Nathan Richardson

The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning. Yeah, the Holy Spirit is often compared to a flame, but that doesn’t mean we need to keep small children from getting too close to it.

If you’ve ever taught a youth Sunday school class, you’ve probably had at least one student who likes the game of “Stretch the Metaphor to Death.” While thoroughly exploring metaphors to gain further spiritual insights is a fruitful exercise, it can also turn into a game of making the principle being taught seem absurd by over-applying the symbolism in ridiculous ways. For example, missionary work is compared to fishing (Jer. 16:16; Mark 1:17), obviously because missionaries have to search hard for investigators, and they try to bring in as many as they can find. But they don’t cook and eat their investigators, and fish can’t become fishermen themselves after they’ve been caught, as new converts do when they become member-missionaries. This is stretching the metaphor until it seems silly.

Whenever a class member starts to play this game, it’s OK to let them get a few giggles (unless it’s a really sacred subject, of course). It’s actually a good thing, because your clever student has discovered a simple truth: no symbol can perfectly and thoroughly be like its referent (the thing it points to or symbolizes) in every way.1 It’s impossible. No matter how similar a symbol is to the thing it represents, there will always be differences. (That makes sense, after all, because if the symbol were exactly like the thing in every way, it would be the thing.) All metaphors have limitations, no matter how illuminating or useful a symbol may be in explaining multiple aspects of a concept. To put it another way, all metaphors eventually run out of gas.

Get it? Get it? I implicitly used a metaph— Oh, nevermind.

Metaphors Can Cause Misunderstandings

Now, this fact about metaphors is not a devastating weakness; it’s a natural limitation that’s inherent to human language. And any tool is best used when you understand its limitations. My hammer may be great for putting up sheetrock, but if use it to assemble a bike, the bike won’t be very sturdy. It’s important to understand this truth when using metaphors, because metaphors have constraints. If we use any one metaphor exclusively when describing something, it can actually lead to misunderstandings.

An electron is like a planet … kind of. An atom is like a solar system in some ways, but there are also significant differences we shouldn’t ignore.

For example, when children first learn about atoms, we tell them that the nucleus is like the sun, and the electrons orbit the nucleus like planets. That’s a fine way of understanding it initially, before children have the mathematical ability to conceive of orbitals as “fields of probable location” for an electron, rather than an elliptical path. But if a child always relies on the planetary metaphor, he will never fully understand atomic physics. The planetary metaphor reveals certain aspects of atoms (that they are mostly empty space, and that a central object attracts smaller objects and keeps them nearby), but it also conceals other aspects (that electrons travel in unpredictable, non-elliptical ways, and form bonds between atoms in ways a planet-like particle never could).

Another example appears frequently in talks on morality: that of comparing sexual desire to “a physical appetite.”2 Comparing it to a hunger for food is helpful when teaching youth about sex because it quickly reveals certain truths about sexual desire: it is a strong urge that’s a natural part of having a body; everyone has it and we don’t need to feel bad just for experiencing it; if we give in to it too much or in the wrong way, it’s bad for us; it’s given of God and is meant to be enjoyed in the way he intended it to be. Sex and hunger have all these elements in common, so calling sex an “appetite” is a useful comparison that reveals a lot in a concise, memorable way.

But this metaphor also conceals some truths about sexual desire, and ignorance of that fact can muddy our understanding of the concept in question. Sometimes we overextend the metaphor of hunger and begin talking about sex as if it were a physical appetite that we simply must feed or there will be dire consequences. When an unmarried person justifies immorality by saying, “Sex is a need, or, “I have needs,” he does violence to the definition of the word “need.” Food is a need; if you do not feed a strong sensation of hunger for a prolonged period of time, you will die. Yet because of the attitudes in the media today, I find it necessary today to remind youth that if you go without sex in your unmarried years, in spite of strong physical desires, you will not implode. I promise them, as a virgin for 29 years until my wedding night, abstinence will not kill you. Staying chaste will not make you pop. That kind of misunderstanding can be perpetuated by describing sex as a need equal to other physical appetites like hunger.

