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The Value of Metaphor in Christian Worship

Written by Eric Anderson on


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What is your gut reaction when you hear phrases like:

“The scandal of the Gospel,”
“The insanity of the cross,” or
“If you do not hate your father and mother, you’re not worthy of me.” (Jesus)?

Scandal, insanity, hate – sounds like a national news headline! If you’re like me, something bristles inside of you when you hear or read shocking words such as these that typically have negative connotations, especially when talking about the character of God. A few weeks ago, my church finally joined thousands of other congregations across the world in singing Cory Asbury’s “Reckless Love.” Admittedly, it took us a while to reach the decision to use this song. Here is a summary of how my personal thought process went:

“Wow, what a great song!” to…
“Wow, people have a lot to say about that song!” to…
“I’m not sure it’s worth the risk to sing that song.” to…
“I can’t get that song out of my mind.” to…
“We NEED the message of that song.” to…
“I can’t find another song that says what that song says about God’s love-pursuit.” and finally…
“We’re doing it!”

Don’t worry, I’m not going to try to add anything to the many thoughts that have been expressed about “Reckless Love” over the last few months, nor am I building a case that every church should use this song in worship. I will say that I love the fact that this song has provoked a very important conversation about the language of Christian worship. Like many worship leaders, I have read numerous articles, blogs, emails, and even group texts where key questions are being discussed with a renewed sense of urgency, due in part to Cory Asbury’s song – questions like:

• How important is Biblical integrity with regard to the lyrics we sing in church?
• Where does creativity step beyond the important boundaries of orthodoxy?
• Why are there really great churches that take completely different positions?
• Is controversy enough reason to not sing a particular song in worship?

It’s actually comforting to me that the Church has been wrestling through these issues for more than a thousand years. With the exception of the first question about Biblical integrity (answer: infinitely important), none of us has to answer these questions on behalf of the rest of the world! We are each accountable for that which God has entrusted to us in our context. Whatever your personal thoughts are about “Reckless Love,” we can agree that this song has brought to center stage an important conversation about the use of language – specifically metaphor – in corporate worship gatherings. As a worship pastor, I wanted to share some thoughts about the importance of metaphor, as we try to navigate the intersection of doctrinal purity and compelling artistry in corporate worship.

Merriam-Webster defines metaphor as: “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them (as in drowning in money).”

We get one image in our mind when we hear someone say, “She cried hard.” And another when we hear, “She wept a river of tears that night.” No one has ever cried a literal river of tears, but the picture is much more vivid – the depth of despair and the angst felt by this woman are much more apparent with the use of metaphor, in that her tears are compared to the immensity and intensity of a river.

The older I get the more aware I have become of the fact that language often fails to give us good, exhaustive terms and categories for certain concepts about God. (A little confession… sometimes it irks the artist in me when people try!) There will always be missing pieces to the full picture of God, which is okay. The use of metaphor can be very helpful in giving us different angles or vantage points of profound concepts that we are not capable of wrapping our minds around.

Here are 3 thoughts about the value of metaphor in Christian worship:

1. Metaphor is all over the Bible

From the trees clapping and fields shouting with joy in the Psalms, to beasts with six wings covered with eyes in the book of Revelation, God knows we need a wide range of words and phrases to help us know even a fraction about Him. Often, we see metaphor used in the Scripture when making comparisons between the Creator and the creature:

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25, ESV).

Is this saying that God is foolish? Or weak? Not at all. Rather we see a staggering comparison between God’s character and ours as it relates to wisdom and strength. Paul could have said simply “God is wiser and stronger than humans.” Why risk complicating this with words that carry such baggage? I believe Paul wanted us to have a point of reference, provoking us to think about the wisest person to ever live on our planet. That person’s wisdom doesn’t even come close to the simplest of thoughts of our God. Likewise, the strongest leader or warrior cannot compare to the most basic ways God would ever exert His strength. Paul’s use of metaphor in this verse helps us form a mental image, encouraging us to go ahead and try comparing what we know as humans to what God knows.

