The Bible is filled with hundreds of metaphors for God, yet Christians tend to limit themselves to only a few: shepherd, father, rock, king. A few of the obscure lyrical ones include clothing, beekeeper, a loaf of bread, a cypress tree. Consider how the power of metaphor may influence how our friendship with God, and our sense of ourselves, changes and deepens if we pray to a God who is as close to us as clothing, a God who laughs at injustice, a God who arrests our attention like flame.
In her book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne, 2014), scholar and Episcopal priest Dr. Lauren Winner tries on overlooked metaphors for how we meet and experience God. Chapters on God as clothing, laughter, flame, food, wine, and a laboring woman not only invite us to understand God in a new way, but each reveals God to be much more intimate than we imagine, opening up the opportunity for experiencing and knowing God more deeply. If God has felt distant or absent, or if your reading of Scripture has become cold or rote, reading Wearing God can serve as the hymn that revives you.
[Also for another resource on God metaphors, see the Dictionary of Bible Themes available as a free reference resource on Bible Gateway.]
The following article is an excerpt from Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne, 2014) by Lauren Winner.
The God Who Runs After Your Friendship
I had felt very far away from God for some years. It was a long season, salty and bitter, but it did not last forever. During the months in which I was emerging from that season—the months in which I was beginning to realize that God had been there all along; that maybe what had felt to me like God’s absence was actually a tutorial in God’s mystery; that maybe it was my imagination, not God, that had faltered—during that emergence, I began to notice God darting hither and thither, and I began to notice that I was darting hither and thither near God, and I began to realize that my pictures of God were old. They were not old in the sense of antique champagne flutes, which are abundant with significance precisely because they are old—when you sip from them you remember your grandmother using them at birthday dinners, or your sister toasting her beloved at their wedding. Rather, they were old like a seventh-grade health textbook from 1963: moderately interesting for what it might say about culture and science in 1963, but generally out of date. My pictures of God weren’t of Zeus on a throne, the Sistine Chapel God. Instead, my pictures were some combination of sage professor and boyfriend, and while sage professor and boyfriend might, as metaphors, have some true and helpful things to say about God, I found that neither of them had much to say about this new acquaintance I was embarking on, or being embarked on. All this intersected, not coincidentally, with my newfound wakefulness to the scriptures, and it led me on a search: what pictures, what images and metaphors, does the Bible give us for who God is, and what ways of being with God might those pictures invite?
The Bible has a great deal to say about this. Your church might primarily describe God as king, or light of the world, or ruler of all. In my church, we tend to call God Father, or speak of God as shepherd or great physician. When we are really going out on a limb, we pick up Matthew and Luke’s avian image and pray to God the mother hen tending her brood. Most churches do this—hew closely to two or three favored images of God, turning to them in prayer and song and sermons. Through repetition and association, these few images can become ever richer: there was once a time when I didn’t have many thoughts or feelings about God as great physician, but now I have prayed to that God with Carolanne, whose husband is pinned down by Parkinson’s, and Belle, who so much wants to keep this pregnancy, and Albert, who is dogged by depression, and because of those prayers, and the fears and hopes and miracles and disappointments they carry, God-as-physician seems a richer image than I first understood.
Yet the repetition of familiar images can have the opposite effect. The words become placeholders, and I can speak them so inattentively that I let them obscure the reality whose place they hold. I repeat them, I restrict my prayer to that small cupful of images, and I wind up insensible to them.
Unlike my church, with its four favored metaphors, the Bible offers hundreds of images of God—images the church has paid a great deal of attention to in earlier centuries, although many are largely overlooked now. Drunkard. Beekeeper. Homeless man. Tree. “Shepherd” and “light” are perfectly wonderful images, but in fixing on them—in fixing on any three or four primary metaphors for God—we have truncated our relationship with the divine, and we have cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of the scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog.
