominate and control every aspect of their lives while leading them in a headlong chase to a lost eternity.
While these realisations left me weeping for the lost, the revelation that followed left me weeping over the blindness of believers. The young men were selling pictures. There they were, lined up in a neat row. There was the violent Shiva depicted with three heads; next to him the preserver Vishnu with four arms each bearing a sacred symbol; then came the elephant-headed Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. My eye jumped to the end of the row and I caught my breath. There was our Lord Jesus. Even in that typically saccharin characterisation his eyes seemed to shine with love and his face with the radiance of holiness.
The men, assuming that I followed this god Jesus, offered to sell me the picture.
“How could you?” I blurted out before thinking about what I was saying. “You can't put Jesus there alongside your gods! He's nothing like them! Don't you know who He is? What He did for you?”
The men were somewhat taken aback by such an unusual, deeply emotional outburst. After all, they were only trying to make a living! Doubtless still hoping to sell me something they pursued the conversation. I outlined the Gospel of our salvation and urged them to find out more about this foreign god, Jesus. When they saw that I was not going to part with any money they lost interest. I left, praying that the Holy Spirit would one day open their eyes to the truth of what they had just heard.
I don't know if the arrow found its mark in their hearts, but an arrow certainly pierced my own. The commandment resounds down through the ages, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath.” (Ex: 20 v. 4 NIV) In a heart beat it came to me with a freshness, force and relevance that I had never appreciated.
Our awesome God, seated in unapproachable light, far above our experience and imagination does not want to be drawn! Any attempt to depict his glory diminishes Him as we re-create Him in our image. He calls his people to walk a different path, to worship by faith and not by sight.
I am not suggesting that Indian Christians worship idols. However, when they adorn their homes with pictures of Jesus, they unwittingly confirm the belief of their Hindu neighbours that He is but another god in their unlimited pantheon. Neither are Western believers innocent. In various ways we also unconsciously absorb the practices and culture of our age, diluting our distinctiveness as Christ's followers.
May the Living Unseen God show us our blind spots and set our feet firmly on the way of holiness, that we may reflect His glory to those enslaved by the father of lies.
* Microsoft Encarta, Premium Suite, 2004
(Sources: Microsoft Encarta, Premium Suite, 2004; personal experience)
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