Ways of Imagining God
The sermon, Ways of Imagining God, based on Luke 15:1-10 shows how a variety of metaphors can deepen our relationship with God and see the whole world as brimming with God’s grace.
What is God like?
If a child crawled into your lap and asked, “What is God like?” What would you say?
Perhaps you would quote the opening hymn, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty. God in three persons, blessed trinity.” Their eyes begin to glaze. “Well, God is immortal, invisible, God only wise…” Perhaps you’d use trinitarian language, “God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”
Any of those answers are well and good, but the child would probably blink at you, “What? O, never mind.”
The problem is that these are abstract words that kids don’t quite yet understand. They need more concrete pictures painted in their minds because that’s how their brains are wired. We, adults, need them, too. It’s hard to relate and conceptualize to such abstractions. So, we reach for metaphors where we compare one thing to another that isn’t the same, but it gives a glimpse into a bigger picture.
We know that God is spirit, maybe the energy that courses through all creation. As theologian Paul Tillich said, God is “the ground of all being,” and “being itself.”
We Need Relatable Images
Sometimes we think of God as a more contained being. We’ve all had that image from the Sistine chapel of God with a long flowing beard and chiseled abs and pecs. Stretching and elongated finger out to Adam who reaches back.
Another theologian says instead of thinking of God as “a being up in heaven,” we would do better to believe that it is the entire cosmos if God has a body at all. I remember reading that stuff in seminary, and although I agreed with it, I felt this need within for something more personal, relatable.
One way we talk about Jesus is that we get a notion of what God is like in a more relatable fashion by looking at how Jesus behaved. It’s easier to relate to a person than being itself.
Hundreds of metaphors and names for God
Scripture bursts at the seams with relatable images of God. Various similes and metaphors pop off the pages of every biblical writer. They are ways of saying that God is like a father, God is like a mother, God is like a king, God is like a shepherd. We are familiar with these, but the list of metaphors for God is vast as there are over 100. Additionally, there are over 100 names for God in scripture that highlight various attributes of God. For example, Elohim, which means, “strong one or creator.” Jehovah-raah, a caring shepherd. Jehovah-jireh, the Lord who provides.
Jesus offered metaphors for God all the time. He compared God to mother hen brooding over her chicks and a woman down on her hands and knees searching between the cracks in her floorboard for a lost coin.
Metaphors have a way of lighting up the more imaginative parts of our brains. They are like puzzles to figure out. Scripture says, God is a rock, and God is the sun. We find scriptures that portray God as a beekeeper, a comic, and even a dog. Many of the metaphors have a shock value. I’ll bet you were shocked when I said dog! Our first instinct is to say, “No!” but then, on further reflection, there are qualities about dogs that God has—loyal, helpful, and some qualities or behaviors that we don’t want to imagine God having. With metaphors, there is always a yes and no aspect. That’s because they are literary devices, not literal descriptors.
There are so many metaphors for God that sometimes, like in Deuteronomy 32, several are stacked in quick succession. God is the father who created you, the rock that bore you, the God that birthed you. Masculine and inanimate and feminine imagery in a single breath. Lauren Winner, a professor at Duke Divinity School, says that frequently God images are stacked like a multi-layered cake to remind us that “we cannot wholly locate God in one image.” (page 9).
The Good Thing About Having So Many Metaphors
First, it gives us something from our real-world experiences to compare God to, making God seem more relatable. Second, God wants us to have an expansive view. The second of the Ten Commandments is about having a limited, concrete image of God in our minds that narrows our vision and, as they say, “puts God in the box” of our limited understanding. God is so expansive, but our language is so limited that anything we say about God will by definition wind up lacking.
The third great thing about having so many metaphors is that there are plenty more to choose from if you have trouble with any one of them. I’ve had several people tell me that because of negative experiences with their parents, they can’t get around to calling God “Father or Mother.” Even though they know God is not abusive, the language still trips them up. That is OK. We can have the concept of God as a good parent, but on a more personal level, you have lots more ways of thinking about God to choose as your go-to conceptualization.
You may even find that some images are more helpful at different stages or circumstances in life. For example, when you or someone you love has cancer, God as a healer can be much more powerful than God as a cypress tree. When you need to be creative God as a potter may be more relevant than God as a fountain.
