Above the massive statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington D.C. is the inscription: “In this Temple, as in the hearts of the people, for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” The seated figure is 19 feet tall, carved from 28 blocks of white marble. To stand in front of the giant sculpture is no doubt to catch a glimpse of the nation’s respect for the man and his important place in American history.
As in many cultures, a statue carved in someone’s image is an honor bestowed upon the one engraved in stone. A portrait painted in someone’s likeness is intended to be a distinguishing tribute to the life captured in color. And yet, in ancient near eastern writ is the repeated warning never to do the same with God. In the ancient words of the Hebrew Bible, the one who would hold our highest esteem, has cautioned against even attempting to make such images because even the best of our imagination will lead us astray. “I am the LORD; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols” (Isaiah 42:8). Whether in finest metal or costly stone, to create a graven image of God would only reduce this God.
A prayer by C.S. Lewis captures a similar idea in more modern terms, suggesting that not all graven images are of stone and gold. The poem is titled “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer” and is a potent glimpse at what we might call thoughtful idols. Writes Lewis:
Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.
From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,
O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.
Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,
Take from me all my trumpery lest I lie.(1)
It is not uncommon to hear Christians speak of perpetually finding themselves surprised by again and again with God. Even thoughts of God can easily become idols aligned neatly on theological shelves. Yet God mercifully and repeatedly wakes knowing disciples to new understandings. It is forever surprising for me, for instance, to be reminded that Jesus’s famous words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” were not uttered at angry religious leaders, nor directed at the lost and downtrodden. It can so seem a statement that draws a line in the sand with quickened stroke, separating the faithful from the uninterested, providing infinite comfort to the lost, and infinitely disturbing those who thought themselves found. Certainly, Christ’s words have a way of doing just that. But his potent words that day were spoken not to those who did not know him, but to those who knew him best. And they did not understand.
I wonder if these men and women understood any further, when only days later Jesus’s very life was poured out before them. “I am the way the truth and the life.” Did they remember these words on his lips? Could their minds have gotten around the thought that his life made the way, that the life of vicariously human Son of God poured out for the world is somehow the way to wisdom and life and meaning? Could they understand all that was packed in those words? Can anyone?
We are given minds and imaginations that can freely tread into heavenly matters. The desire to see God seems to be set upon our hearts no matter the culture or creed we are raised with. “Show me your glory,” Moses implored of God. “Show us the Father,” the disciples pled with Jesus. But we cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end anymore than we can fathom God, and for this, God seems to remind us of our limitations. We will be shown the Father; we are shown God’s glory; we are continually given glimpses of a self-revealing God. And yet we are warned not to make any of it into an idol lest we miss God in the midst of it. In a letter to a younger colleague, poet and professor Stanley Wiersma advised, “When you are too sure about God and faith, you are sure of something other than God: of dogma, of the church, of a particular interpretation of the Bible. But God cannot be pigeonholed. We must press toward certainty, but be suspicious when it comes too glibly.”(2)
I believe that God moves us to those places where we discover again that God is fearfully alive, that the human Christ is one of us, that the mere hem of God’s robe fills even our holiest moments. We must repeatedly remind ourselves that even our imaginative limitation is good news: “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave—what can you know?”(3)
“Show us the Father” is a hope our hearts were meant to utter, even as we learn to revel in the mystery of the request. It is also a longing God has promised will be answered for cultures and ages past to our own today: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.(4) A God who takes humanity so seriously that he joins us within it, offering us his own humanity as the way, the truth, and the life, will surely not disappoint.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer,” Poems, ed. Walter Hooper (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1964), 129.
(2) Stanley Wiersma in a letter to a young writer, Calvin College archives.
(3) Job 11:7-8.
(4) Isaiah 40:5.