It’s rather uncomfortable to think of God as a woman in labor or a dog, but those are the sort of biblical metaphors Lauren Winner explores in her new book, Wearing God.
Winner is a speaker, historian, author of books such as Still and Girl Meets God and an assistant professor at Duke Divinity school.
In Wearing God, Winner breaks down a few of the scriptural metaphors for God that Christians don’t tend to talk about—and explores what each of them might mean for our faith.
We talked to her about what the metaphors reveal about God’s character and how we can see Him in fresh ways.
In the book, you break down several metaphors for God. Which ones were most surprising to you?
I think the image that was most surprising, and in some ways most disturbing, to me was the image of God as one who laughs.
I went searching through the Scriptures hoping to find some Psalm in which the psalmist split a bottle of champagne with God over dinner, and they laughed with each other. And the psalmist might say something like, “Now I know that I am the laughter in God’s heart.” I wanted laughing with God to be the way I laugh with my friends, and that’s not what I found.
It turns out that the primary way we encounter God laughing in the Scriptures is God laughing at someone quite acerbically. It’s in some ways a really disturbing image. It shows up most centrally in three of the Psalms. I don’t really like to think of God that way—laughing at people. That seems mean and caustic.
But they’re not only disturbing images, they are actually intimately related with God’s sense of justice. God can laugh at God’s enemies and the people who are trying to interfere with justice. Because God knows that those people will not ultimately triumph.
As I was beginning to try to live with the psalmists that depict God that way, I did some study and research about the ways laughter and humor figure in political protest, which was always interesting to me. Marginalized people who are protesting injustice also laugh. They laugh at their oppressors, and they laugh at the people they’re protesting.
That seems to me to be part of what it means to laugh with God. So somehow, to say, “I want to laugh with God” must mean, “I want to go work for God’s justice and be hanging out with the oppressed people who are laughing at people who are trying to interfere with God’s justice.”
You talk about how the Western Church, especially, has focused on just a few metaphors for God—like God is a shepherd and provider. How do you think that’s influenced the Church?
In my church community, we use a lot of “Father” language. We use a lot of “Great Physician” language, because we have a lot of sick people. When we’re really feeling brave and bold and going out on a limb, we use that mother hen imagery from Matthew and Luke.
On the one hand, I think when a person or a church does this—when they just focus on a handful of images—those images become richer and [have] deeper association.
I have now prayed for 10 years with this Great Physician language with members of my church community who are really sick and really need God to be a great physician. And frankly, before doing that, the image of God as a Great Physician didn’t really mean all that much to me.
But by the same token, I think when we focus on just a few of these images, we’re limiting our imagination about who God might be. It’s wonderful to speak of God as the Good Shepherd. We could think all afternoon or all week about what a shepherd is and how sheep are and so forth and so on. But that’s just one basket of characteristics.
I think one of the reasons the Bible gives us so many different metaphors for God is to remind us that no single one of these images—and no 33 of these images—is going to capture who God is. We constantly are being invited by the Scriptures to have our own assumptions checked and our own imaginations expanded around who God actually is and what God is like.
What would you suggest to Christian leaders, writers and speakers who want to start introducing some of these metaphors into the way they talk about God?
For me, the most vital place of engagement has been prayer.
I have found it unsettling and really fruitful to pray with these images. I think for me, one of the most unsettling pieces of living with this topic of these biblical images of God has been about this image of God as clothing.
I had done a good bit of different praying with that image, and praying with the scene from Genesis 3 where God clothes Adam and Eve. And then praying again with Paul’s language about our being clothed in Jesus.
As I had prayed that language—really for some years now—I feel like I’m beginning to understand that this is actually a statement about intimacy with God—that God is close to us.
Clothing is really close to us. It is right pressed up against us. So it’s very startling for me still to sort of prayerfully put myself in the space of trying to believe, trying to experience God as being nestled up against me as intimately as clothing is.
When I think about clothing, clothing is pressed up close to the parts of me that I love, the parts of me that I find beautiful and delightful. But clothing is also pressed up close to myself to the parts that I am ashamed up. Like the 10 pounds I wish I could lose—clothing is right up against that too.
In prayer, I’ve begun to receive something about God wanting to be close to both my beautiful and lovely parts, but also the parts of me that I’m ashamed of.
I was praying with the images as much as traditional Scripture study and so forth. But really I think prayer is probably at least for me, where the rubber hits the road.
Obviously, prayer through some of these metaphors is one way, but what do you suggest as some other steps for people who want to see God in new ways and be refreshed in their faith?
I am attracted to the images of God that are connected to our everyday lives. Clothing is very much a part of our everyday lives. Laughter. I have a chapter in the book about smell—God is the one who perceives scent and admits an aroma.
I became convinced in working on this book that this is actually Jesus’ method. What Jesus seemed to do in His teaching was go through life, go through an ordinary Tuesday and kinda grab on to something He saw: A sparrow, a woman holding her coins, men lining up to get their paycheck.
Jesus would see these very ordinary everyday things, and He would draw them into His teaching and would say to people, “You can look around your everyday life and all these ordinary things you’re seeing are actually invitations to learn something about God, and to draw near to God.”
It seems to me that part of what the Bible is suggesting to us is that we can look around our everyday lives and say, “Here I am looking out my window at this magnolia tree. That’s not just a beautiful tree, and it’s not just something that was created by God. It actually is telling me something about who God is, because God describes God’s self as a tree in Hosea.”
We have this powerful invitation from Scripture that the good things God created and put in our world—that please us and delight us—those things don’t just please and delight us: They actually contain hints about who God is and what our relationship with God can be like.
Dargan is a former RELEVANT editor turned freelancer. Find her online at darganthompson.com or follow her extremely random train of thought on Twitter @darganthompson.