Dead Metaphors, Part 1

As I sat in a lectionary based Bible study a few weeks ago, the Spirit opened my ears to hear how our language gets in the way of communication, especially communication of our faith. The problem is that we're throwing a bunch of dead metaphors at each other and don't recognize it. My next few posts will reflect on these dead metaphors and why we need to be careful in our language.

What's a Dead Meta For?

Paul Ricoeur develops the issue of dead metaphors in The Rule of Metaphor. Most formally:

...dead metaphors are no longer metaphors, but instead are associated with literal meaning, extending its polysemy. The criterion of delimitation is clear: the metaphorical sense of a word presupposes contrast with a literal sense; as predicate, this contrasting sense transgresses semantic pertinence.
Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, p. 342

Said less formally, a metaphor "works" when it is like the thing and also when it is not like the thing being metaphorically described. When the "is not" portion of the metaphor is forgotten or no longer experienced, the metaphor has died.

The Spirit has opened my ears and eyes to see dead metaphors surrounding issues of faith around our most important topics: sin, the Lord's Supper, death and the afterlife, interpreting Jesus' parables, etc. This post starts a series of posts looking at these dead metaphors and what God might be trying to say through their death.

Metaphors for Sin

Christians have two big metaphors for sin that go back to the two versions of the Lord's Prayer: Matthew's debts, and Luke's trespasses. It is worth exploring both the "is" and the "is not" in each of these sin metaphors.

Sin is like the accumulation of debt because God buys us back from Satan at the cost of Jesus' blood. The more we sin, the more expensive it is for God to buy us back, and thus the more we owe God for buying us back--hence, debt.

Sin is not like debt because we have no way of repaying God for Jesus' blood. Even if we could think of a way, we would still owe God for everything else--our existence, our possessions, our time, our relationships, every breath, every heartbeat. How can we ever repay God?

Sin is like crossing the boundary into a place you've been told not to go because God has defined the boundaries of the field wherein those who claim to be God's people are expected to live--whether you call this the Ten Commandments from the Hebrew scriptures or the Two Commandments from the Greek scriptures. When we go outside of those boundaries, we trespass, going into places we're not supposed to go, and God has to come get us.

Sin is not like trespassing because God gives us relationship, which includes but is more than boundaries. Boundaries are either kept or not. Relationship can bring healing after a breaking of boundaries.


Dead metaphors can keep us from seeing God's amazing work in our lives. The Spirit is calling us to look at the metaphors we use in talking about faith as metaphors rather than right or wrong expressions of faith.

The difference between trespasses and debt divides Christian denominations because we've forgotten that each is a metaphor and that the Church needs both metaphors as ways to get a larger sense of what God does in our lives.

"Forgive us in those places where we've crossed the line, as we forgive those in our lives who have crossed the line."

"Forgive us everything that we owe you, as we forgive everything other people owe us."

We need to hear both of these messages. Good thing God has given them both to us.


Click here for Part 2.

Click here for Part 3.

Click here for Part 4.