Metaphors Behaving Badly

I wrote a few days ago that because our cultural location shapes our imaginations, we inevitably conceive of Christian ministry in terms, categories, and images supplied by our post-industrial technological age.

We need to be discerning in our use of metaphors because of how they function.  They’re more powerful than we may assume.

Metaphors excite our imaginations, making connections and drawing implications about our identities, relationships, possible tasks, and perceived options for future conduct.

Metaphors that faithfully capture certain realities can be very fruitful.  I cited Paul’s image for Christian ministry and how it helpfully configures the character of ministry, ministers, and our utter dependence on God.

Because metaphors are so powerful, we need to invent new ones very carefully.  We ought to inquire whether or not a metaphor calls to mind ways of life and patterns of thought that resonate with Scripture.

Here’s just one example of a metaphor behaving badly: conceiving of ministry as “investment.”

I have heard ministry colleagues speak of mentoring relationships as “investment.”  This is a metaphor that comes from the world of commerce and it may at first seem innocent, referring to spending time with another person to cultivate a relationship.

But it also resonates with a range of behaviors associated with capitalism and it’s a metaphor that can behave very badly.

Investors are shrewd to only commit their resources where they can maximize their return.  What happens when they don’t get the return they expect?  Will they move on to some other more attractive prospect?  Will they become coercive, judging or condemning the person who isn’t giving an expected return?

Ministry relationships are incredibly taxing and growth is slow and painful.  And because of the mystery of how people grow in Christ, we often miss the signs of genuine growth and can be fooled into mistaking surface enthusiasm for genuine godliness.

If a person isn’t “growing” at the rate I expect and in the ways I anticipate, will I continue to give myself to that person?

And what about the fact that the church is filled with people for whom the church must spend itself, giving far more resources than it can expect in return?  I’m thinking of the sick, the suffering, the infirm, those struggling with addictions and well-worn patterns of self-destruction.

In so many ways, God keeps drawing into the church people who are just plain bad investments.

Conceiving of ministry as “investment” can make us conceive of ourselves and of others in seriously worldly and idolatrous ways.

And it can make us imagine the task of ministry in ways that run counter to the self-expending character of Christ:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

There’s so much more than can be said about this, and there are many other images and metaphors for ministry that reflect worldly values and endorse ungodly patterns of ministry.  But this is just to make the point that when it comes to thinking creatively about ministry, mind your metaphors!

11 thoughts on “Metaphors Behaving Badly

  1. Abraham Vivas

    This is so true, all of a sudden we picture our relationships as consumer relationships which we can leave whenever we find a better investment.

    May our minds be transformed to see things as God sees

  2. Michael Pahl

    Good thoughts. I’ve often wondered if Paul would have used a different metaphor in Ephesians 6 had he known the way “Christianity as warfare” would have been used down the centuries. Too bad people can’t seem to see that “not against flesh and blood” bit. :-/

    1. timgombis

      Agreed, Michael, and how would he feel about how Galatians has been used to endorse so much sentiment and violence against his people whom he deeply loved!?

  3. Adam O

    Really think this is good advice… I wonder though if, for this particular example, we just do a poor job of teaching about God’s economy where serving/investing in the sick or poor or addict is akin to serving King Jesus. Do we teach that we live in the Kingdom reality where God blesses and uses unexpected things like mustard seeds or unfaithful fishermen? I think you are certainly right that if we just speak of investment without Jesus-shaped pictures of what the “return” may be, we can forget that from the Christian perspective, we are sometimes called to do things (sacrificial investments perhaps) that only make sense if we believe in a God who raises the dead.

    1. timgombis

      I wonder if we could pick up a different metaphor, though, and just drop the investment thing altogether. Surely there are metaphors that capture how we can do the hard work of strategizing and plotting for creative service opportunities. I may suggest in a subsequent post another metaphor that we’re familiar with that actually does a lot of this sort of work without the negatives associated with investments.

      Also, thinking at all in terms of “returns” seems to open up all sorts of trouble. Friendships in the Kingdom are open-ended–we have no idea how God wants us to bless and be blessed before we enter these relationships and mutual flourishing.

      1. Adam Oliver

        I think it would be interesting to compare the dangers of using the investment /return language (as you have done here) to the relative danger of using sowing /reaping language in an agrarian culture.

      2. Jon K.

        I agree with the dangers of the investment metaphor you put forward, but skipping the metaphor means skipping parts of Scripture too. Even 2Cor. 8:9 is investment language: “He gave…so that you…might become rich.” He invested himself on behalf of others’ return. Or, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” This is investment advice: storing up treasures on earth is a bad investment pragmatically because it can rust, deteriorate, or be stolen. I agree with Adam O that we need to tease out what Kingdom investments look like. Every metaphor (by nature) is going to have a point where it doesn’t work. Especially spiritual metaphors because we are using human/temporal language to understand things that are divine/eternal. Not sure where we are going to find metaphors that are unable to be twisted, misused, or misunderstood.

      3. timgombis

        Good points, Jon. I’m not warning us off of using the metaphor of investment, only of using it with reference to our cultivating relationships with others. We don’t invest in others, we invest in the kingdom. Investing in others may lead us to expect a return from that person, which leads to all sorts of problems. On the other hand, investing in the Kingdom most certainly ought to lead us to expect a return. Of course, the question is then one of what concrete practices are entailed by the metaphor . . .

  4. Malcolm Anderson

    Hello Tim. Your ‘ministry investment’ item is really very helpful and well-argued. Keep up the good work. Malcolm Anderson

  5. Jaime

    I think part of our problem with the investment language (which is used in the Bible), is that we think that we’re the ones getting the return on investment, and we think we know what that ROI should look like.
    But we’re investing in the Kingdom, and the King will judge the investment.
    I think the reality is that most of us are not investing when we think we are, and are investing when we don’t think we are. This leads us to misjudge what the returns are and where they come from.
    But, I think that helps prove your point, that we’re not using our metaphors carefully, and are therefore causing needless problems in our congregations.
    Great word for all of us to ponder.

    Grace and Peace,

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