Formational Metaphors for God
What is God like? What comes into your mind when you think about Him? Two of my favorite answers to these questions, outside of the Scriptures, come from the pen of J.I. Packer and A.W. Tozer. These two eloquent Christ-followers are often referenced by people like me when pondering what God is like and what it means to know Him. Packer put it this way:
“What were we made for? To know God. What aim should we set ourselves in life? To know God. What is the ‘eternal life’ that Jesus gives? Knowledge of God. ‘This is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent’ (John 17:3). What is the best thing in life, bringing more joy, delight, and contentment, than anything else? Knowledge of God” (Packer, Knowing God, pg. 29). In like manner, Tozer said it this way: “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us” (Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy, pg. 1).
I find myself these days spending a great deal of time contemplating what God is like and what it truly means to know Him. I suppose that is why Psalm 23 captures my heart. I have read it, prayed it, preached on it, and wrestled with it at funerals. I have carried it to the hospital. I have quoted it while traveling on the road and while lying in my bed. Without further delay, here it is.
A Psalm Of David
1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
What kind of God do you know? What is He like? I have often reminded myself and taught others that our answers to those questions are essential to our ongoing spiritual formation. Some people because of poor Biblical teaching, or a personal misinterpretation of the Bible, or some terrible crisis or gut-wrenching circumstance, have concluded that God is a dysfunctional parent, distant, indifferent, one to be feared, a gigantic eye-ball in the sky seeking to find out who has been naughty or nice. The metaphors we attach to God make all the difference. I find Psalm 23 to be one of the best places to consider what God is truly like.
Of course, the most famous metaphor from this Psalm attached to God is that of shepherd. “The LORD is my shepherd,” David declared. Shepherds cared about grazing routes. They never got more than three to four miles away from a good water source. They were ever preoccupied with a safe and protected night camp site from predator and pest. They were constantly concerned with good pasture. To no one’s surprise that reads Scripture, Jesus declares that He is the Good Shepherd (John 10). Notice with me how this Psalm expands and deepens the implications of God as Shepherd. There are at least three portraits of God as shepherd of the soul worthy of rumination.
First, Psalm 23:1-3 tells us that God is a shepherd that provides. He is the world’s best cook. Green pastures, still waters, and places to be restored and refreshed are His specialty. Where He guides, He provides. The first three verses tell us that those who are shepherded by God have no complaint. My mom’s mom, my Grandma Beaty, had the extraordinary capacity to prepare a meal that simply refreshed the whole person. Her fried chicken, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, dressing, fruit salad, homemade rolls, deviled eggs, sweet tea, and assorted desserts replenished and renewed. That is the picture of God here in this Psalm. Do you know Him like that?
Second, Psalm 23:4 reveals to us that God is a shepherd that perfectly guides. This Psalm openly acknowledges that life can be hard. The shadow of death looms everywhere. Evil is present. An enemy seeks to destroy, kill, and annihilate. Yet God uses His heavenly rod and staff to bring shepherding comfort. The rod was a short stick, even a weapon that could be used for protection or discipline. The staff was a longer stick with a hook on the end that could draw sheep close when needed. The result of this good Shepherd’s presence is that fear evaporates and peace blankets. Jesus ever reminds those of us who listen that He is the resurrection and the life. He promises, “Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). What kind of God do you know?
Third, Psalm 23:5-6 speaks to us of a God that invites and receives. He is a shepherd who is a perfect host. Eastern culture placed a high premium on warm and gracious hospitality. God is the ideal host according to this Psalm. He prepares a table. He cleans off our road dirt with His healing oil. Flies, parasites, and scabs were constantly afflicting sheep. Good shepherds took care of those pesky problems when feeding and restoring time came. God is ever full of goodness and mercy. He holds a place for us, just as our Good Shepherd promised.
The LORD is the beginning and ending of this Psalm (1:1 and 1:6). This ever-present and ever-faithful God did for us what we could not do for ourselves in Christ. We were and are wandering and helpless sheep, capable of inflicting ourselves with enormous heartache. God ever calls and woos us to Himself. His table is ever-ready. Some of us make ourselves so miserable and needy before we realize that life does not have to be a constantly sin-filled and pain-filled sojourn. There is a shepherd who provides, guides, and cares.
When I was in the fifth grade, my family moved from Illinois to Pennsylvania. Because of the many miles between our new home and our relatives back in Central Illinois, we were not able to return for Thanksgiving celebration. There was a wealthy widow in the Waynesburg, Pennsylvania church who opened her home to us. We put on our very best clothes. My parents schooled us on manners and protocol. We sat at that woman’s food-filled table and I recall asking my mother, “Is this heaven?” Though I did not know it, what I was really asking was, “Is this what God is like?”
I tell you without hesitation, Jesus is the best cook. He said, “I am the bread of life…anyone who eats this bread, will live forever” (John 6:51). Jesus is the expert guide. He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus is the perfect host. He said, “…I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). I ask one last time, what kind of God do you know? God is my Shepherd and I am His lamb. All the difference in the world and in the one to come is found in these splendid formational metaphors attached to my Shepherd. It is a good summer day to be in the gymnasium.