The Bible is full of beautiful imagery that describes God and our relationship to him. Some examples—Father, Creator, King, Great Physician—are familiar to most of us. But we overlook many other pictures and metaphors. What can they teach us about God’s character and ways?
Lauren Winner—assistant professor of Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School and author of Girl Meets God, Mudhouse Sabbath, and Real Sex—takes up this question in her new book. In Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (HarperOne), Winner uses the Scriptures to show that God is simply too vast and wonderful to contain in a single image. “The Bible’s inclusion of so many figures for God,” she writes, “is both an invitation and a caution. The invitation is to discovery: discovery of who God is, and what our friendship with God might become. The caution is against assuming that any one image of God, whatever truth it holds, adequately describes God.”
Winner’s main purpose is to stretch our imaginations, not to stir up controversy. She wants readers to grow deeper in friendship with God and find new ways to worship him. I’m confident her book can do just that. But in certain ways, she takes things too far.
Too Much to Describe
Most chapters in Wearing God explain a specific biblical image for God. God, in these chapters, is like clothing, a fragrant aroma, bread and wine, a woman in labor, laughter (at those who oppose him), and a raging fire. Each chapter fleshes out the imagery with biblical references, historical examples, and theological reasoning.
One of the most compelling aspects of the book is how Winner unlocks concepts of God that few readers will have considered. We are familiar with talking about God as our sustainer. But how often do we think of him as the literal bread that fills our hungry stomachs or the wine that quenches our thirsts? He provides these things to meet our needs and shows all who feast on him that he alone sustains. Winner offers a view of God as deeply involved in creation, loving his children, meeting our every need, and walking with us through every season in life. This will refresh the soul of anyone who feels as if God is aloof or distant.
In her final chapter, “This Poverty of Expression,” Winner affirms that even after unpacking a multitude of biblical images for God, it’s still impossible for our meager minds to understand him fully. Language has its limits, and God cannot be contained within them. In the chapter’s most compelling passage, Winner captures this beautifully:
The point is not that our language is limited; the point . . . is that God is “too much.” God’s utter difference from the world is too much to describe, and God’s nearest intimacy with the world is too near to name. We cannot really say that nearness; we can only gesture toward it and surround the gesture with knowledge that what we have said is inadequate; and then sometimes stop altogether, and put away all gestures and all the description and all the speech.
Scripture tells us that we are God’s image bearers. But in our smallness and humanness, we can’t see God for all he is, because he is so “other” than us. He is sovereign, all-powerful, and all-knowing. We are not. We can spend our entire lives trying to wrap our minds around all that he is and still have a vastness left to discover.
There really is poverty in our language. But perhaps Winner understates the extent to which we can know God fully this side of heaven, through Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3). While we cannot look on the face of God apart from Christ because of our sin, we can look upon Christ and, through faith in him, be made like him (2 Cor. 3:18). When we see Jesus, we are seeing God (John 14:9). When we are brought into relationship with Christ, we are brought into relationship with God, and we can know him as a son knows his father.
God Is Not Weak
Thinking through the full range of the Bible’s divine imagery is a helpful exercise, and Wearing God wonderfully enriches our sense of who God is and how he relates to his people. I couldn’t help thinking, however, that Winner occasionally misinterprets the imagery.
For example, in talking about God as a woman in labor, Winner says it is “hard to imagine that a woman nursing her child every two hours for six months could possibly forget him. But God will forget us even less than that.” This is beautifully true and would resonate with any mother. In the same chapter, Winner references Isaiah 42, which uses a similar metaphor to describe how God cries out for his people’s redemption. She sees God making himself vulnerable, suffering for us, and laboring in pain in order to redeem us: “The verse from Isaiah tells me that God squats and pants and bellows like a moose.”
But we must examine the chapter’s larger context. God shows himself mighty against his foes; he lays waste to mountains and dries up rivers and pools. Winner wonders if he ever wishes that the “labor would progress” or that the “pain would stop.” Would a mighty God cry out for mercy in this way?
Other passages have the unfortunate effect of making God seem weak. In one chapter, “Smell,” Winner tells the story of a friend who wore her husband’s shirts after his death because it comforted her. Winner wonders if God feels the same way about his separation from us. When our sin drives us apart, does he feel comforted by our lingering scent? “God is beside herself with the separation,” she says, before asking, “Is that the context in which God receives the scent of our prayers? Is that the reason God needs to be soothed?”
We can imagine God being pleased by the aroma of holy lives and prayers offered to him. But likening him to a grieving widow makes him seem incomplete without us. It’s clear from Scripture that God desires loving relationship with his people, but he needs no “soothing” in our absence.
Then, in “Bread and Wine,” Winner wonders whether “providing food makes God feel, as it makes me feel, needed and important.” But God is not in need of such affirmation. He possesses everything in himself, and he delights in providing for us because he loves us, just as we delight in providing for children, friends, family, and neighbors.
Winner is known for crafting beautiful, thought-provoking prose, and this book is no exception. She helps us see God through a different set of lenses, opening our imaginations to the many ways he loves and provides for us—and suffers on our behalf. But the God who cares for us so intimately, so sacrificially, is a God of awesome power. It’s we, not him, who are weak, vulnerable, and needy.
Courtney Reissig is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics and the author of The Accidental Feminist: Restoring Our Delight in God’s Good Design (Crossway).
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