What We Forget the Bible Says About God

There’s much to learn from the oft-ignored metaphors for God found in Scripture.

Near the end of Hosea — one of the prophetic texts included among the so-called “minor prophets” of the Hebrew Bible — is this declaration: “I am like an evergreen cypress,” says God.

COVER_Wearing God by Lauren WinnerWhat does that mean? That God is magisterial? Immobile? Sheltering? Grand?

And what might my prayer life, my friendship with God, or my politics look like if I knew God to be like a tree?

Hosea’s arboreal simile is just one of countless instances of the Bible’s speaking about God with figurative language — language under pressure, to borrow from Rowan Williams (who was himself, in his recent book The Edge of Words, borrowing from Margaret Masterman).

It seems to me that the Scriptures use such varied language for God because no one metaphor captures all of who God is . . .

In the church (in my church, anyway) we usually limit ourselves to a sliver of that pressured language: God is shepherd; God is king; God is creator. I like this familiar language — it is instructive, and it has given rise to much prayer, and much song, and much stained glass.

But it is a small sample of Scriptural metaphor for God. It seems to me that the Scriptures use such varied language for God because no one metaphor captures all of who God is — and because at different moments in our life, different seasons in our friendship with God (“friend” being another metaphor the Bible uses for God), we might need different language.

When I speak of God as king, my attention is drawn to God’s majesty. But I might borrow biblical language of God as a rabid dog, wine, or a pigeon and get somewhere else entirely.

Consider God as clothing. (Where’s that? you might say. Well, fair enough: the Bible never exactly says “God is a cardigan sweater.” But twice Paul speaks of our being clothed in Christ, language that implies . . . that Jesus is clothing.)

Alexander McLaren, a nineteenth-century English pastor, was fond of the image. He wrote, “It takes a lifetime . . . to be clothed with Jesus. And the question comes to each of us . . . Are we daily, as sure as we put on our clothes in the morning, putting on Christ the Lord?”

I actually wrote that MacLaren line down on a notecard and taped it to my closet door. Am I indeed putting on Jesus every morning? Am I letting Him shape my identity, just as I let the dresses from the 30s try to shape me into someone voguish and cunning, just as I let the pants suits from Talbots shape me into someone professional and mature?

Do I believe that God is in fact pressed up close to me, even to the parts of myself I cannot stand, cannot bear to look at?

To speak of Jesus as clothing is to speak a certain intimacy. Clothing is close to us. That black silk dress presses close to parts of myself I love, and parts (the extra pounds, the belly) that I am ashamed of (deeply ashamed of; and then I am ashamed of the shame, which betrays my feminist commitments to love my body as it is. . . . )

Do I believe that God is in fact pressed up close to me, even to the parts of myself I cannot stand, cannot bear to look at? No — most days I don’t believe that; but I’d like to believe it more. If I could know that God wants to nestle up close to the places of my shame, as close as clothing — then the shame would dissolve.

Anything God wants to nestle against is not shameful, so if I actually believed that God wanted to be close to the parts of myself I most revile, the shame would dissolve, and I would be slightly less hidden from God, or from myself.

We are “always in God’s sight lovely, always in God’s sight as though [we] were perfect. For [we] are complete in Christ Jesus, and perfect in Christ Jesus. . . . Always do [we] stand completely washed and fully clothed in Christ.”

Those are the words of Charles Spurgeon, another nineteenth-century preacher, taking up Paul’s sartorial idiom to describe how beautiful redeemed men and women appear to God. Perhaps if I prayed to God who is clothing, I would know myself more to be lovely and perfect in the sight of God.

Perhaps God on the Cross gives life the way a mother who dies in childbirth gives life.

Another image that Christians in earlier eras attended to, but that we don’t hear much about today, is Isaiah’s picture of God as a woman in labor. In a section where the prophet Isaiah is reassuring exiles that God has not forgotten them, we hear God declare “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will bellow like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant .” God bellowing like a laboring woman to bring forth life from devastating exile.

