Why does the Bible use so many metaphors and analogies to describe the Spirit’s activities and our relationship to those activities? Why not employ concrete language to teach us what we need to know about the Holy Spirit and our relationship to him?
There are many things that are real about the Christian life that cannot be reduced to propositional language. This isn’t only a problem for spiritual realities—though the difficulty is often felt there more acutely than anywhere else—it is also true for many issues in life. For example, how would you describe in concrete words the love a husband feels for his wife or the trust a child has in her mother? I’m not asking how you can tell whether a husband loves his wife or a child trusts her mother. That’s easy. You can see love or trust worked out in what they do; the husband does specific loving actions toward his wife such as spending time talking with her over a cup of tea and a child demonstrates trust by listening to the advice of her mother. The more difficult question is how to describe what the husband’s love feels like, or what the child experiences when she trusts her mother. Non-metaphorical language lets you down at that point.
This is why poets and songwriters (and lovers who are neither poets nor songwriters!) use metaphors to express their love. Although imagery cannot communicate all that is there, in certain situations it often communicates more fully than concrete words do. Some things are difficult to communicate with straightforward words. Metaphors suggest to our inner selves something that is true about a deeper reality. They also often touch us in our emotions, something direct language often doesn’t accomplish as well. This is important because the passages of Scripture that teach us how to walk Spirit-ually should impact our hearts and emotions as well as our actions.
That’s why God sometimes chose to use metaphors to describe his own Spirit—wind, fire, rivers of living water—and also to use metaphors to describe things we need to know about our relationship to that Spirit—walking, putting to death, being led, getting adopted, and so forth. This also means, though, that some things we need to learn about walking in the Spirit will only become clear to us as we actually do the walking.
Excerpted from Kenneth Berding, Walking in the Spirit (Crossway, 2011).