Any and all language about God is metaphorical. And that does not lessen the power of the words we use, merely tempers them a bit. And so whether God is Father or Creator or Mother or Papa or יהוה any of the other numerous possibilities, the best any word can do is describe a tiny bit of the one who is utterly indescribable.
Likewise, we use metaphorical images to describe life. The words we choose to describe the life God gives are powerful, but similarly tempered by their symbolic roles. So if we describe life as a battle against cosmic forces, we don’t mean literally a battle with literal armies lined up on opposite sides of a literal battlefield literally attacking each other. We mean battle as in a struggle, or opposition to a force at work.
There are other metaphors for a life of faith, of course. I have heard it described variously as a race or a dance or a journey, for example. None of these are literal, but supply symbolic meaning to our approach to living.
I happen to believe that any of these other three metaphors are superior to the metaphor of the battle. My last post explained some of the reasons why I think the battle image doesn’t work as well any more, focusing on the “Armor of God” passage in Ephesians 6. I think, essentially, that what the image conveyed in that letter 2,000 years ago doesn’t get conveyed today.
At different times of life, different metaphors work better than others. There are times when my life has felt like a battle, to be sure. But it was always a temporary deal. Like when the thing I was battling was out of the way, I moved on. So I guess I think of it more as an obstacle in the way of my journey than a battle. The devil doesn’t so much fight me as put things in my way.
What does that say about my theology? I’m still thinking on that, but part of what it says is that I really do think about salvation as a way or a journey. I thought about it that way even before I learned enough Wesleyan theology to realize that’s what I thought! Of course the Wesleys used multiple images to describe salvation, but the metaphor of a multi-stage journey toward “perfection” is the dominant one.
So I think of the driving force of faith as an impulse to get somewhere, much more so than an impulse to defeat something. There will likely be metaphorical obstacles to overcome and metaphorical adversaries to fight against as we go, but ultimately we’re doing it because we’re going. The point is not to conquer the enemy; the point is to get to the place where the enemy doesn’t want us to go.
In Ephesians 6, the term “full armor” is used - πανοπλίαν – and it is only used one other place in the entire New Testament. This fact highlights its significant, particular meaning. The soldier must put on the “full armor” specifically contrasted with only partial armor, in order to be fully prepared for battle. The point being that one must be fully prepared for the work to be done.
And so I can convey the same meaning by saying that we need to be fully packed for the journey, not just a water bottle and granola bar for an afternoon hike in the woods, but the back of the mini-van stuffed with every thing we might conceivably need for the two week vacation. And if I can convey the same meaning using a different metaphor, I think that’s okay.
Finally, I just think life these days is too violent to add to it with violent faith images. Recent pictures of people wielding assault weapons at a public rally only serve to solidify that point. Violence has become normal, expected, no big deal. Why add to that with equally violent responses? Shouldn’t people of God offer an alternative? Something different?
We’re not supposed to meet evil with more evil. We’re supposed to meet evil with good. (Romans 12) In The Screwtape Letters (still my favorite C.S. Lewis book), this quote of Luther appears just after the preface: “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to the texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.” The devil hates joy, and I find that to be much more useful in overcoming those obstacles than anything else.
What’s your favorite metaphor for life? What words do you use most often to talk about living the way God intends that we live? I’m curious to hear your thoughts.
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