A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
And we want to be somewhere else.
Misreading biblical metaphors
Metaphors borrow an experience from one sphere of life and project it onto another; a wife in suburbia is replaced with the picture of a mamma bear in the wilderness. Scripture uses boatloads of metaphors, but—unless we know how to navigate them—those ships never reach port. They are tossed about in the winds and waves of misunderstanding.
When reading biblical metaphors about God—like he is our father—we remember earthly pictures of fatherhood and project them onto the heavenly skies, and then think we understand God better. And perhaps we do, but only somewhat.
Only “somewhat” because we intuitively treat biblical metaphors as anthropomorphic; we take the human experience of fatherhood and project an image of our dads onto God.
But our notion of fatherhood is defective. Our fathers failed us. When we project our distorted picture of fatherhood onto God, we imagine him to be uncontrollably angry or too distracted to attend our soccer game. Anthropomorphic metaphors rob us of the power of God’s message.
Reading biblical metaphors
We instinctively sense that anthropomorphic metaphors—projecting human weakness upon God—will fail to bring us the inner joy God intends. That’s okay. Scripture teaches that its metaphors are theo-pomorphic. They are not us projecting our visible, imperfect reality onto God, but God projecting his unseen, perfect reality onto us.
Humanity didn’t create marriage and say, “Hey, maybe God is like that.” Instead, God created marriage to say to us, “Hey, this is who I am.” He is projecting his nature onto us. That’s why the Bible begins with a marriage of Adam and Eve and it ends with the marriage feast of the Lamb.
It means that love and marriage are not human creations; they are the nature of God imaged onto us. It means that God created human marriage as a reflection of his nature, and his nature now embraces an affection for us.
Seeing God in the Song of Solomon
For a day or two—a week is better—meditate on the following two verses from the Song of Solomon ( for help with scriptural mediation, read this article). Pray for God’s Spirit to help you see these metaphors as expressions of God’s heart for you:
“You have captivated my heart, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes” (SOS 4:9):
- Imagine for one moment that you can captivate God’s heart. Simply by looking at him.
- It means he is ravished with us. He is dying—he literally died—to buy us back from the self-inflicted prison of adulterous idolatry (Hos. 2:14-3:5).
Or, “Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me” (SOS 6:5):
- There are times a loved one—a child, spouse, or betrothed—looks at us, and inwardly we gasp. Our affection is so powerful we ache. We need to look away.
- God declares that our eyes on him overpowers his heart; he too aches.
An old Arabian proverb declares: He is the best storyteller who can turn an ear into an eye.
Scripture overflows with stories and metaphors that turn God’s words into images of his nature. Let’s abandon our man-centered distortions of God and receive the vision that he himself paints when he calls us his masterpiece, friend, and (breathtakingly) his spouse.
But now that you know my license plate, I’ll have to be more careful when I’m tempted to cut you off on the freeway.