About a month ago, Grace wrote an insightful article on how our understanding of the “sanctification as war” metaphor often does not square with the Biblical portrayal of that metaphor. She argued that remapping the metaphor properly can have vast implications for Christians and their understanding of God’s sanctifying work in their lives, with which I heartily agree!
I wanted to build on her piece and take a related but different tack: God gives us many metaphors—all of which are necessary and helpful to our understanding about God, the Gospel, and the Christian life. We need God’s many metaphors because we all interpret life through a variety of metaphors. Moreover, our tendency is to elevate certain metaphors above others, to create controlling metaphors, so that we pare away or ignore metaphors at odds with our dominant ones. We often engage in a sort of metaphorical reductionism that can ultimately warp our understanding about who God is and his work in our lives.
The Problem of Controlling Metaphors
Let us once again consider the metaphor of sanctification is war. And let me say that I think sanctification as war is an excellent metaphor and a thoroughly Biblical one—Ephesians 6:10-24, 2 Tim 2:3-4, and 1 Peter 2:11 are some passages that lead to this unmistakable conclusion. But the problem is when this metaphor becomes a controlling one, when it becomes more foundational than any other.
Metaphors are effective because they can convey a whole set of ideas or a complex of emotions with less words and often more clarity than long-winded paragraphs. They also carry a powerful undercurrent of connotation. And we see this in the metaphor of sanctification is war. For even if we properly understand that Christ is our great champion who has already routed the enemy, the main connotations regarding war are inevitably struggle and conflict. Thus, if your dominant metaphor for sanctification or even the Christian life is war, it is difficult to escape the idea of having to get out there and fight.
Furthermore, controlling metaphors can cause us to focus on similar metaphors. For many years war was my dominant metaphor. And thus it comes as no surprise that I also gravitated towards the metaphor of the Christian life as running a race. With a paradigm that preached struggle and conflict, I selectively saw Scripture as emphasizing similar metaphors, thus further reinforcing my original metaphor.
Passages like Psalm 23, “YHWH is shepherd, I shall not want” became “I must fight to believe that YHWH is my shepherd, I must strive to be content in all things, to know that God is sufficient for all my needs.” And while there is truth to such statements and such an application could be appropriate at times, it misses the true tenor of the psalm, which is meant to be a respite for weary, harried, fearful saints today as it has been in ages past. I was meant to read the psalm and be comforted, but instead I was thrown back into the fray.
Our Tendency & God’s Diversity
Why do we have this tendency towards controlling metaphors, toward reductionism? I may be jumping into waters too deep for me, but I believe the Trinity is relevant here as with everything else. Generalizations are always dangerous, but at least from what I’ve read and observed, Western theology (and by Western I mean the theological tradition of the Latin West regarding the Trinity in contrast to Eastern Orthodox theology) does seem to emphasize the oneness (unity) of God over his threeness (diversity). An easy test: How often do you think of God as three persons vs. God as one? And I don’t mean contemplating the persons of God individually, but when you think about God as God, I would wager to guess most of us chiefly think of him as the one God rather than the three-personed God.
Knowing that theology affects all aspects of life, I believe our Western tendency to overemphasize the oneness of God leads us away from holding diverse metaphors in balance and instead toward seeking a unifying paradigm that overrides all others—a key, or the secret—for understanding the Christian life. I see this in myself when I reflect on my theological journey. I am constantly moving from one way of thinking about the Christian life to another, thinking “At last! I’ve found the way to live!” While in college, sanctification was war; post-college, sanctification was rest—metaphorically laying down my arms and coming to repose in the bosom of Christ. And with each metaphor, I thought I had found the true way, the true model of Christian living.
Instead I want to say that we need the metaphor of war and the metaphor of rest. Both are useful and helpful and can minister to my soul—spurring me to action when needed and teaching me to trust when needed, and ideally spurring me to action while finding rest in Christ. Perhaps it cannot be avoided, but I don’t want to promote my “not A, not B, but A and B” approach as the solution, the new key, the new paradigm because it’s not just A and B, but A and B and C and really the infinitude that is God himself. God gives us many metaphors so that we might marvel and catch but a glimpse of the breathtaking diversity of his wondrous attributes and dealings with man. God gives us many metaphors because they reveal something about the one God in three persons and teach us how to live.
A Tale of Two Metaphors
I’ll conclude with an example of how the metaphor of refuge can provide a helpful balance to the metaphor of war, even though they aren’t in direct correspondence. Though one is primarily about sanctification and the other about God’s nature and role in our life, God gives us many metaphors that can speak to each other in surprising ways.
Now the Psalms frequently talk about how God is a refuge (Psa. 31, 34, 46, 71, 91, 118–just to name a few!). And God as refuge evokes for me an image of a weary, wizened old man caught outside in a frenzied tempest (think King Lear but without defiance). The winds howl and lightning streaks across the sky. In a brief flash of lightning he spies a cave carved into the hillside and he scurries towards it. There he finds warmth and protection as the storm rages on outside. And it is this idea of care and rest and safety from the tempests of life that can be so comforting for someone who is in dire straits, desperate to breathe.
The metaphor of refuge in contrast to the metaphor of war is helpful because sometimes we don’t feel like we have much fight in us. And though the call to fight isn’t a call to fight in our own strength, it can be discouraging. Perhaps you’ve been battling a particular sin and you feel like you’ve been losing in recent months. Or maybe you have a particular health problem that you just can’t shake, and you feel tired of dealing with it, tired of dealing with the temptations to bitterness and despair. On top of it all, you come home after a long day of work to find out there’s a family tragedy. In that moment you’re tempted to be angry or apathetic. You want to flee to alcohol or pornography or Facebook or retail therapy—just something to take the edge off the troubles of life—and the last thing you feel able to do is to fight.
This is what God says to you: Come weary soldier, come tired one, hide yourself in me. I am a better refuge than those things you look to. Flee to me. Crawl to me. Hide yourself in me until the storm passes. It will not touch you. It cannot for I am your refuge and your fortress.
God gives us many metaphors, of both refuge and war, of a woman in labor and of a good shepherd. So may we go further up and further in, mining the the rich treasures of the metaphors he has given to us, his beloved bride.