Friday, May 28, 2010

Biblical Metaphors of God's Presence


Only God can transform us. To be transformed by God we must enter and live in his presence. But what is it in us that gets transformed? The biblical answer is: “spirit.” In this chapter I will present an understanding of “spirit” by using what I refer to as biblical metaphors of spiritual transformation.

David cried out to God, "What is man that you are mindful of him?"[1] While the emphasis in this verse is on God's loving care for persons, David wonders about the meaning of persons: "What is man?" To ask the question of our self-identity is to be in a bathysphere floating towards the ocean’s floor. Simply put, it’s a profoundly deep question. Many claim that gaining a biblical answer to this question takes us a long way towards spiritual and emotional stability.[2]

Christian theists believe that, as persons, we are qualitatively different from the rest of God's creation.[3] Scholars have written volumes attempting to identify the exact nature of this qualitative distinction. We will say that persons are spiritual creations. "Spirit" is that which separates persons from plants and animals.[4]

This question of our spiritual nature is not merely academic. When we pray we may find the question rising in our hearts, "God, who am I?" For this reason Thomas Merton felt that developing a theological anthropology was important for a life of prayer.[5]

If persons are essentially spiritual creations, what is "spirit"? The Bible provides us with many "metaphors of spirit." These metaphors do not give definitions or point-for-point descriptions of "spirit," but rather gesture towards the nature of persons as spiritual creations. A "metaphor" is the use of a word, phrase, image, or object to create a framework through which we express or view some aspect of reality or experience.[6] Metaphorical description is necessary because most, if not all, of our common experience cannot be captured in the steel nets of literal language.[7]

To refer to spiritual experience we must often speak metaphorically. Consider, as an example, this metaphorical description of the spiritual life from Thomas Merton: “I consider that the spiritual life is the life of man's real self, the life of that interior self whose flame is so often allowed to be smothered under the ashes of anxiety and futile concern.”[8]

Here Merton uses three biblical metaphors:
1) The spiritual life is that which is most real about persons.
2) The spiritual life is something interior ("below the surface"; "deep inside"; see, e.g., Proverbs 20:5).
3) Spirit is "energy," "fire." Thus it can be "smothered" or "quenched."

This brief metaphorical description of the spiritual life issues an invitation to consider viewing one's life through its lens.

The biblical metaphors of spirit, while not providing exact definitions, gesture towards the life of the spirit and invite us to participate in this life. They are all grounded in a common understanding of spirituality, which is: To be "spiritual" is to be in God's presence; to be "unspiritual" is to be apart from God.[9]

We can further categorize the biblical metaphors of spirit into types. Our first example is a type of volitional metaphor and is found in Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God." To "be still" means, literally, to "cease struggling." This means that if we are to be transformed we must stop struggling and resisting God and surrender to God. Therefore, spirit is something that can either surrender to God or resist God. When we are surrendered to God then we are, in the best sense, “spiritual.” To be wholly surrendered to God is a way of being in the presence of God.

Our second metaphor of the spiritual life is a type of activity metaphor: "Rest in the Lord, O my soul." As Hebrews 6:19 says, "We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure." To be in God's presence means to cease from certain activities so our spirit, like a ship, might be anchored to God who is the dock. To be spiritual is to live securely anchored to God's Holy Spirit. Conversely, our spirit is lost when it becomes a "restless, drifting, wandering soul." This is spiritual insecurity. Therefore, spirit is something that can be either securely anchored or drift. To be anchored to God is a way of being in God’s presence.

Our third metaphorical description is a type of part/whole metaphor, and speaks of having an "undivided heart" or a "whole heart" (Psalm 86:11). The implication is that we cannot both be in God's presence and simultaneously attend to someone or something else. One can’t multi-task the God-relationship. Henri Nouwen has said that the basic question of the spiritual life is: Who do we belong to? To live out of God's presence is to be, as James 1:8 says, dipsuchos. It is to have "two psyches," or be "two-hearted." In such a condition the spirit is divided regarding its allegiance, and is said to be "fragmented." In such a state of spiritual dipsuchos the human spirit has two lovers. I have found it often happens that when we go alone to a quiet place to pray we are shown how divided our spirits are. Therefore, spirit is something that can be either whole or divided into parts. To be in God’s presence is to be whole-hearted towards God.

