Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Spiritual Meaning Behind Real Events

In looking at the historicity of the Gospel of John, some writers have come to the conclusion that it is symbolic, rather than historical. They seek spiritual meaning behind many of the stories and thus conclude that those stories did not actually happen. For example, the raising of Lazarus can said to be symbolic of the way in which Jesus Christ gives new life. Therefore, it did not really happen. It was meant to convey a spiritual truth, rather than give a historic account.

However, in my experience and I’m sure in the experiences of many other Christians, everyday life is loaded with symbolism. Barely a day goes past when I cannot find a spiritual meaning behind events that actually happened. In writing this blog, there are many ideas I have that revolve around some event that occurred in my life. These events may remind me of a spiritual truth or convey a spiritual lesson. When I wish to describe these events, I focus on how they are symbolic of God or faith or being a Christian. But just because they are symbolic does not mean they did not occur.

I try not to write too many of these types of blogs. Firstly, because I don’t have the time to write them all down. Secondly, because I think they can be a bit boring. The type that start with ‘I was feeding my dog today and that made me think about how God…’ Don’t laugh. That was an actual idea at one point. My son had made the comment that the poor dog must be starving because he hadn’t been fed in five days. Don’t report me to the RSPCA just yet. I had been feeding my dog. It’s just my son hadn’t seen it and so he presumed that it hadn’t happened. Made me think about all the times that we think God isn’t doing something, just because we haven’t actually seen Him do it.

You may have noticed that there’s been a bit more time than usual between blog posts. That is because my old computer decided to die on me. It would frequently either freeze or shut down in the middle of what I was doing, with no warning and for no apparent reason. So I had to get a new one. And I have spent the last couple of days setting it up and adding all the programs that I need.

Anyway, to go back to that moment when I walked out of the computer store. There were a few different emotions happening for me at the time. But one thing I did feel was this sense that what I was holding was new and clean and incorrupt. I had a fresh start. My old computer had been with me for five years. During that time, I had added a lot of programs and files that I didn’t want and didn’t need. For example, I had five programs to tell me how fast I type. I know I’m a fast typist. I don’t need five programs to tell me that. They were clogging up the system, affecting my performance and holding me back. Now all those programs were gone. I had a clean slate to work with.

Of course, if you go back a couple of paragraphs, you’ll see that I’ve already added new programs. At the moment, most of these are ones that I need. But give it time. I’m sure that before too long, I’ll have a number of programs that aren’t really necessary. And if I have this computer for five years, it will probably be just as full of junk as the old one was.

Yesterday, I was listening to a Catholic Answers podcast. And someone rang up to ask why we continue to sin after baptism. I can’t remember the exact answer. But I know the person answering said that we do not lose our inclination to sin. And straightaway, I thought of my computer. I thought I may have lost all the old crappy programs I had on my old computer. But I haven’t lost the inclination to add new ones. And I believe his answer will stay in mind because I was able to immediately apply it to something I understood.

Jesus used parables a lot. He used parables to discuss heavenly realities in a form that his hearers would understand. Whether they really happened, in this case, is irrelevant. But in a way they did happen. They had happened to all the people who were listening to him. They were the symbolic meaning that occurred in their everyday lives.

I believe God often uses earthly things to describe heavenly realities. And so do people who talk about God. To say well this has a symbolic meaning, so it didn’t really happen is to miss the point entirely. My son really did say that about the dog food. I did really get a new computer. The fact that I attach a spiritual meaning to it doesn’t invalidate the truth of that.

And if everyday life is so full of spiritual meaning, how much more so when Jesus walked the earth. Jesus wasn’t just describing heavenly realities in earthly form, he was the heavenly reality in earth form. To try and separate Jesus into those events that had spiritual meaning and those that are historically true, is like trying to separate any other person into the part of them that breathes in and the part of them that breathes out. They are both intertwined.

Jesus really walked the earth. He did the things described in the gospels. But he also was a symbolic representation of God. More than that, he was God. He was a symbol that represented the very thing He was symbolising. And so it would be surprising if Jesus only did those things that had no spiritual meaning. Everything he did had spiritual meaning. It was part of who he was.


  1. Hi Liz
    I think there is spiritual meaning behind everything that happens in the physical world and if you are in a state of acceptance you will experience it. For me, it's often like catching a fleeting glimpse of something amazing, just as it disappears around the corner.

    I agree that concluding that something that happened in Jesus' time had symbolic meaning only, is to miss the point. Symbolic value is the bigger part anyway, because it is on the deep and unseen level that we are connected to God...

    I have heard some of the miracles that Jesus did, explained using modern scientific understanding. But I don't think that makes them less miraculous. How else can we experience something in the physical world, except by physical means?

    But miracles still happen.
    People do come back from the dead and seemingly irreversible illness is cured with prayer.

  2. Hi Teresa,

    I like your description of 'catching a fleeting glimpse of something amazing, just as it disappears around the corner.' I can relate to that.

    I think most of the bible has layers of meaning. And I don't believe it was ever meant to be read in just one way. And I think maybe some people try to separate the bible into different parts - eg. this part is symbolic, this part is metaphor, this part is factual, this part reflected the beliefs of the religious community at the time.

    And if we see the bible as a way of God talking to us, then it seems he will use many layers of meaning, both in what is said and in what actually happened. Because human words simply aren't enough to convey all that God is.

    I came across this passage I particularly liked yesterday. It's from Peter Jensen, 'The Authority of Scripture' in 'The Revelation of God'. It says:

    'First, it is argued that the mystery of God means that our communication with him can never be satisfactorily reduced to the verbal. The verbal is too prosaic, too academic, too merely human...Thus our appreciation of God may be much more sacramental rather than verbal, numinous rather than plain.'

    I haven't included the whole passage.

    But because God cannot be simply reduced to human words, I believe He does show himself in many different ways, including miracles and the spiritual meaning we attach to different things.

    I will say, though, I think sometimes people can attach too much spiritual meaning to things. And the reason I say that is I had a friend telling me about someone who is always saying that God has spoken to him. And I said maybe he's so keen to hear from God that he's interpreting every little thing as a personal message from Him.


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