“But Nathan,” you might say, “apostles use that metaphor! You cited Jeffrey R. Holland saying it. Are you criticizing their use of those metaphors?”

No, of course not. Calling sex an appetite is a good metaphor. Comparing atoms to solar systems is a good metaphor. We just need to be aware of an inherent limitation in all metaphors.

Every Mirror Conceals the Wall behind It

We learn an important lesson about metaphors from these two examples: every metaphor that reveals an aspect of its referent (the concept or thing the metaphor describes) also conceals other aspects. Jeff Robinson, a psychologist who specializes in same-sex attraction, discusses this lesson:

We begin to take our metaphors too literally. We speak metaphorically in our language, and the social sciences are highly metaphorical. So we talk about people having unmet emotional needs. When I say “unmet emotional needs,” suddenly somebody realizes, “Yeah, needs—that’s something I really have to have unless I get enough of it that I don’t need it anymore. Unless I use it up—then I’ll need more of it.” It’s a metaphor from economics, needing things. There’s some truth in it: it opens up a way of understanding. But it blocks out other ways of understanding. Once we have adopted a metaphorical way of understanding something, it limits how much we can understand it in a different way.3
What is your mirror hiding? This mirror shows the road over your shoulder, but it also blocks the flowers behind it.

In this example, overextending the economic metaphor of “needs” can lead people to think, “Well, I’m not going to serve my wife any further until she serves me some. In fact, I can’t. My account is empty, so I have nothing left to give until she makes some deposits in my account by serving me in return.” Such a view ignores the fact that love (the real kind) is self-perpetuating. (And in a way, the Savior can fill all our “needs” indefinitely so that we always have love to give.)

This fact about metaphors is important not only in the social sciences, but also in philosophy. In fact, it’s important in any type of rhetoric or description, because it helps us convey ideas more accurately, or at the very least, know how inadequate our descriptions are.

Metaphors are like mirrors—they help you see things you couldn’t see before (like your face, or the car behind you), but they inherently conceal whatever is directly behind them (the bathroom wall, or the view through a small section of your windshield). The price for seeing something in a new way is to no longer see a small portion of your previous view. That’s OK; it’s usually worth the price. With a few well-placed mirrors, you can switch lanes much more safely on the highway. Just be aware of the blindspots.

One Solution

One implication of this fact is that we might want to be cautious about using any one metaphor exclusively or too much when describing or trying to understand any new idea. When we find a metaphor particularly helpful, we should ask ourselves, “What aspects of this concept am I missing out on by using this metaphor?” In fact, a good writer occasionally includes caveats about his simile.

As mentioned earlier, no metaphor is sufficient to fully describe its referent. This doesn’t mean we should abandon the metaphor. Dr. Robinson cautions, “We can’t get away from metaphors. We can’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to talk metaphorically; we’re just going to talk reality here.'”3 Comparisons and symbols are an inescapable part of language. Rather than try to eliminate a helpful metaphor, we can instead balance it with other metaphors. Eating meat exclusively is unhealthy, but the solution is to add grains and veggies, not abstain from meat. Likewise, one strategy to counteract metaphors’ inherent limitations is to use multiple metaphors to describe the same idea.

In a car, we combine our windshield, multiple mirrors, and looking over our shoulder to get a complete view of the area around us. Likewise, by using multiple metaphors, we triangulate our way to a more accurate understanding of the referent in a way that is impossible with only one metaphor. If we are aware of this characteristic of metaphors, they can be much more useful in our learning, and we can prevent many a fender-bender in the parking lot of knowledge.



1. To paraphrase Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski, “The map is not the terrain.”

2. E.g., Jeffrey R. Holland, “Personal Purity, Ensign, Nov. 1998, p. 75.

3. Jeffrey Robinson, “Homosexuality: What Works and What Doesn’t Work,” transcript of presentation given on 6 Oct. 2002,; some punctuation has been changed for clarity.