Personal Development, theology of suffering, Theology of waiting, Uncategorized

Metaphors and Meanings: How the Words We Speak Shape our Lives

Life and death are in the power of the tongue. Proverbs 18:21

A wonderful book written in the 1990s called Metaphors We Live By speaks about how so much of how we understand the world is conveyed through the metaphors (or expressions) that we use to describe our lives. One common metaphor is talking about love as war, for example ‘Love is a battlefield’ or ‘All’s fair in love and war’. But further to just being descriptors of people or circumstances these very metaphors actually have the power to shape our lives, for better or for worse.

The Bible uses a number of metaphors when it talks about life. Three of the most commonly used ones are the battle metaphor, the race metaphor and the journey metaphor. We find the life is a battle metaphor many times in the books written by the Apostle Paul. He talks about putting on the armor of God, and for us to be like a reserve soldier on alert at all times. The book of Revelation also speaks about a literal and metaphysical battle and we are told that there is a battle for our souls. Paul tells us to war against the flesh, and against every power and principality and lofty thought that sets itself up against the Lord.

But we are also told that the battle is won, that Jesus has vanquished sin and death and won the war. This seeming contradictory message using the same metaphor can sometimes leave us confused. Many authors say that we are to fight from a place of victory and not defeat, but that can be hard as in our human experience we are never sure of the outcome of a battle until we see the end.

Paul also uses the metaphor that life is a race. In fact the metaphor of life being a race is found throughout many parts of the Bible. We see it in Ecclesiastes where Solomon writes that ‘the race does not always go to the swift or the battle to the strong but time and chance happen to us all’. The race metaphor is also reflected in other books that talk of us receiving ‘crowns of victory’, typically awarded to victorious athletes. On Palm Sunday Jesus makes what is referred to in the Gospels as the ‘triumphal entry’ into Jerusalem again in language typically used to describe the winners of a sporting event. Unlike a race on earth however the Biblical race is one in which everyone who finishes wins and receives a crown. The only thing you have to do is just finish the race, don’t give up, don’t go off somewhere else, just keep going.

More than that, in the Biblical race we are exhorted to not look around, to not compare ourselves to others, but to look straight ahead and focus on the finish line. Stay in your lane Paul says Hebrews keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, don’t look to the left or to the right. When we think about the Christian life like this then we can start to feel encouraged. In this kind of race, we don’t have to try to be someone we are not, we don’t have do something we weren’t cut out for, or push ourselves to breaking point or compete with other people. No once we enter, once we become Christians we just have to keep going, one foot in front of the other, with our eyes fixed on Jesus who Paul describes as the ‘author and finisher of our faith’.

But again we see a seeming contradiction, in that the writers describe us a being in a race, but humanly speaking a race has only one winner, and it definitely has losers. The heavenly race though is one in which everyone who finishes wins, how can this be? Much like fighting a battle that is already won, we are exhorted to run a race in which we are guaranteed to win as long as we finish.

The final dominant metaphor that I will discuss, that the Bible uses for life is the metaphor of life is a journey. The journey metaphor starts in the Old Testament where we have the literal journeys of Abraham, Joseph and of course Moses. But in addition to their physical journeys we see that they also went on a spiritual journey by which they took new names and/or were transformed into better people. Many went from being weak, or proud or boastful to being strong, humble and wise. David, in the Psalms, writes often using the journey metaphor. In Psalm 23 for example he talks about walking in the valley of the shadow of death.

In the New Testament we also see the journey metaphor continue and the pastoral metaphor begun by David, continuing, as Jesus arrives on the scene. Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd and we are referred to as His sheep on a journey with Him. The journey metaphor in the Bible is a journey in which you don’t get to plan where you are going, you don’t know when you will arrive and you don’t how you will get there. In the Biblical journey the only thing we only know is our ultimate destination (heaven or hell) and who is going with us (Jesus), unlike our human journeys in which we know all the details.

So what difference do these metaphors make in our daily lives? Is it significant that the Bible uses the metaphors of the battle, the race and the journey? Let’s think about the metaphor that life is a journey. We know that a journey typically takes time, that it involves passing through various places, often having new experiences.  As adults we mostly plan our journeys but when I was a child we would go on car trips, which I generally did not enjoy for many reasons; a lack of air-conditioning, the crowded car, no music to listen to plus I also got car sick often. I could not wait for the journey to end. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that there was an end in sight, that somehow or other we were on the right road going to the right place. I trusted that my Dad knew the way and that he would get us there in the end. I didn’t second guess him or make alternative route suggestions (although today with Google maps I can do that!) I just sat back in the hot, sweaty car with my 4 brothers and one sister and waited for us to arrive. I didn’t just decide halfway there that I had had enough and through myself out of the car, no I just hung in there and trusted that we would eventually arrive at our destination.