The Downside of Metaphor
There is a downside to the use of metaphor. It happens when we forget that the personifications are literary devices, not literal descriptions. Where we get into problems, Sally McFague pointed out, is when we only use one or a few metaphors for God because we start to think that is all God is. When people began to use more inclusive metaphors and refer to God as “she,” all heck broke loose. There were all kinds of weird arguments that God is a man. Well, that breaks down quickly because it was never meant to be literal. God is also love. God is beauty. God has all the feminine aspects as well as male. Jesus compared God to a mother hen and a woman looking for a lost coin. With this type of language, there is always a “Yes!” God is like that and a “No.” God isn’t to be exclusively identified as that. God is bigger. That is the point of having so many metaphors. God is bigger.
God is bigger than your concepts of God. And any one religious idea. And any preacher’s. The good news is that God is also bigger than your problems. Your insecurities, your sin.
Try Out New Metaphors
The point of having so many metaphors and ways of thinking about God is so that we will expand, not limit, our thinking. The more images you can relate to, the more present God will feel in your life.
One of the great things about Jesus is that he looked around at things common in his environment and pointed to it and said, “God is like that.” We don’t relate to shepherds and kings and sovereigns the way Jesus’ first followers did, so we need to find ways of making connections with things we relate to as well. It’s what Jesus modeled, and all of scripture does. You have permission to be playful. God is like a cellphone. How yes, how no? God is like a Zoom meeting. How yes, how no?
God as Friend
Because I want to practice what I preach, for the last few weeks, I tried out for size a metaphor I’ve always struggled with—God as a friend. I was so familiar with the “No!” part that I never really entertained the “Yes!” part. That is, I’ve always recoiled any notions where it sounds like God, and I are equals. I’ve always thought of that as the basis of a true friendship. Unlike any friend I’ve ever had, God is also my creator, judge, savior. Friends can let you down.
But God was friends with Abraham and Moses. Jesus called his followers friends. So, I thought I’d give it a try for three weeks in preparation for this sermon.
It wasn’t easy at first. My cynicism got in the way. OK, God is my friend. What are we going to do? Hang out and have a beer? Shoot the breeze? Play a round of golf? Well, yes, why not? Why not be more intentional about realizing my connection to God when I’m doing those things? So I said, “OK, Friend, we are going to a baseball game, want to come?” The answer was always, “Yes, I’d love to.” So I took God to all kinds of places.
One of the things it helped me do is to see how God is interested in my playful spirit and that God may have one, too. Lots of scripture says this. Jesus was accused of being too rowdy with his friends. It helped me see how serious I was always picturing God and how I shut God out of some parts where God wanted to be. The playful side of God. Once you open that up, God becomes much more relatable to someone like me.
Often when I called God friend, specific friends that I have popped into my mind. Like my friend, Frank, who has been my best friend since 1st grade. God is someone who’s seen you at your best and worst and still answers your calls. God whom you can pick up with as if it hasn’t been a long time since you’ve talked. God, who you can reminisce with and is loyal.
I thought of other friends who were there for me at my lowest points who believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. I didn’t believe God wanted anything to do with me. But because they did, it was easier to find my way back to God, thinking that if my pals could do it, God could also.
I could go on with insights over the last few weeks and how it’s deepened my relationship with God. What surprised me was that I began to see my friends in a new light, to recognize in a more profound way the holiness, the image of God within them.
I’m interested in trying on God as clothing next. That’s in the Bible. As we employ different metaphors, our vision of God and the sacredness of all life and all the world expands. Everything can be holy. The earth is crammed with God’s glory; if we but shift our perspective, we can see it. I’d challenge you to pick a metaphor and play with it for a few weeks and see if it doesn’t deepen your understanding of how God relates to you.
I’ll close by telling you about when I shared my spiritual experiment with my wife. We both share more of an intellectual approach to faith, and it surprised me when she said God as a friend wasn’t too corny at all. When you’re lonely or scared, it can be powerful. When she was an adolescent, she felt lonely all the time. She lived in the country, didn’t have many close friends. But thinking of God as her friend helped. Sometimes when she was in bed, feeling the pain of loneliness, she’d flip over her hand and picture God gently holding it. And it got her through the night.
If the notion of God starts feeling too nebulous and distant, try flipping over your hand to see who grabs it. Amen.
McFague—Idolatry is the charge that McFague levels against the approach that tries to say too much, that which identifies speech about God with the actual nature of God in a literal (i.e. naively realist) fashion30. She roots this objection both in the Hebraic tradition of the God who cannot be depicted by any image and who cannot be named, and also in an understanding of God who, as the source and sum of all being, cannot be referred to directly or modelled exactly by means of parts of that being31. PHD Dissertation on Sally. P. 33