How Did I Miss That?
Part 30: Words are Metaphors
Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. James 1:21b-22
There are many words that, when spoken to another, create a visual sense of shared meaning, at least in general terms. For example, if I say, “I see a large rock,” you would envision something hard, inanimate, and bigger than a watermelon. The word rock is a metaphor for the broad swath of reality that we call rocks, but the word is not the reality. There is another category of words that point to something less tangible. For example, if I say, “I love her,” or “That is a beautiful tree,” you might be able to imagine the emotion I express but there will be little or no shared visualization of the detail behind the word. The important point here is that words are metaphors, or our names for different things we encounter in our environment. Words are not the things themselves. Much of the Bible falls into the latter category of words – those that point us in a direction, but cannot give us the individualistic experience they describe. We see this manifesting in our relationships, where I use certain words to express something and my partner hears those same words, but envisions something very different.
While many believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, as 2 Timothy 3:16 tells us, God did not dictate the Bible to its writers. I believe the writers had a wordless God-encounter that they graciously put into words for our sake. The words recorded were their own, however, not God’s. Verbally, our God is mostly silent; yet God inspires us with regularity. Trying to contain that inspiration in words to share with others is difficult at best. Trying to describe that inspiration in a way that allows others to attain the experience is essentially impossible.
So, if words are only metaphors, dare we believe anything in the Bible? Certainly so! Metaphors are full of meaning and truth, providing important context for facts, which too often leave us feeling alone and confused. Being a metaphor does not mean something is not true – in fact, metaphors may express truth more accurately and on several different levels. Attempting to understand something deep and powerful from a verbal description, as opposed to an actual experience, often leads to a shallow and partial understanding. We may understand the letter of the communication but completely miss its meaning. We must work to understand a metaphor. It invites us to wrestle with it, pondering what it says about God, about life, and about us. Seldom will answers come quickly or easily, and our understandings may change at different stages of our lives. The beauty and purpose of metaphor is that it leads us on a journey of discovery, as opposed to a one-time destination. The goal of spiritual development is not to attain an intellectual understanding of the words, but to experience the divine Living Word to which the words point. Metaphors are much better suited to this latter task. The Living Word is implanted within every being, as the writer of James tells us. We need not understand it so much as allow it to express.