An elderly man, bedridden through a long and terminal illness, wished to see the Rocky Mountains before he died. Unable to travel, yet being a man of some means, he hired a number of skilled artists and dispatched them to the West. To each he gave orders to bring him a painting that would display the beauty of the Rockies.
One painter made his way to Banff National Park, to the rise above Morant’s Curve, where he captured a scene of a locomotive pulling a long train through the river valley. Another settled at Lake Louise and interpreted the pristine beauty of the alpine lake and the mountains that encircle it. Other painters chose to go south of the 49th parallel, one to Yellowstone to portray the heights of towering Mount Washburn and another to Colorado and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Some chose to capture scenes of summer when flowers fill the mountain meadows, some chose autumn when the leaves in the valleys turn brilliant red and orange, some preferred winter when the landscapes are buried in deep snow and all the evergreens are frosted white. Each artist painted his scene, titled it “Rocky Mountains,” and, on the appointed day, brought it to the patron.
From his bed the man surveyed this great collection of paintings and, with tears in his eyes, commended each artist, for each had done well, each had faithfully interpreted his scene. Though no artist captured the whole, each was faithful in his part. Before the old man slipped beyond this life, he was content that he had seen the Rockies.
Christians are called to be like Jesus, to make a careful study of his life, of his ways, of his character, then to portray him on the canvas of our lives. The world will not see Christ, but they will see Christians, so we labor to faithfully portray him. Yet just as no artist can portray all the Rockies, no Christian can portray all of Christ. We are too weak, too frail, too short-lived, too marred by sin. And so, just as the old man knew to dispatch many painters, God knew to save many people. Just as each painter portrayed his small part of the great Rockies, we portray our small part of the great Christ.
Each of us, though we live 60 or 80 years in the service of Jesus, cannot come close to imitating all of his perfections. We make progress, to be sure, but often as we increase in one area we slip in another; often as we emphasize one trait we decline in another. And even in our greatest attainments, an honest assessment will show that though we have come far, we still have so long to go before we are perfect even as Christ is perfect.
It must be for this reason that God gives each of us a special burden for a different part. Though one artist is convinced that the Rocky’s best beauty is to be found in Banff, another will say Yellowstone, and still another Jasper. None of them is wrong. And just so, some Christians are drawn to Jesus’s kindness as the most beautiful of his traits. They can think of no greater epithet than “he was a kind man” and they labor their whole lives to be as kind as their Savior. Others are drawn to his boldness in the face of opponents who would lead precious sheep away from the shepherd, and these ones labor to grow in their ability to speak as boldly, as forcefully, as truthfully as Jesus. Some emphasize his love for friend and foe, some his joy in the face of adversity, some his endurance in suffering, some his generosity in hospitality, some his care for the neglected and downtrodden.
In the end, which of these Christians best portrays Christ? Is it the one who is as kind as Jesus or the one who is as patient? Is it the one who teaches like Jesus or the who extends his warm welcome? The truth is all of them and none of them. All of them capture the part God has assigned to them, but none of them captures the whole, for the subject is simply too vast for any one canvas, for any one person. The closest view of the whole is when the many are gathered together into one gallery, each displaying its small part.
We might imagine that as the old man surveyed his collection of paintings a quarrel broke out among the artists, each insisting his work was superior because he alone had chosen the most representative spot in the entire Rockies. Yet Banff is as much the Rockies as Yellowstone and Yellowstone as much as Jasper. Each went to the spot he was drawn to, and who’s to say peaks are more beautiful than valleys, sunrises than sunsets, or summers than winters? Each of the artists honored their patron if they went to the place their hearts led them, then used all their skill and all their talent to create an accurate likeness. And in much the same way, we have no right to pass judgment on another man’s character when his portrait of Christ differs from our own in its emphasis. Rather, we must understand that as Christ has gifted us all differently, he has burdened us all differently. He is seen as much in that other person as in us.
And so each Christian labors to be like Christ. Though each of us labors to be like the whole Christ, each of us is burdened in a special way to emphasize a particular part, aspect, or trait. Each of us carries out this labor on behalf of our divine patron, on behalf of the God who has saved us to himself, and who has called us to imitate his Son. Though none of us will ever capture the whole on this side of glory, each of us can be confident we will receive God’s “well done” if we are faithful in our part and joyfully encourage others along as they are faithful in theirs.
(Inspired by Silent Times by James Russell Miller)