“Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God.” J.I. Packer Knowing God.
I have had this portion of Chapter 4 on my mind so much. The Second Commandment, that man “shalt not make unto thee any graven image” is the main focus of the chapter and it is a hard idea to grasp, especially for many Christians who seem to need images to know God.
One day, my pastor walked into our prayer group at church and gave me an object, an image of a cross on a prayer coin. This past Sunday a man came to the prayer rail at church and on the way back to his seat he made a concerted effort to look at the large cross, expended from the ceiling of the church. When I sing in the choir, a beautiful stained glass window is right above me, a telling of the story of Jesus the Son in glass, with a crib-manger containing straw and a sunflower. The Greek letter X (Chi) and P (Rho) represent Christ. A staff representing shepherds; a star and three crowns representing the wise men. All images.
Packer knows his view of Christian images of God and His Son Jesus is not popular. “A steady trickle of letters over the years has urged that my dissuasive from using images of God for didactic or devotional purposes goes too far” [Packer, 50].
People who dislike his position point out that the worship of God requires artistic expression through the visual arts. It is just like moral expression of Christianity through family love and neighborly love. The use of artistic images is a natural outflow from worship. The use of imagination is a part of human nature and God made man to imagine and create (yes, even images of God and His Son Jesus are human creations). The third argument against Packer is that images do trigger a devotional response, some saying that their faith would not be as strong without them.
His response focuses on the transcendence of God the Creator, who is “mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of any imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable” [Packer, 48]. Packer takes Isaiah literally: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” [Isaiah 55].
Ok, but we are left with a problem. What do we do when we want to have thoughts of God or Jesus; we would like to have a mental representation? Where is our source of inspiration about God and Jesus if our images are not good enough?
Here is the source.
God’s word and God’s word alone.
If one believes Packer is right, that God is not the type of person that we are, “His vison, His aims, His scale of values, His mode of procedure differ so vastly from our own that we could not possibly guess our way to them by intuition or infer them by analogy from our notion of ideal manhood” then what are we to do to get to know Him?
We can’t know Him unless He speaks and tells us about Himself.
He has done that already, through His prophets, His apostles and the words and deeds of His only Son. Our revelation, our inspiration, our mental stimulation (if you will) should come only from His word, our Bible. “The positive force of the second commandment is that it compels us to take our thoughts of God from His own Holy Word and from no other source whatsoever” [Packer, 48].
Why does God seem so concerned about people using visible images, concerned to the point that He is jealous? Packer thinks that manmade images are just “stock-in-trade” representations from a sinful and ungodly world. Images are a poor substitute for the mental images that can generate from the reading, study and meditation of God’s word.
At the risk of being too simple, let me see if I can explain this idea in another way. Granted, for many people, reading is difficult. It requires time to do it. It requires you to sit down. It requires concentration. I was conversing recently with a man who admits to having difficulty sitting in one spot for any length of time. He can’t rest. He sees jobs that must be done. He has to get up and do something. Reading is just too much commitment to staying in one place.
Tapping into the source that we have [God’s word] takes time and many today don’t seem to have the time to devote to this activity.
What happens when we read? Our minds are free to imagine.
Some people would argue that our imaginations are flawed. Too often a western Christian will imagine a Jesus who looks like us [e.g. white complexion with long hair and a beard] but none of us really know what Jesus looked like. His apostles don’t tell us; even Jesus’ brother James and Jude don’t tell us. Actually we are left to our own imaginations.
Packer’s point is that as we read, God speaks to us through our reading, our minds. Maybe if our reading moves us emotionally, God speaks to us through our hearts. This is the purest way to know God, free of images that can get between us and our thoughts about Him.
This example may not serve well, but I am going to use it. During my lifetime I have read books that captured my imagination. I have gone to places and I have seen things in my mind. I have spent time with “real” people; I can describe them, their faces, their height, their clothing, their smell etc. I have created them in my mind.
I have also seen books turned into movies (as have you). I don’t know how many times I have gone away from a movie saying “that’s not the way I saw that book in my mind.” The movie took my imaginings away from me and substituted an interpretation from an actor and a movie director. The movie got in the way of my own mental creation.
Even though this is a simpler explanation, I think this is what J.I. Packer is saying in his argument for strict adherence to the second commandment. Don’t get hung up on images and let them substitute for the real thing…God’s word. Don’t skip the real source of knowing God, which is the Bible. Today we have an expression for the activity of not reading a longer book; we say “I’ll wait for the movie.”
Don’t wait for the movie.
Get into God’s word and make your own movie.
Let His word inspire you, shape you, guide you…because it will. I have admitted above that Packer’s staunch stand on the second commandment has been hard for me, like it is hard for many Christians. Sometimes I have to supplement my ideas about Packer with outside sources because his book is so challenging. I ran across a short story in a source* that may be a nice way to close this post. It is the story of Preena, a young Indian girl who found Christ while living in an orphanage run by missionary Amy Carmichael. Miss Carmichael had a habit of praying that the Holy Spirit show Jesus to each of the children in her orphanage. One day Preena received a package from abroad. She opened it and eagerly pulled out a picture of Jesus. Preena did not know who it was and she was told it was Jesus. She burst into tears. Miss Carmichael was moved. She thought that the Holy Spirit was involved in this incident. The crying continued and got even more emphatic. Eventually she asked Preena what was wrong…why can’t you quit crying? Preena’s response seems to say it all: “I am heartbroken; I thought he was far more beautiful than that.”
*from the website “Is it wrong to have pictures of Jesus?” gotquestions.org