Christians mourn Jesus’ death on the Cross, but even as we mourn, we take that death to somehow be the source of life. We take the Cross to be medicine for the world.

How is that?

It’s hard to say. I don’t mean that glibly. It is actually hard to say how the Cross, and Jesus lifted high on it in state-sponsored agony and death, is the medicine for the world. The church has searched for 2,000 years for the words to say more about how. Maybe one way to think about what happens on the Cross is contained in that image by Isaiah: the Cross is a kind of childbirth. Childbirth is painful and sometimes frightening . . . but (often; in modern America, usually), it brings about new life.

People have been making this connection between childbirth and the Cross for a long time. Marguerite d’Oingt, a thirteenth-century French nun, wrote,

“My sweet Lord . . . are you not my mother and more than my mother? . . . For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross . . . and your nerves and all your veins were broken. And truly it is no surprise that your veins burst when in one day you gave birth to the whole world. . . . Ah! sweet Lord Jesus — who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth?”

There is a reason we speak of both childbirth and Jesus’ crucifixion in the idiom of deliverance and delivery. Perhaps God on the Cross gives life the way a mother who dies in childbirth gives life.

None of these figures, of course, capture God. But they might make possible different kind of intimacies with God — different kinds of prayers, different kinds of theological musings. I admit I like thinking about these metaphors because thinking about metaphor is interesting (and I enjoy the thirteenth- and nineteenth-century reading).

Also, there is a whole library of social scientific research that argues that the images of God you hold have corollaries in your life: certain ways of imaging God suggest you’re more likely to own guns, other ways of imaging God suggest you’ll have a more robust immune system.

It tells us something about God that God’s self-revelation in Scripture draws the quotidian into depictions of divine life.

But the pursuit of the Bible’s figurative language isn’t just entertaining word play to give overactive minds something pious to do. It’s also a way of following in Jesus’ own method. Jesus was always looking around the everyday world and noticing an ordinary thing — a goat, or a fig tree, or a net full of fish, or, we might add by extension, a woman in labor, or a shirt — and then considering what that ordinary thing might have to say about God.

It tells us something about God that God’s self-revelation in Scripture draws the quotidian — clothes, mothers, trees — into depictions of divine life. If God wants to communicate with us about God’s goodness, then using the good things that God created and put in our lives, the good things that are right at hand, is precisely the strategy God would use. I find that the pursuit of these images is stretching and changing not only how I think about God, but also about the world in which I meet God.

Now I look out the window at the giant tree in my backyard (admittedly, it’s a magnolia, not an evergreen cypress) and I think: if I look at this tree long enough, will I understand more of what Hosea meant? More of God?

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.
Image courtesy of Jake Melara.

Lauren Winner
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  • Sam

    Love it.

    I have often been struck by how we, both individually and collectively, speak only of a few of the names of God. I understand how some images can speak to us in certain circumstances but we end up just adopting those and forgetting about the rest. We need to remember God in all the ways He would have us remembered.

    Thank you for sharing.

  • allinthistogether

    I agree that the many metaphors in the bible are beautiful and profound, and studying them can enrich our lives. However, I think the very nature of the Biblical language and history beg the question “can we really be 100% certain about anything about God?” ? Every reading of the Bible, and every person’s interpretation results in different understanding. So the next critical question is: Is it truthful and morally acceptable to teach that the Bible story and the God represented therein are 100% certainly real and true? I believe that it is morally questionable to teach others, and particularly children, that God is absolutely, certainly, unquestionably real, when even the Bible can’t do any better than metaphor. Uncertainty allows much more room for accuracy.

    • Sam

      I concur. I have always found such certainty, whether that there is a God or that there is not to be counter-productive. There is far more about … well, everything that we don’t know than we do and to pretend otherwise is, to me, the height of hubris.

      If you have yet to see it I highly recommend “Lesley Hazleton: The doubt essential to faith.” She “is a British-American author whose work focuses on the intersection of politics, religion, and history, especially in the Middle East” and in her Ted Talk I think she does an excellent job of showing how certainty is not the answer.