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On Parables, Metaphors, and the True Joy of the Father

I’ve been reading in the gospel of Matthew recently, and I just went through the passages where Jesus has been using parables to teach the people. At one point Jesus’ disciples ask him (I imagine in a somewhat bewildered tone) why he is speaking to the people in parables. Jesus gives a mysterious answer that I am not wise enough to understand, but he also mentions the reason he is using parables is that “seeing, they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

I have written before arguing that metaphors shape our lives, our experiences. The metaphors that we carry in our minds are the very lens through which we view the world, and how we view the world is effected by the pictures that we are using.

I have been trying to pray more often–to be disciplined about my prayer–and in the process I have discovered some unsettling metaphors lurking in my unconscious. For instance, I have noticed how often I become hyper-focused on my failings as a child of God. I will suddenly remember in my day that I should bend my thoughts to prayer, and I immediately experience a wave of guilt, shame, and failure. “You should have been remembered to pray an hour ago,” that little voice in my head hisses. “You must not love God very much if this is how little you think of him.” And in my head, this seems good and right, and I scourge myself once more with hopeless thoughts of my worthlessness. I must be such a disappointment to God.

Or so I often think.

The other evening, as we were getting the children ready for bed, our wobbly 8 month old Alethea lost her balance and fell backwards–knocking her head soundly on the hardwood floor. I watched as my wife quickly swooped in, scooping the screaming child up and enfolding her in her loving, comforting arms. My wife gently rubbed her head, nuzzling her and whispering calming words into her ear. After only a few moments my wife’s attention had calmed our hysterical child, and soon Alethea was eagerly scooting around the floor once more.

As I watched this scene, I was immediately convicted. My metaphor for God (God is a father) was based, I realized, on a completely warped picture of what a father actually is. What father, when his children ask for bread, gives them a stone or a scorpion? What father, when his children fall–over and over–will stand over them wagging his finger and tell them, “Well that was a stupid move, wasn’t it? You should have known better. Maybe next time you shouldn’t be such a dummy.”

The problem is that, although I am right in picturing God as a father–it is a biblical metaphor–the actual image that exists in my head portrays not a good, heavenly father, nor even a good earthly father, but an exaggerated version of me in my worst moments. And in making God in my own image, I have attributed to him pictures that fall so far short of who He really is.

I think back to specific memories with my children, especially when I have come home from a trip or when I have been gone at work all day. I picture the look of joy that breaks forth on my sons’ faces, the shrieks of delight as they run at me with arms spread wide, sometimes knocking me over with the force of their affection. There are few things in my life that are as precious to me as catching up my children in my arms and burying my face into their warm skin. Why is it that my picture of God welcoming his children is so far removed from this?

My children have entered the stage where they are now old enough to go to church school–with a little help. The first day I went in with them and sat in a chair as they were read the story of the prodigal son while they colored. I found the simple lesson ringing in my ears all week: the father, when he saw his son returning, “while [the son] was yet at a distance,” ran out to meet him and showered him with love and embraces. He did not wait to hear the son admit that he had been wrong, he did not wait to see the son grovel and beg for forgiveness–he rejoiced at the repentance of his child.

I see that metaphors are necessary–that they help us to understand the spiritual world by the help of the physical world that we know. But I also see that our vision is flawed, and I have eyes that see without seeing. Christ so often spoke in parables because it is crucial that we fill our head with true metaphors–true pictures. If we fallen fathers can love our children and give them good gifts, how much more does our heavenly father rejoice when we humbly come to him?

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