Wednesday, April 15, 2020

God’s Photo Album

The Bible is full of pictures.

Now, illustrations — whether they are symbols, metaphors, or even when they come in the form of full-blown parables — are not reality, and it does us good to keep that in mind. They are useful snapshots in which we may catch glimpses of ourselves, of God, and of spiritual truths we might otherwise miss. To ensure we don’t, God has given them to us in a form we can easily process and relate to, one which often stirs an emotional reaction that can bring us to repentance, awe, appreciation or some other good state. For example, Nathan’s story about the poor man’s ewe lamb drove David into a righteous rage ... until he realized the story was all about him.

A Quick Snapshot

But snapshots are all these pictures are. They are two-dimensional attempts to convey some limited aspect of a three-dimensional reality. They usually highlight one or two valid points of comparison between the picture and the spiritual thing it depicts, and they become correspondingly less useful the more imaginatively we dissect them, especially when we yank them outside of their biblical context and read into them more than their author intended.

Bible pictures are only partial. They reflect a single facet of any spiritual story. They do not tell us the whole thing. How could they possibly? Whether the subject is the way the gospel works, the sorry state of man, or the glory of the Persons of the Godhead, any given Bible illustration can only enable you to see its subject from one angle. To occupy ourselves with the fact that Christ is like a door may be to miss that he is also like the head of a human body, and is very much like a rock, and like the sun, and sometimes even like a mother hen. We need all the Bible’s illustrations together to give us the entire picture of any spiritual reality. Over-occupation with one aspect or another will skew our view and limit the extent to which we can fully grasp the true nature of anything.

A Little Wandering Lamb

It is, for example, very touching to view the wandering sinner as a lost lamb and Christ as the good shepherd. As a child, I remember being moved by beautiful illustrations of an attractive, long-haired man tenderly holding an injured sheep in his arms. The image touches on a single aspect of our lost human nature: that we are dull, defenseless, confused and disoriented in this world; subject to predation, easily deceived, and without hope apart from God’s love and care. To that end, it illustrates our problem beautifully, and fills us with hope and appreciation when we grasp the salvation-truth of which the picture speaks.

But if that particular illustration of our lost state is all we had ever been exposed to, it would be quite understandable if we came to view Christianity as some kind of emotional crutch for the chronically enfeebled. After all, in identifying themselves as the sheep in that picture, Christians are tacitly conceding we possess no more intent or agency than dumb animals on their way to being devoured. We may also (falsely) come to think of ourselves as innately cute and fuzzy.

Sepia and Sentiment

Thus, if the only thing the Bible teaches about our natural condition is that we are like lost sheep and that Jesus is like a loving shepherd, we risk romanticizing salvation and turning it into a sepia-toned picture on Grandma’s wall, not to mention we risk losing sight of our own intelligent and willing complicity in our lost state.

In fact, though we apply it to ourselves regularly (“Like a little wandering lamb lost upon the fields I am ...”), in doing so we are actually muddling together something Jesus said in Matthew about the importance to God of children with Isaiah’s confession that “all we like sheep have gone astray” with maybe even a shot of Psalm 23 in there for good measure. In fact, the Bible’s sheep images present different facets of the human experience: in Matthew, it is (comparatively) innocent humanity in need of God’s protection and blessing; in Isaiah, it is willful humanity going off in its own direction; in the Psalms, redeemed humanity cared for daily by a loving shepherd.

So then, even the repeated motif of the human being as a lamb in scripture is considerably more complex than it looks at first glance, and has more in it than we might think.

More Snapshots

But I digress. God knows full well that a single image of anything will not get the job of communicating truth done in the way he intends. Certainly no single earthly picture on its own is adequate to delineate the human condition outside of Christ. Thus the lost sheep is far from the only picture of a sinner we find in scripture. God has other images of man in his sin that are equally valid and possibly more needful. To the extent that we are conscious of our sin, we can relate to “the sick” in “need of a physician”. That’s about as flattering as it gets, folks.

To the extent that we have ever rejected the word of Christ, we are foolish builders constructing our lives on a foundation of sand. We are in the debt of a moneylender, and the debt has been called in. Our hearts may be the rocky soil on which the word of God falls and finds no root. Perish the thought, some of us may be weeds among the wheat in the kingdom of heaven. We may be the son who promised to go into the vineyard and didn’t, or even the man who showed up at the wedding feast without appropriate garb, or how about one of the foolish virgins who hears the words “Truly, I do not know you.”

Turning the Pages

Most of these illustrations strike closer to home, and remind us that the truly comforting reflections we find of ourselves in the word of God are reserved for redeemed humanity, not for those who insist on rejecting truth repeatedly and graciously offered. Even Isaiah’s sheep are not the sweet, fluffy little innocents we might imagine from the picture in Matthew, but rather obstinate and undesirable creatures who “have turned — every one — to his own way”.

The Bible is full of pictures, each of which tells us something useful. But they are most useful to us when we recognize that they are only individual pages in God’s photo album, all of which need to be given our spiritual attention.

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