Our fourth metaphor of spirit is the central biblical one of energy. "Spirit" is fire. When in God's presence there may come "tongues of flame." We can be "on fire" towards God. Nouwen often speaks of our need, therefore, to "tend the fire within." Conversely, spirit can be "quenched," or it can "burn out."[10] A colleague in ministry, speaking of his need for spiritual renewal, once said to me, "What I feel I now need in my life is a burning bush." Spirit burns, therefore we must tend it to keep it from burning out and guard it so it will not be quenched. To be in the presence of God is to have the fire burning inside one’s heart.

Our fifth example is a type of cathartic (cleansing) metaphor: "Create in me a clean heart, O God." "Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow."[11] The implication is that we truly dwell in God's presence only with pure hearts. To have a pure heart, as Kierkegaard wrote, is "to will one thing." Conversely, our hearts can be "stained," "blemished, " and covered with "blots," thus "impure." The central biblical image of sin is "stain." Many agree that the first step to spiritual renewal always involves confession, repentance, and receiving forgiveness. Clean hands and pure hearts are necessary preconditions for loving God. Therefore, spirit is something that can be spotless or stained, clean or unclean, acceptable or unacceptable to God. If you want to ascend the hill of the Lord to stand in God’s holy presence clean hands and a pure heart are needed.[12]

Our sixth and seventh examples are both types of dwelling metaphors. The first speaks of "remaining in" or "abiding in" Jesus: "Remain in me, and I will remain in you."[13] We can be said to dwell with Jesus if we are branches, connected to the True Vine. To be out of Jesus' influence is to become "disconnected" from the vine, possibly to attach oneself to other sources for sustenance. Therefore, spirit can attach itself to God or be detached from God. To be in the presence of God is to be attached to him and get one’s life-resources from him.

Another dwelling metaphor speaks of God as "our fortress and strength." When we live within the walls of God's protective fortress, "what shall we fear?" Thus Nouwen asks the question, "Do you live in the house of God or the house of fear?"[14] It is in God's house that our spirits find comfort, encouragement, and strength for the journey. But when we dwell outside these protective walls and life's attacks come, fear and anxiety predominate. It is in this light that Nouwen offers his "proof" that prayer works. We know that prayer works because when we do not pray our lives are more filled with fears and anxieties.[15] Therefore, spirit has a home, and is endangered when it makes its home anything but God. To enter into the presence of God is to live in God’s fortress.

Our last three metaphors of spiritual transformation are spatial, and indicate the "location" of spirit. The first concerns "creating a space in your heart" for God. Jesus said, "But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen" (Matt. 6:6). This "upper room" or "secret place" is a heart where Jesus is allowed to live. Our heart is allowed to be Christ's home. As an old hymn asks, "Have You Any Room for Jesus?" But our "rooms" can be "cluttered," with no space for God. Therefore, spirit is a roomy space that can be cluttered with so many distractions that God has no opportunity to enter in. The heart has a resting place, a hiding place. Enter in, for God’s presence is there.

A second spatial metaphor is found in the Quaker expression "to center down." In both the Old and New Testaments the heart is the "center" or "seat" of all that is unique to persons, to include the will, the passions, thought, and the religious center to which God turns.[16] We are to "love the Lord with all our heart." God, Who seeks out all things, "knows our hearts."[17] The movement of our spiritual life should be "centrifugal," proceeding from the center of our being, rather than a "centripetal" movement that begins with the surface things of life and attempts to move through them to the heart of life. Because we so easily stray from center it is no wonder we often find little meaning in our activity. Therefore, spirit concerns the central reality of persons, and determines all activity and desire. It is the source of being which, in the spiritual life, precedes doing. To live centered on God is to live in God’s presence.

