Monday, December 27

No Graven Image

Years ago, I read Elisabeth Elliot's only published work of fiction, No Graven Image. A novel with some hard things to say about missionary motives and the way we measure ministry success. I can see now why the book was never a Best Seller.  In fact, as I recall, it was not received well when first published in 1966--especially amongst the, then, large missionary population here in Ecuador. The reason? We prefer to hear inspirational missionary success stories and not the real day-after-day plodding of mostly unfruitful labor.

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.


Gabe said...

After reading this entry, Guy, the Holy Spirit is saying to me, "Gabe, this is what I've been talking to you about." Lately I've become frustrated at how slow and seemingly unproductive my days have been. Frankly I'm tired of reading all the success stories by missionary/bloggers around the world because, while the successes are to be celebrated, they gloss over the day to day mundane activities that most missionaries experience. I see all these glorious stories yet find myself here just trying to grind it out day by day. I think, "something must be wrong with me." But lately the HS has been impressing on me to keep my head down and don't give up, eventually a harvest will be reaped. Your entry today was confirmation of that. I'm going to Amazon to get this book. Thanks

GuyMuse said...


I certainly hear you about the feelings of frustration and how slow the wheels of missions seem to turn. I think most M's experience the content of this book, but are hesitant to be open about their questions, fears, etc. No Graven Image is an excellent read, but I warn you it is not an easy book to read. As J.I. Packer says in the Intro. keep in mind it is a novel. Yet some of the best writing is often done through fiction. BTW, I bought my copy used on

Gabe said...

Thanks Guy. Got my copy on Amazon for $.94! If anyone else out there is thinking of buying this book, plenty are available for under a dollar on Amazon (many for only $.01, but decided to splurge and spend the extra $ :).

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insightful posting!

I'm not a Christian, but I grew up attending churches. It always seemed that there were always 'missionaries' ready to boast and brag about their supposed successes.

No doubt, this sort of boasting is motivated by the desire to be seen as 'worthy candidates' for financial support.

I wonder what the world would be like if ordinary Christians, cab drivers, rickshaw wallahs, waiteresses, chai wallahs, hairdressers, teachers needed to boast and brag of their successes?

"40 cups of coffee served today. Praise God! Please continue to pray for me as I continue to serve cups of coffee...."

Granted, I'm sure that there are many humble missionaries are tucked away in various corners around the world who are genuinely serving without seeking recognition. Too bad there are not more!

GuyMuse said...


Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. Jesus himself spoke much about how we must become like children if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. He also spoke of how we who seek to follow him must be have a servant attitude--even slaves. As in all walks of life, including Christianity, there are those who abuse and misrepresent the truth. I, for one, seek to walk as closely to the commands of Christ as I know how. I am far from perfect, but know who it is that I am representing here on earth.

Anonymous said...

Just finished reading No Graven Image. Great book that would be good for both M's and everyday Christians. Blessings in your work.