The Power of Metaphors

 “But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.
They spread their wings and soar like eagles,
They run and don’t get tired,
they walk and don’t lag behind.”
(Isaiah 40:31, The Message)
            Language is a beautiful thing.  It’s able to evoke powerful images within us, emboldening us and encouraging us.  This biblical verse from the prophet Isaiah demonstrates the enduring quality and strength of words to communicate wonderful truth and soothing grace to our hearts.
            Our choice of words and our selection of stringing those words together in metaphors is vital and important.  A metaphor is simply a figure of speech, an image of something that describes an object or action in a way that isn’t literally true, but helps explain an idea or make a comparison.  Isaiah used the eagle to picture what God can do for us when we are weak and weary and need fresh strength.  We can’t literally soar above everything, but metaphorically, we can transcend our earthly circumstances and wait on God to invigorate us.
            We can use metaphors in funny ways.  I’m a cartoon connoisseur.  One of my favorite characters, Foghorn Leghorn, is a master of metaphor: “That boy’s about as sharp as a bowling ball.” “Nice boy but he’s got more nerve than a bum tooth.” “That woman’s as cold as a nudist on an iceberg.” “His muscles are as soggy as a used tea bag.”
            We can use metaphors to impart wisdom and cause us to think about things from a different angle:  “The moon does not care if the dog barks at it” (Czech proverb). “However black a cow is, its milk is always white” (African proverb). “When the root is deep, there is no need to fear the wind” (unknown). “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life” (Proverbs 13:14). “You are the salt of the earth” (Jesus, in Matthew 5:13).
            Metaphors take us on a journey toward an expected end or outcome.  It’s why we ought to be careful and not careless with our words.  Consider some of the common metaphors we use, and think about the trajectory of those words.
“She battles cancer.”  This is clearly a military metaphor.  It might be great if you “beat” the “invading” cancer cells and “win,” achieving a cancer free status.  But, is cancer really within your control to beat? Is it your choice to win or to lose?  What if you don’t win?  Is there something wrong with you?  This metaphor communicates that if you lose your battle, you’re a loser – and that’s neither comforting nor helpful.  Methinks we need a different metaphor for cancer.  John McCain, a person familiar with both war and cancer, interestingly said this about the two: “For me, cancer never felt like a war. Cancer wasn’t something I ‘had,’ but a process my body was going through.” In his metaphor, cancer is a journey that he needs to take, a “process” he must go through.
            What if we changed the metaphor (for any disease or condition) and, for example, said something like, “I did not invite fibromyalgia into my life; he is an unwanted guest, but I will sit with Fibro Fred (go ahead and name it an actual name) for awhile and listen to him.”  Now we aren’t attempting to conquer, but explore, and in discovery you might find new, fresh, or just mindful ways of coping with a reality you did not choose.
            Another example of metaphor is describing a difficult reality for many people: depression.  Oftentimes we image depression as “a thick fog” or “the invisible enemy” and, in many corners of society it is still just referred to as “sin,” or “the demon of depression.”  Again, think about the direction these metaphors take us.  The thick fog implies there is nothing we can do but sit and wait for it to lift.  The invisible enemy implies just the opposite, and brings us yet again to the military metaphor, as if we can simply choose to drive it out.  But depression is neither a condition which we can do nothing about, nor a sinful enemy which we can fight and exorcise out of our lives.
            Having been through a major depression myself, I would look back and describe it as having a dead car battery.  It doesn’t help to swear about it, do nothing about it, think you can magically will the car to start with the power of your mind, or quote Bible verses at it in the belief it will spring to life.  Nope.  When your car battery is dead, you immediately find a way to jump start it, head to a place that can help you replace it with a new battery, and move on down the road of life knowing that you have fresh power to keep going, not forever, but at least for few years.  It’s not sinful or evil to have a dead car battery.  It just is, and there are choices you can make when you’re in that unwanted and awkward situation.
            The church needs a solid toolbox of metaphors to use in all kinds of situations, so that she can encourage, comfort, help, support, build-up, and walk with hurting people, for whatever reasons, through their intensely personal experiences toward fresh hope and vital spiritual health.


            What are some metaphors that have served you well?  What are some which have been hurtful to you?  Can you think of different metaphors to describe your condition, or the condition of your friend or family member?

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