1 John is a letter about light and love. As a topic for the second NL summer series, we look specifically at the 1 John 1 and 4. To communicate the spiritual realities to his audience, John turns to metaphors.
Metaphors of Faith: Light & Darkness
Language, at its essence, is an abstraction of reality. The word “bread” is not something you can eat but is a reference to that which you can. But, our vocabulary is inadequate to communicate about realities beyond us. This is especially true when we attempt to describe spiritual realities. We are forced to fall back on metaphors to describe the indescribable.
One such pair of metaphors can be found in the first chapter of 1 John. “God is light and in [God] there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). God is not actually a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (nor is darkness here the absence thereof). These are rich metaphors that describe an aspect of God which we understand as good and loving. Likewise, the sentence “God is love” (4:16) is a metaphor like “God is light.” God is not an inclination of the heart (and subsequent action) for the good of others (my weak definition), but the character of God is so defined by love, that we can make this linguistic leap.
Metaphors of Faith: Children & Parent
When we move to chapter four, we find the common metaphor of God as a Father and ourselves as children. “Father” in our language refers specifically to a human male who contributes biologically to the conception of a child, and/or takes responsibility in the upbringing of a child. Describing God as “Father” is a metaphor, not a direct and limiting reality. God is not male, but far beyond our human conceptions of sex and gender. God does not biologically contribute to the conception of a child, nor is God physically present in the upbringing of children. However, God does love, care, and provide for us as a parent does.
Likewise, as God is described in the metaphor of a parent, so we, as the objects of God’s love, care, and providence naturally are described as children. We are not all humans below the age of adulthood, and collectively we are not part of a single family according to the common usage of the term. But, in addition to being the objects of God’s “parental” love, we are always in the midst of growth and maturation (metaphorically speaking).
Metaphors of Faith: Walking & Abiding
In 1 John 1:6-7, John is not talking about moving by foot in the presence or absence of electromagnetic radiation when he says, “walking in darkness” or “walk in the light” (vv. 6-7). The metaphor of walking describes how we act and live our lives. Also, when John speaks of “abiding” (remaining, staying in one place) in chapter four, it is not the opposite of walking. It is a metaphor for maintaining a close relationship with God in how we live our lives.
The Importance of Metaphors
Metaphors are critical for speaking about the character of God, as well as the realities of relationship (faith) with God. The danger we all face in using biblical and extra-biblical metaphors for God and for faith is that we can too easily fall into the mistake of taking these metaphors literally and exclusively.
Taking these images of God as absolute and concrete facts is something that we need to remind ourselves to avoid, and something we need to gently teach our charges as well. One way of doing this is to take a variety of images/metaphors from Scripture and explore how they describe certain aspects of God, but not others (e.g. God is strong and reliable as a rock, but not actually the object we would find in nature). This is what our free resource this week does in a concrete, child-friendly way. “Images of God,” is an activity from our Living the Word: Kids (PK-2nd) curriculum that can be used with all ages, either together or separately.
Bringing this back to 1 John, it is important for hearers of the Word to have the tools to understand. One tool is to understand how to unpack the rich meaning of a passage filled with metaphorical language. Discuss this and perhaps find a way to point out some of the metaphors and images in each week’s text.
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2018-2019 (NL Year 1) faith formation materials are now available for purchase. Fall lessons can be downloaded right away! You can download the 2018-2019 Planning Tool and Scope & Sequence to start your planning for the next program year!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!
Image Copyright: olejnik / 123RF Stock Photo