Do you remember what a metaphor is? In 3rd grade you should have learned that a metaphor is a literary device that describes something in terms of something else: “Love is a rose”, “The sun smiled at me”, “Life is like a box of chocolates”, and so on.
Most of us communicate with metaphors without ever realizing it. For example, when you use phrases like, “I didn’t spend enough time studying”, or “I wasted too much time today”, or “Save time by taking a shortcut”, you are invoking a metaphor. Time, of course, isn’t a physical object that can be collected, amassed, or divested. Instead, all of these phrases are actually based on a root metaphor that presents the concept of time via the concept of money.
Metaphors emphasize some things, but they also hide other things. So, on the one hand, our time/money metaphor clearly stresses that your use of time can be productive or unproductive, and that careful thought must be given to what activities you should tackle. But on the other hand, the time/money metaphor ignores the fact that everybody experiences time in exactly the same way – everyone has 24 hours each day, and nobody can “spend” and extra amount of it. Extra time can’t be bought or sold, and the ownership of time is not slanted toward the rich and the powerful.
So – if I haven’t lost you already – what metaphors do you use to think about spiritual formation? I’ll bet you’ve never really thought about it, have you? To get you started, I’ll give you three primary metaphors that I hear over and over used to describe spirituality:
- Metaphor of organic growth. For example – “The fruits of the Spirit”, “My joy has withered away over the years”, “Her sermon planted seeds in my heart”.
- Metaphor of a journey. For example – “I had a mountain-top experience”, “I’m in a dark place”, “I’ve been wandering in the desert”, “She has a lot of baggage”.
- Metaphor of death and resurrection. For example – “I feel reborn”, “My old habits are dying away”, “My heart feels lifeless”. The Apostle Paul also used this metaphor a lot – “I have been crucified with Christ, and it no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2), “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8).
Do you recognize any of these metaphors from your own life? Perhaps you’ve primarily found the journey metaphor useful for describing your spirit – but now you feel lost. Or maybe you’ve typically tended towards the organic growth metaphor – but lately you’ve been feeling a bit barren. Whatever metaphor you feel most comfortable with, I want to challenge you with this question – is your metaphor hiding something from you? Since every metaphor always downplays some aspect of reality – and spiritual formation is a complex, multi-faceted experience that is difficult to reduce to a single perspective – have you been tricked into thinking there’s only one way to live out your spirituality?
Maybe you are feeling barren because you’ve forgotten that you are more than just a tree – you’re more than a home to birds or a cool, shady place for the neighborhood kids to gather. What would happen if you ripped your roots out of the earth and pruned back some of that overgrowth? What would your life look like if you dumped the dead weight and struck out on an adventure with nothing but high hopes for where you’ll end up?
Maybe you are feeling lost because you’ve forgotten life doesn’t always need a map – doesn’t your corporate job keep you going-going-going and climbing enough ladders already? Why not stop moving for a season, take a risk, throw some seeds in the ground and see what comes up? Why not sit still long enough to allow thick, mossy growth to sprout up and envelop you with a rich web of peace?
Maybe you’re feeling dead inside and have been trying to roll away the stone from the mouth of the tomb for too long – why not pull the covers off your ears long enough to hear Jesus call out, “Lazarus, come forth!” What if you began to notice that lifelessness always warms up into springtime, or that hope may very well be waiting to surprise you just around the next corner?
Try on a new metaphor today; you may be surprised at what you’ve been missing.