There are plenty of psychological and even medical Reasons why our images of God matter. Scholars have found correlations between the ways a person imagines God, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, eating disorders, shame, and alcoholism. People who primarily imagine God to be distant and judging, as opposed to intimate and loving, tend more toward psychopathology and have a higher rate of gun ownership. I recently read that, according to a study done at the University of Miami, “among HIV patients better immune functioning is found among those who have an image of God that is more compassionate and loving than those who have images of God as more judgmental and punitive…. Changes in God image changes t-cells in randomized trials.”
There are also social and political consequences to our images of God. As theologians Mary Daly and Judith Plaskow have pointed out, the characteristics we attribute to God will always be those characteristics we value most highly in our own society: we will value what we take God to be (and perhaps, conversely, it’s what we value that we take God to be). So if we say that a core characteristic of God is mercy, we will value merciful people. If we imagine God as one who nurtures, we will value nurturing. If we pray to a God who is a property owner (as in the parables of the vineyard), we will admire people who own houses and land. If we focus instead on God as a homeless man (as in Matthew 8:20 and Luke 9:58), we might accord homeless people more esteem.
Underneath all that psychological and sociological ruminating, there are spiritual questions: How do our images of God—and our resulting images of ourselves (sheep? vassals?)—invite us to become (or interfere with our becoming) the people God means us to be?
How do our images of God draw us into worship, reverence, adoration of God?
How do our images of God help us greet one another as bearers of the image of God?
How do we pray to the God who is king or shepherd? Or dog? How does the God who is king or shepherd pray in us?
If the kind of self-knowledge we seek is precisely knowledge of ourselves, unsheathed, before God, what self-knowledge do we gain when standing (kneeling) before the God who is a tree, a glass of living water, a loaf of bread? (And what kind of bread? Might things change if we pause to really think about bread, all the many kinds of bread there are, how different they taste, what different memories they conjure?)
Where, in the variegated topography of life with God, do the images we hold of God invite us to go?
The Bible’s inclusion of so many figures for God is both an invitation and a caution. The invitation is to discovery: discovery of who God is, and what our friendship with God might become. The caution is against assuming that any one image of God, whatever truth it holds, adequately describes God. As Janet Martin Soskice has noted in her reading of Deuteronomy 32—which identifies God as a father “who created you,” and as the “Rock that bore you…the God who gave you birth”—the Bible’s habit of stacking many different metaphors for God on top of one another, like a layer cake, is itself instructive, a reminder that we cannot wholly locate God within any one image. “Both paternal and maternal imagery are given in quick succession,” writes Soskice, “effectively ruling out literalism, as does the equally astonishing image of God as a rock giving birth.”
None of these images—rock, shepherd, vine—captures the whole of God because, as Benjamin Myers puts it, “God is too full, too communicative, too bright and piercing” to be easily spoken of. The euphony of biblical speech about God—about what God is like and how we, with our finite minds, might imagine God—is a summons to revel in God’s strange abundance. I go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for an afternoon, and when I come out, I try to describe it to you, but all I am really describing is this blue Turkish bowl or that Flemish painting or possibly the sandwich I ate in the café at lunchtime. There is (to again borrow from Myers) “too much” there to describe. And yet, I sat in front of that blue bowl for an hour, and I sketched it, and I paid attention to it (and I also paid attention to myself in its presence). What I can say about the bowl is, if partial, also true and enlivening. The Bible gives us this surfeit of images in order to “rule out literalism,” and the Bible gives us these images because each image holds a different way (maybe many different ways) into our life with God. Each image invites a different response from us, a different way we might be with and for God.
The above excerpt is from Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne, 2014). Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Winner. Used by permission of HarperOne. www.HarperOne.com. All rights reserved. Taken from Chapter 1.
Bio: Lauren F. Winner, PhD, is an ordained Episcopal priest and the author of numerous books, including Girl Meets God, Real Sex, Mudhouse Sabbath, and Still, which won the Christianity Today Book Award in Spirituality. She teaches at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Books & Culture, and other periodicals.