by Ellen Vaughn
I recently visited a 300-year-old church and at the front altar, carved into dark wood, found the Ten Commandments. I was struck by number two: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…”
In the ancient world, “graven images” connoted idols, commonly put on pedestals for worship. I envisioned colonial-era congregants in their bonnets, scrupulous about keeping their plantation homes free of pagan statues.
I could have left that church and thought, “How quaint. But we’ve moved past the bad old days of idol worship.”
Except: our modern world teems with images, ideals, and fixations. There are plenty of images etched, if not graven, on our collective consciousness through social media. Pixelated, airbrushed, and manipulated images presented on various platforms—modern pedestals, if you will—command our self-comparison and draw our focus away from Christ.
Social researchers warn that if we see enough pictures of everyone else’s perfect home, perfect job, perfect love life, then we can fall into depression or worse.
That same tendency to compare leaks into our Christian world. Some Christian social influencers seem to post just a snippet of Scripture or an inspiring quote sandwiched into a reel that’s a blend of images of glossy hair, carefully curated colors and perhaps the addition of a few products available on their platforms… a color-coordinated Bible, journal and pen set. Get all this, and maybe you’ll have a fabulous life like hers.
Long before social media, this temptation was the same even if the technology was different. Christian magazine articles held up women of faith who managed to raise perfect children and keep a perfect home while memorizing the book of Leviticus. The few female Christian leaders of the time were held up as spiritual superheroes who never doubted, faltered, or made mistakes.
Elisabeth Elliot was one of those Christian heroes. She was famous in her day because she had been a missionary to Ecuador with her husband, Jim Elliot. Jim and four others were speared to death by a violent, unreached people group. Elisabeth eventually went and lived in the Amazon jungle with that same tribe. Seeing her model of forgiveness, many in the tribe decided to follow Christ. Elisabeth went on to write bestselling books about faith, speak around the world, and host a long-running radio program. She was one of the few female voices of authority in the second half of the 20th century.
Because of all this, many Christians put Elisabeth on a pedestal. She was brave, heroic, and obedient to God no matter what. She seemed remote and superhuman.
When I began writing Elisabeth Elliot’s authorized biography, her family loaned me her priceless journals. In their faded pages I saw not the marble saint, but a flesh-and-blood woman with fears, insecurities, and doubts. She wept and laughed and longed and felt embarrassed about her inadequacies. She was just like us.
Even in her day, Elisabeth Elliot hated the cult of celebrity. She wrote that she felt lonely when she spoke to huge crowds. She felt like a commodity, not a person. She felt that some Christians made her into a “role model,” a phrase she deplored. She knew her own weaknesses. She said that pedestals were for statues—or images.
Real people deal with ambiguity, chaos, pain, and suffering. And that is precisely where God meets us—in our inadequacies, right in the mess. This sets us free from the stress and depression of comparing ourselves with pretty images. God really likes real people. You see them all over the pages of Scripture.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote that the Bible shows “that a true understanding of the world is not to be gained by pretending that things are other than what they are. If there is good, let it not be exaggerated. If there are evils, let us see what they are… but let us not operate as though they simply did not exist and therefore needed no redemption.”
She’s right. If Scripture had been made up to support a humanly engineered new religion, it would have been far glossier and more appealing. Its very scandals—most notably, the scandal of the Cross—are evidence of its authenticity. It is a real book about a supernatural God mysteriously invading the stories of real people. Outside of radical revision, the Bible would not make it as a cheerful Hallmark movie.
There is only one Hero who does not disappoint. As for the rest of us, we must be strangely content to see ourselves and other people as they are, courageous and terrified, noble and petty, discerning and blind. Among the best of our lot, there is plenty to admire and strive for; the rest drives us to God, praising Him for His amazing grace that saves and changes “wretches like us” as the old hymn says.
Elisabeth Elliot would shout an “amen to that, sister,” if she was the sort of person who shouted amens, which she was not. But she’d be the first to encourage us to mentally toss the fake, glossy, graven images. Revel in the Real—the God who loves us more than we can know, just as we are.
Ellen Vaughn is a New York Times bestselling author and speaker. She has written 24 books. Her most recent are the two volume authorized biography of Elisabeth Elliot. She recently traveled to Ukraine, Africa, India and Nepal, interviewing Jesus followers for a new book. You can find her on ellenvaughn.com and @ellen.vaughn on Instagram.