The Marvel of Metaphor in Teaching and Counseling


By Larry W. Bailey


The talented, courageous king had sinned against God and his neighbors. He had committed adultery and schemed to assure the death of his lover’s husband who was serving in the king’s army. King David needed to be confronted, and a prophet of God was assigned the task. Nathan did not shout at the king, cite the commandments David had violated, or detail the error of his ways. Rather, he told David a simple story that included a person of power, a humble servant, and a lamb.

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him (2 Samuel 12:1-4).


When David heard the story, he became angry and said, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity” (2 Samuel 12:5, 6).

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” (v. 7).

In this confrontation, Nathan used a skillfully formulated story to convey an important idea and challenge David to examine his actions. The indirect, metaphoric approach enhanced the effectiveness of his message.

The use of metaphor to instruct, comfort, and confront is found throughout Scripture. God used a metaphoric approach to deal with the first murderer, Cain. He said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).

Magnificent word pictures are used in Psalms, Proverbs, prophecies, the Gospels, and the Epistles to describe God and his people. Depictions of God include his role as a protective shield, a nurturing shepherd, and a strong tower. His people are described as flourishing and fruitful trees, well-attended sheep, living branches connected to the vine, and a holy temple.

Metaphors are used to help people develop a better understanding of God and themselves, and to provide instruction, assurance, and hope.

Numerous stories with a “second” meaning are found in both testaments. Examples from the Old Testament include the story of the poor man and his lamb (cited above), Jotham’s confrontation of Abimelech (Judges 9), Zechariah’s frustrations in efforts to pasture the flock (Zechariah 11:4-14), and the account of Jeremiah’s linen belt (Jeremiah 13:1-11). These stories are contextually relevant, dramatic, and designed to influence the listener.

We are familiar with the many metaphoric stories (parables) Jesus told during his ministry. He spoke of a patient father awaiting the return of an errant child, a despised foreigner who helped an injured man, a foolish man focused on amassing riches, and a wise person building on a good foundation. Due to the effectiveness of his teaching through the use of  “earthly stories with a heavenly meaning,” Jesus is known as the master teacher by disciples and detractors.

More recently, educators and counselors have discovered that metaphoric communication is a valuable means of conveying ideas and influencing behavior. A well-formulated story can connect with the hearer at several levels (intellectual, emotional, spiritual), and bypass resistances such as defensiveness and avoidance.

Church leaders are continuously in roles that involve attempts to influence the attitudes and behaviors of others (e.g., teaching, preaching, counseling). It may be advantageous to develop sensitivity to situations in which a metaphoric story would increase our effectiveness. Let us consider the elements of a good story and understand ways we may develop skills in using metaphor.

Characteristics of Metaphoric Stories


Effective stories are empathetic, engaging, earthy, efficient, and often have an enigmatic ending.

Empathetic. In any endeavor to influence others, it is important for the leader to understand the hearer’s frame of reference and be able to “feel with” the learner. Nathan used a story that appealed to a former shepherd; and when Jotham gave the account of trees selecting a king, the crowds were gathered beside the “great tree” at the pillar of Shechem. Jesus told parables about people and events familiar to his hearers (e.g., planting seeds, banquets, victims, shepherds, and sheep).

Engaging. Metaphoric stories typically have a dramatic flair and evoke strong feelings. Nathan’s story brought about compassionate outrage, and parables such as the Unappreciative Servant and the Prodigal Son contain emotionally charged scenes. Jesus’ parables often involve unexpected twists (e.g., the sudden death of the Rich Fool, the surprising inclusion of the poor and crippled in the Great Banquet) or irony (e.g., the usually denigrated Samaritan demonstrates more kindness to a victim than did the high-profile religious leaders).

Earthy. The master teacher demonstrated the value of using images from everyday life. The Parable of the Four Soils is the epitome of an earthy story (pardon the pun). More generally, a well-formulated story involves concepts and activities that are quite familiar to the hearer. People who live in rural areas may understand farming or gardening analogies, but those residing in urban areas probably need images that relate to computers, commuting, corporations, or competitive sports.

Efficient. Purposeful, metaphoric stories are rather brief and simple. Telling a story typically takes no more than a couple of minutes, and there is usually only one basic point being communicated. Extraneous details are minimized, allowing the action to move at a good pace. Although it involves several different scenes, the longest of Jesus’ parables (the Prodigal Son) takes only 2.5 minutes to say aloud.

Enigmatic ending. Some of the best-known stories in Scripture and the more recent literature conclude in an obscure, open-ended, surprising, and/or perplexing manner. For example, we do not know if the family issues were resolved in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We are surprised by the heroism of the Good Samaritan, the praise given to the Shrewd Servant, and the jailing and torture of the Unappreciative Servant. Note that in most cases, Jesus and more recent teachers do not interpret the implications of the story.

Preparing Metaphoric Stories

Many issues that surface in Jesus’ parables are relevant today. We address concerns about straying youth, sibling rivalry, poor planning, forgiveness, and priorities. There are several ways in which we may become effective in creating and delivering meaningful stories:

• Study the numerous metaphoric stories in the Old Testament and Gospels.

• Review stories used in contemporary teaching and counseling. There are many examples provided in the books cited at the end of this article.

• Identify news accounts that illustrate important principles (e.g., results of poor planning, the effects of selfishness, ironic incidents). The news is a daily source of ideas.

• Reflect upon your own experiences and identify stories that would be relevant to the teaching or counseling need.

• Attend to the metaphorical language used by those you are attempting to influence, allowing their words to guide your terminology. Use “sense” words such as “I see what you mean,” “I hear you,” or “That’s very touching.”

• Be sensitive to metaphors associated with advances in technology. New terms and the complex interactions among systems may provide a rich resource for modern parables. Perhaps the idea of the “vine and branches” could be conveyed as the “hub and stations.”

• Appreciate the abundance of metaphoric material in literature, myths, fairy tales, and music.

We church leaders would do well to develop skills in using indirect, metaphorical approaches as we teach and counsel, thereby enhancing our effectiveness as we influence others. The metaphoric approach in comforting, confronting, and instructing people is used throughout Scripture and in recent advances in education and counseling. Becoming effective in the use of metaphoric stories and activities is another way to emulate the master teacher.



Larry W. Bailey works as a clinical psychologist at AdvanceMed Hanford in Richland, Washington. Material for this article is drawn from Larry’s book Modeling the Master: Effective Use of Metaphor in Christian Counseling (Xulon Press, 2003).



For Further Reading

Larry W. Bailey, Modeling the Master: Effective Use of Metaphor in Christian Counseling (Longwood: Xulon Press, 2003).

S.R. Lankton, The Broader Implications of Ericksonian Therapy (New York: Ericksonian Monographs, 1990).

W.H. O’Hanlon, Taproots: Underlying Principles of Milton Erickson’s Therapy and Hypnosis (New York: Norton, 1987).

K.F. Thompson, “Metaphor: A Myth with a Method,” in Brief Therapy: Myths, Methods and Metaphors, J.K. Zeig and S.G. Gilligan, eds (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1990).

J.K. Zeig and S.G. Gilligan, Brief Therapy: Myths, Methods and Metaphors (New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1990).


You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *