Many of our metaphors for God are based on human relationships: lord, king, parent, friend, even lover. All of these images for God and more can be found in Scripture, but once they are compared to our relatives, they come to life in a new way. While some of those human metaphors are no longer contemporary for us, the personal relationships are certainly fraught with associations.
When we inevitably compare our metaphors for God to the people in our own lives, we cannot help transferring some of our feelings about, for example, our earthly father onto God the Father. If those relationships are healthy, our faith can be bolstered by leaning into whatever that metaphor means to us. When we are betrayed or abused within such relationships, that damage may transfer onto our relationship with God as well.
Metaphors for God
- What are the metaphors for God you most frequently lean on? Choose from these or name your own.
Father: “Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” (Matthew 6:8-9)
Mother : “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37)
Friend: “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)
- Reflect on how your relationship with someone who has held one of those roles in your life might influence your understanding or experience of God. How and why might you try to detach your metaphors for God from that person in your life?
Is God the “perfect version”?
No human metaphor fully encapsulates who God is or what roles God plays in human lives. Yet when we name God according to the roles of the most influential people in our lives—our closest relations—we might naturally imagine that God is only like the best version of that role.
Scripture can reinforce that tendency. For example:
“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:9-11)
Does that mean that everything God does is wonderful? Are we unable to critique or lament God’s actions? Should we be doing all the things God does in our relationships?
Or maybe, just maybe, God is like a parent in many ways, but not as the ideal parent. Perhaps God is like a real friend, not an ideal friend.
As one in the midst of intense parenting years (during a pandemic) I recognize many of God’s actions in Scripture as those of a parent responding to a child, but they are not all admirable actions we ought to aspire to. For example:
- The desire to wipe them out and start over (Noah) followed by regret and commitment not to do so again
- Anger and rash responses (Numbers 25)
- God’s actions are changed through bargaining, for example, with Moses (Exodus 32) and as Jesus with the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:21-28)
Verbs, Not Nouns
What if Scripture is not a guidebook for how to imagine God in human roles in a way in which we hold ourselves to an impossible standard in our relationships, trying to act as God does. A better lesson to learn from relational metaphors for God is that God becomes incarnate, like us, involved and invested in relationships with us, which is messy and complicated indeed.
Try to focus on verbs, not nouns, when looking for relationship metaphors for God in Scripture. It is not as if a simple exercise with a concordance will unearth every reference there is to God acting like a mother (or friend, lover, or so on), because the key words may not be there. But ask someone who has held that role to identify the actions of God that are similar to their experiences and illustrations abound.
Making conscious choices
Why even bother? Can we not just stick with metaphors for God as shepherd, king and father? After all, those metaphors fill our favorite older hymns.
Resonance—feeling that our experience is meaningful and valued—is a powerful force in faith formation and nurturing belonging, creating a hunger for more experiences of connection with who God is and deeper relationship with one another. In a culture where experience with church or familiarity with biblical imagery cannot be assumed, resonating with and unpacking the most important relationships in people’s lives is as compelling as evangelism can be.
- Have you ever made a conscious effort to expand the metaphors for God that are frequently used among those you lead? What were the challenges or joys of those attempts?
- When we meet resistance or outsized reactions to God/Scripture/church from people of any age, might we ask, “What is behind that reaction?” Naming the problems with associating metaphors for God with troubled human relationships can help separate them, potentially creating an openness to God.