Our final metaphor of the spiritual life is also spatial, and speaks of there being "a temple within." Paul tells the Corinthians that, individually and corporately, they are temples of God's Holy Spirit.[18] Paul Tournier refers to this inner temple as "the holy sepulchre within." Tournier refers to this by asking, "What is there then within this sepulchre where all the repressed rubbish of all humanity as well as our own is rotting?"[19] One worship song says “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary.” Another says “purify my heart.” Conversely, Jesus said we can "whitewash" this sanctuary. This would be to live a life of facade, pretense, what Merton called the "false self." Therefore, spirit is a holy place where God's Spirit dwells. To be "spiritual" is to allow God to reign in one's spirit, which is God's rightful dwelling place. To be "unspiritual" is to occupy that dwelling place with our own ego as king, while painting the outside so as to appear to be spiritual.

There are many metaphors of spiritual transformation.[20] They figuratively define what it means to be in the presence of God, and tell us that spiritual transformation comes as we:
- Surrender to God.
- Anchor ourselves to God.
- Are whole-hearted towards God.
- Tend the fire within.
- Remain clean before God.
- Attach ourselves to God.
- Dwell in God's fortress.
- Make room in our heart for God.
- Center our life on God.
- Walk in holiness.[21]

[1] Psalm 8:4a
[2] See Christ-Centered Therapy, by Neil Anderson,
[3] This is important to state since contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins deny that there is any qualitative distinction between human beings and animals.
[4] Other candidates for the uniqueness of persons include: "reason"; "speech"; "self-consciousness"/"self-reflexivity"; rationality + freedom + immortality (the early church Fathers); a "destiny into which man was created to grow into" (Irenaeus; memory + intellect + will (Augustine, using the 3-fold structure of the Trinity); and rational understanding + moral obedience + religious communion. See also William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982). The understanding of "the image of God" in Genesis is more functional than conceptual. As a result of being created in God's image we are to do certain things: e.g., subdue, explore, rule the creation in God's name, etc.
[5] See Higgins, John J., Thomas Merton on Prayer.
[6] See Piippo, John Paul, Metaphor and Theology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern University, 1986. Here the nature of metaphor and its use in expressing and describing religious aspects of experience and reality is more fully explained.
[7] Much of our language is metaphorical in origin. For example, when we speak of the "leg" of the table we have forgotten that at some point somebody used the human "figure" to speak of the table's leg. Paul Ricoeur has shown in The Rule of Metaphor that "figurative language" is language which uses the human "figure" to speak of experience.
[8] Merton,
[9] See especially Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians. Fee says that Paul’s basic question for the Corinthian church is, “What does it mean to be “spiritual” or pneumatikos.”
[10] On spiritual "burnout" and ways to rekindle the flame, see Louis Savary and Patricia Berne, Prayerways.
[11] Psalm 51:7, 10.

[12] Psalm 24:3
[14] See Nouwen, Lifesigns; A Cry for Mercy. No one is better in articulating the emotion and spirit of fear than Henri Nouwen.
[15] See Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal, p. 44.
[16] See Geoffrey W. Bromily, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 416.
[17] Luke 16:15.
[19] Tournier, Paul,
[20] Another metaphor is: To be in God's presence one must have a "quiet heart." To be out of God's presence is to "have ears, but not really hear." When the human heart is filled with many voices and noises it is difficult to hear the single voice of God. Heart-stillness is the condition where only God's voice is attended to. "Spirit," therefore, is something that can be either quieted or chaotic.
[21] When we reverse the positive biblical metaphors of the spiritual life we see those spiritual conditions which will render prayer-as-relationship-with-God less effective. Relationship with God is blocked when our spirits are...
...focused on life's peripheral issues
...stained (by sin)
...disconnected from the Vine
...dwelling out God's fortress.
...and so on...