I’ve been working on a sermon this week dealing with, among other things, the metaphors for God that are employed throughout Scripture. Lion, rock, shepherd, eagle, mother, fire, bread… The list is a very long and diverse one, each communicating some important aspect of God’s character and action in the world.
I am very fortunate to have a number of former pastors in the church I serve. I profit immensely from their counsel and friendship. This morning I spent some time visiting with one of them who is the midst of facing some difficult health challenges. I always enjoy time spent with this dear saint—he possesses a rare combination of lively intellect, delicious skepticism, profound compassion, and deep wisdom. He asks good questions. Unsettling, penetrating, “I’d never thought about it that way” questions.
Today I thought I would ask him some questions of my own. I asked him about the metaphors for God that he gravitates toward in the later years of life. “Are they the same ones you grabbed on to when you were younger? Do some stand out more now as opposed to then? Has your thinking around some metaphors changed, deepened, or expanded over time?” This was not thinly veiled sermon research. I was genuinely curious.
He was silent for a while (I am discovering that older, wiser people are so much more comfortable with silence than I). He just looked at me with this sturdy gaze—the kind of gaze that makes you squirm or wonder if you’ve asked a very silly question. Then he leaned back and said, “Yes, it has changed over time. When I was younger, my image of God was of a father with a big beard—a father who was very austere and demanding.” He paused, measuring his words. “Over the last little while, I have been spending more and more time in the gospels, with Jesus. And the image or metaphor for God that I cling to now is that of ‘friend.’”
I thought about this lifetime spent with this God, of the many peaks and valleys and joys and pains this man has seen, of the many challenges faced with this God at his side. I thought of how expansive this word “friend” must be, of all the experiences and doubts and struggles and vindications it undoubtedly incorporated and contained. What a beautifully deep word. Friend.
In the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus says these words to another group of people who had been spending a lot of time with him:
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends.
Christians are very good at quarrelling about what God is like and about how God works and about what God wants. We wag our fingers and shake our heads at those who prefer different metaphors than we do. We spend years reading books and listening to sermons and praying and serving and giving, wondering, hoping that it will all be enough, that we’ll get God right, that we will be vindicated on that final day.
But of course we will never get it all right. Our image of God will always look suspiciously like the ideals and characteristics we prefer, will always reflect the fears and prejudices we secretly harbour, will always be a projection of the longings we cannot escape. We will never know God as God truly is—at least not this side of eternity. We will always need our metaphors—as many as possible, if you please!—to come near the one who dwells in unapproachable light and yet inexplicably insists on drawing near to us.
We’re not so very different, in other words, than those first disciples who so regularly misunderstood who God was and what God was about. But whatever they did or did not know, whatever they were too frightened or bewildered to consider, whatever they could barely have dared to hope for, they cast their lot with this God and with his Christ. And he called them his friends.
If I ever make it to a ninth decade on this planet, I can think of no better conclusion to have settled upon than that God is my friend. That my friend has chosen and loved me, despite my many frailties and shortcomings, despite the many frantic, misguided words I offer on his behalf. And that my friend will walk with me. Always.