Furthermore, Jesus uses metaphors like bread, water, and a vine to describe Himself, which give us a mental image of how He nourishes those who belong to Him.

2. Metaphor helps us engage our imaginations

None of us have yet experienced the power, the joy, the shalom of Heaven. Yet Jesus calls us to live this life for that place (Matt. 6:19-20). Without engaging our imaginations in what the Bible says about Heaven, there will be nothing compelling enough to live for beyond this life. I love this quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

Good leaders know how to motivate their people by first capturing their imaginations – the buy-in, the sense of responsibility will be so much stronger, and the end-product will be better.

In his book “You Are What You Love,” James K.A. Smith builds a case that imagination is central to informing our loves:

“Formative Christian worship paints a picture of the beauty of the Lord – and a vision of the shalom he desires for creation – in a way that captures our imagination. If we act toward what we long for, and if we long for what has captured our imagination, then re-formative Christian worship needs to capture our imagination” (p. 91).

We must engage our imaginations to understand what is implied by the use of metaphor. We desperately need the art that dives below the surface of our everyday language, exposing us to unique snapshots of who God is and what He’s done. When our Spirit-filled imaginations are captured, we are completely transformed.

3. Metaphor can serve the Church in fostering a sense of humility

It is human nature to try to contain God. It started in the garden, as Adam and Eve rushed at the chance to know “all that God knows” – look where that got us. It continued at the Tower of Babel, as bricks were piled up to try to physically reach God. God will never be able to be contained by finite creatures because He is infinite in all of His attributes. While there is much value in working through theology systematically, and we are all beneficiaries from the rigorous (even death-defying) work done at the Councils in developing the Creeds, the use of certain helpful metaphors can remind us that God is greater than our ability to comprehend.

“How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I would count them they are more than the sand.” (Psalm 139:17-18, ESV)

In this particular song, David expressed humbly that God’s thoughts are immeasurable, unquantifiable, beyond his (or anyone else’s) ability to contain within our human understanding.

To be sure, we are accountable before God for how we use language. I don’t believe “anything goes, so long as it is connected to art.” We must make absolutely sure we communicate clearly and accurately about God when using metaphor or any other form of language. Likewise, we must resist over-categorizing or over-simplifying concepts that are beyond our full comprehension. This can produce some beautiful fruit in the life of a church – when we’re humble enough to make room for mystery in our theology. A well-placed metaphor in worship can be helpful in giving us a way to express that mystery.

How can we know we’re getting this right in our worship gatherings? God cares deeply about us knowing and proclaiming the truth about Him, so who better to guide us than His Spirit? If we are in tune with the Holy Spirit, we will be able to discern what to include or avoid in worshiping Him. As we do, it should always align with the Bible. Secondarily, we need worship leaders to be experts in the matter of context. If the context is not clear, metaphors “tank” (sorry, couldn’t resist!). I have made the mistake of assuming people understood where I was coming from artistically only to learn that confusion was leading to mistrust… and fast. Helping people understand context when we use different metaphors in our worship songs is essential. I have found that generally, people appreciate finding ways to say things that bring a little different angle than what has been expressed before. And, God loves it when His children find new ways of saying things in worship – after all, He commanded us to do it (Ps. 149:1)!

We are not all wired the same, so some of you reading this might be thinking that metaphor unnecessarily complicates things. For example, maybe it is enough for you to know simply that “God pursues us.” But for some of us, the image of a God who chases us down, climbs mountains, kicks down walls, tears down lies, and lights up shadows to rescue us engages our emotions on a whole different level, bringing a fresh passion to our worship. This kind of relentless, throw-caution-to-the-wind pursuit is beyond categories. We will never be able to make sense of it entirely – in fact, even the angels long to understand this kind of behavior from their God (1 Pet. 1:12). May we each leave room for mystery in our worship, as we respond to the love of God that can have the appearance of being… dare I say it… reckless.

Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson serves College Park Church as the Pastor of Worship Arts. He is most passionate about the privilege to create environments where people connect deeply with the Lord in worship! When he’s not writing or singing music, Eric enjoys spending time with his family and his fellow musicians.

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