I recently took a train trip across Europe and I commented to people that it was the first holiday I could remember where the destination was not what was of interest. Rather it was all about the journey. What we would see, who we would meet, interesting places we would stop and even challenges we might face. But there was something so liberating about this holiday and so unique in that the closer we got to our destination the sadder we all were about arriving. Sadly, in life we rarely think of it like that, we rarely savor the inconvenience of waiting or of some slight deprivation we may face along the way. Rather we complain, we become depressed or anxious and we rarely if ever see life as an adventure. This is not to say that we should feel sad about arriving in heaven in fact that should fill us with so much joy, but we should also be enjoying the journey. The sadness should come from the fact that once we die our opportunities to witness to others and share the good news of Jesus’ love will have come to end.

I started thinking if I lived by the metaphor that is life is a journey, but one that God has planned uniquely for each one of us, then each day should be so exciting. I do not know what the day will bring but I do know that it will be the only time I will ever live that day. I will have no chance to go back, to change how I acted or reacted, or how I used (or misused or frittered) the time or how I treated my friends or colleagues or families. This day is so full of possibilities and if I am so focused on destination marriage or destination holiday or destination financial freedom for example, then how much might I be missing out in my journey as a single person today?

Psalm 84, one that I love, speaks to the idea of life as a journey it says ‘Blessed are those whose strength is in You, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage. As they pass through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs.’ The valley of Baca is the place of weeping, the verse implies that we will all, at one time or another, pass through the valley of Baca, we will all go through a time of tears, of weeping. But instead of wasting those tears the Psalmist suggests that they are gathered up and rechanneled and become a place of springs, a source of life in the desert, far from wasted they use their sorrow to refresh others. Verse 7 of this psalm says that these people go from strength to strength and that every one of them will appear before God in Zion. What a wonderful assurance, that as we pass through times of hardships, if our hearts are set on pilgrimage, on a journey towards the Lord, then not only are we guaranteed to reach our destination but we will refresh and replenish others and we will find our own strength renewed. Verse 11 continues by saying that ‘No good thing will He (the Lord) withhold from those who walk uprightly’. This is even more encouraging as we are told that as we journey along the way the Lord also blesses us, with every good thing.

If we return to the life is a battle metaphor but add to that it is a battle that is already won, we might approach the future differently and I think certainly with a lot more confidence! We would not see hardships and struggle as the end but as part of the process by which our faith is being strengthened and our character built and prepared for the next steps ahead. We could keep our calm and not be afraid because if life is a battle that is already won, we don’t have to worry because the future is firmly in His hands.

What about life as a race? Well if we add the Biblical caveat that it is a race in which we only have to finish to win and a race that is in essence with ourselves how does that change things for us? For me it encourages me to stop looking at what others are doing, to stop worrying about them and to just keep going. When times get hard, I just have to keep going, because I know at the end Jesus is there and he is waiting for me with all of heaven cheering me on. Can you say with the author of the book of Hebrews 12:1 “Therefore let us also, having so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, put away every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us and run with endurance the race which is set before us.”

Today if you are feeling discouraged that you have not achieved or attained what you thought you should have by now, or if the breakthrough you have been praying for so long has yet to materialize, then ask yourself what is the metaphor I am living by? Do you talk about life as a battle with an undetermined outcome or as one in which you have won the war and where our God leads you in victory? Do you talk about life as a race with winners and losers and stiff competition or are you focused on finishing and not worried about how or what others are doing? Are you anxious and worried about the future, seeing your life as a journey in which you need to know all the stops along the way? Or have you committed your way to the Lord and speak of a journey in which you can just be the passenger?

Whichever metaphor we use will impact how we see and live our lives and the role/s we will play in it. The Bible says life and death are in the power of the tongue, our words carry power, our metaphors have meaning. Today I pray that you would have a listen to the words and metaphors you use to describe your life and see if they line up with the Bible, if not maybe it’s time to start saying something else and see your life start to change. Never forget that the battle is won, the race victory is assured and that the journey is never one you take alone because Jesus has promised to never leave us or forsake us.

God bless you richly today!

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