Last week, I reread this no-nonsense fictional missionary story taking place in Ecuador less than a four-hour drive from where I sit typing. "No Graven Image" is an unusual missionary story in that it is NOT an inspirational read. Blogger Loraena describes the novel as, "a book about submission to God's sovereign hand, even when life doesn't happen the way we expect." Her own excellent review can be read here.
Margaret Sparhawk is the fictional missionary working amongst the highland Quichua of Ecuador. As she settles in to her long-prepared for ministry, Margaret shares common struggles many missionaries encounter in their day-to-day life...
It was surprising how many days I managed to spend getting settled. It seemed that each day was full of little things that could not wait. I could not begin my work until my living routine was established and my house in order, and although I awoke each morning with the thought of going to visit Indian homes, each evening came before the thing was done. During the day I felt triumphant to see the time passing in useful ways, conscious that I was not sitting down and wasting time, but when evening came and I took stock of the day's accomplishments I felt guilty to see that no breach had yet been made in heathenism. Hudson Taylor had made an impact on China, Mary Slessor on Calabar, John Paton on the South Sea Islands, David Livingstone on darkest Africa. Just exactly how had they begun? It was strange to find the actual daily doing of missionary work so unspecific, so lacking in direction. "Margaret Sparhawk is working among mountain Quichuas." I could not get away from the image I knew I had projected at home, but here was the other side of the coin. "Working." What does she do? Missionaries wrote of "doing" visitation, of "reaching" people, of "witnessing." I did not need to read any more missionary books, prayer letters, or progress reports in magazines to learn the terminology. I needed to find out what was really basic in the operation..." p.58-59
No Graven Image is, of course, referencing the 2nd Commandment in Exodus 20:4-5,
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me..."
Strange as it may seem, this passage isn't alluded to at all in the book. As Loraena's own review explains,
Unexpectedly, the graven images in this story are the ones that exist in the heart of the Christian, not the pagan. The book's message is this: as Christians, we engrave in our minds, images of what we think it means to serve God - a picture of ourselves doing a good thing - and that is idolatry. We need God's grace to help us see ourselves as we truly are and worship the God who calls us. As Margaret says in the book, The Indians had become people to me - the were no longer my "field". While I had once declared them to be my equals, I now regarded myself as theirs. Instead of saying, "Oh, you are as good as I - let me help you," I now said, "I am as poor as you. God help us all."
Though we openly acknowledge this commandment, we continue to fashion God in our own image. We know what He should be doing, how He should do it, when things should begin to happen, and even presume Him to fit into our theological "God boxes." When He doesn't, then we have a way of explaining things in such a way so that He does fit our graven images of Him.
This in a nutshell is Elisabeth Elliot's point for missionaries laboring away in the "fields of the Lord"...God is God. He will not be conformed to any of our expectations. He is the Potter; we the clay. The clay doesn't tell the Potter what He should or should not do. God will be glorified with, or without us. He is Sovereign. He does not need our permission to act, or have to explain himself to us.
While a bit harsh for those of us who might be tempted to think we are "sacrificing our all for Jesus" it is nonetheless a needed wake-up call. I often find myself confused with God. After all, I am doing my part, shouldn't He be doing His?
I strongly recommend this book to anyone who is out there "serving the Lord" and especially to my missionary colleagues. Somewhere along the way, we have all grown accustomed to hearing only the inspirational and successful missions stories. A lot more goes on in real life than what gets printed and told by the media. "No Graven Image" is the other side of missions rarely told.