God as Smell

Seeing God Differently: God as Smell?!

by Rev. Doug Gray

This fall I have been reading through Laura Winner’s delightfully whimsical and deeply thoughtful book, Wearing God. This week I have been thinking about smell as I have been preparing my sermon. So let me ask you, what are things that smell great?

[Take responses from the congregation.]

Great list! I found a curious story about a smell I hadn’t thought of. Kimberly Jackson writes,

A student of mine called me late one evening after worship. He was really excited on the other end, and I had to ask him to slow down. So, he says, “Mother Kim, this strange thing happened to me today. After worship tonight, I was riding the train back to my apartment, when this woman sat down next to me. I had my earbuds in, so I wasn’t really paying her any attention, but she tapped me to get my attention. She said, ‘Son, you smell like church. You smell like church.’”[1]

I wondered to myself, “What does church smell like?” Does God smell? How can the Bible’s understanding of smell challenge and transform us? As I thought about this I found three ideas that grabbed my attention about smell and the Bible.

First, God does seem to be able to smell things. As incense was burned in the Temple, the thin trail of smoke rose and people’s prayers were said to rise with it. The aroma was said to be soothing to God. When people offered their sacrifices with glad and devoted hearts, God enjoys that smell—so I guess God can smell. Who knew?

Second, humans use smell to “sniff” out what’s good and bad. We talked about some of the good smells. When you smell them, don’t they draw you in? But what about the bad smells? Have you ever gone to the refrigerator, and you know something has gone bad? You may not be able to see right away what has gone bad, but as soon as you open the door, you know that something is not right. So you start sniffing things to see if they are the source of the bad smell. We like to get away from things that stink, don’t we? When I was in high school, my youth group started out being a wonderful place, the place where I came to understand that Jesus and I would be friends forever. But some of the seniors graduated, and the tone of the fellowship changed. If there was something different about you, the popular kids wouldn’t have anything to do with you. They even invented their own language so they could leave everyone left out and bully people without the adults understanding. No one received more bullying than Tim. He smelled. No one wanted to sit with him, do things with him, talk to him, because all of those things would bring you into “the circle of stink.” But I found him to be profoundly kind-hearted and deeply thoughtful of others. To my own shame, there were times when I chose not to be with him too, but I think I missed the opportunity to have a good friend. As a society, we tend to do the same thing, don’t we? We try to get away from people who stink, or try to put them away. I wonder if we sometimes think someone who smells bad is someone who is bad. So while humans can sniff out good and bad food pretty well, when it comes to people, sometimes we struggle to get it right.

Finally, it’s worth saying that sometimes we may think or say, “God, you stink!” Can you think of a time when you or someone you know has done something like that? Hurricanes that flatten countries and add more brokenness to the poverty of Haiti. The power of addiction that destroys not just the addicts’ lives but the lives of everyone who cares for them. Children who starve and are abandoned in a nation obsessed with huge portions and helicopter parents. “God, you stink!” we might be tempted to say. These all “stink” to us because we have a sense of how these should all be. And if you are angry at God about these things or anything for that matter, then by all means be angry with God. God is certainly big enough to handle our anger. But consider also for a moment, that even the fact that we have a sense of how things should be suggests that God placed that sense of “smell” in us. So it is that good has an aroma too. An early church father, Ambrose of Milan, once said, “The flower, even when cut, keeps its odor, and when bruised increases, and when torn does not lose it; so, too, the Lord Jesus on that gibbet of the cross neither failed when bruised, nor fainted when torn; and when cut by the pricking of the spear, made more beautiful by the sacred color of the outpoured blood…exhaling among the dead the gift of eternal life.”[2] In a world so focused on getting ahead, on blaming God and anything but ourselves for all the evil in the world, Jesus’ death on the Cross is a breath of fresh air, a clean scent in a fetid world. On the Cross, we see God’s love for hate-filled people: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.” On the Cross, Jesus shows us another way to live. Even when we and others say, “God, you stink!”, still we have Jesus’ sacrifice to show that a different scent is in the wind.

Which brings us back to Kimberly Jackson’s story about the smell of church. She writes, “Now the Apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Corinthians that those who know Christ have a particular smell. When we come to know God—come to trust and believe in the power of God’s love, there’s an aroma, a fragrance that lingers in the room even after we leave. To borrow from the words of the woman on the train, when we encounter God, we begin to ‘smell like church.’ Or to borrow from Paul, ‘We begin to smell like Christ.’” Jackson continues, “That evening on the phone with my student, I asked him what happened next. He said, ‘She started to cry. And she looked up at me and said, “Thank you. I haven’t been to church in a long time.”’” Dear friends, we are called to be aroma-therapy for the world. Paul writes, “In the Messiah, in Christ, God leads us from place to place in one perpetual victory parade. Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God, which is recognized by those on the way of salvation—an aroma redolent with life.” We are called to live out the sacrifice of Jesus Christ—not for ourselves but for others—so that our lives are marked by grace, even smell like grace. We are meant to be the scent of something fresh and wonderful in the wind, the hope that lingers in a room even after we are gone. Like cinnamon rolls baking or bacon sizzling in a pan, we are called to be the smell that wakes people up to compassion and makes them want to come where the real cooking is, the real food is. God is the true source of this exquisite fragrance, and Jesus had it so right that smell is His too. When we do what God wants, what Jesus would do, then we are aromatherapy for the world. Breathe deeply now. Can you smell the desire for grace in the air?


[1]Quoted in Laura Winner’s book, Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God (2015), p. 78.

[2]Quoted in Laura Winner, cited above.