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Is Visualizing Jesus Idolatry?

One aspect of the Second Commandment we didn’t address in our recent sermon series was the issue of visualizing Jesus in our prayer life.  We discussed at some length representing the incarnate Christ for instruction or inspiration in story books, art, film or drama.  My personal opinion is that with great care and reverence, efforts to portray the Lord Jesus is acceptable for these limited purposes, and even puts some weight behind the doctrine of Christ’s true humanity.  But any inclination on our part to worship or pray to a man-made image is strictly forbidden.  That leaves open the question:  what about creating images in the mind?

Historically, visualizing Jesus has been a common practice of Medieval and Roman Catholic mystics, but this practice has never been encouraged among Protestants since the Reformation.  In the modern situation, however, people of all backgrounds have broad access to all kinds of Christians through books, radio, Internet, and other media.  Add to that the rise of the therapeutic culture, which has its hooks in the churches, and one can easily find a trend to actively promote visualization as a means of spiritual growth.

It is probably natural for people with a strong imagination to picture Jesus in their minds.  I don’t think this is wrong if it helps make the Bible more vivid for the reader, but visualization teachers go well beyond this.  Writer Calvin Miller goes so far as to say:

We cannot commune with a Savior whose form and shape elude us.  Whenever I speak long distance to my son or daughter, I use their voices to hang a thousand images of who they are.

Likewise, in my conversation with Christ, I see him white robed, yet at ease in my own time.  I drink the glory of his hazel eyes, thrill to the golden sunlight dancing on his auburn hair.  I see his calloused hands reaching out for me and for all the world he loves.

What?  Do you disagree?  His hair is black?  Eyes brown?  Then have it your way.  His lordship is your treasure as it is mine.  His image must be real to you as to me, even if our images differ.  The key to vitality, however, is the image… bit by bit, block by imaginary block, we define him and we adore him.  The Bible writers did the same.


Um, no.  They didn’t.  Any visions of Christ given to them came from God, not conjured up from the imagination.  It sounds very much like Mr. Miller is worshipping an image that he has created and given life to.  This is an occult practice, even if the person being imagined is a “Jesus.”  We are told to “walk by faith, and not by sight,” remember?

Therapy is where this use of imagination has really taken off, letting an imaginary Jesus heal our past hurts.  Rita Bennett, in You Can Be Emotionally Free, encourages visualizing Jesus as a form of therapy.  She says the accuracy of the image doesn’t matter.  One creates a Jesus and then should give him life like on a movie screen.  Eventually, she says, you should converse with him and “it is necessary to follow his guidance.”  Wow.  Suddenly we are to take guidance from an image we created?  Just whose voice will that be?

It is a huge assumption, and not a biblical one, that a Jesus you invent mentally and “give life to” is actually your Savior.  It is no more the risen Christ than a painting you could make.  If you adore that, and take guidance from that, you are manufacturing an idol of the imagination.  Be very careful.  We are to put faith in Christ, not imagine and “give life” to him.  Faith is defined in the Bible as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).  Jesus, the real Jesus, said Himself that “blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believed” (John20:29).   Seeing and conversing with an image you have made is contrary to the blessing of believing.

God is looking for faith, not a vivid imagination.

 

Yours in Christ

Pastor Wayne Wilson

Originally printed in The AFBC Pony Express. Vol. V, No. 11, November 2012.

 

“Give ear and come to me, hear me, that your soul may live.”

– Isaiah 55:3