The Motherly Love of God: Theological Reflections on Mother’s Day
A mother held her new baby and very slowly rocked him back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. And while she held him, she sang:
I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
As long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.
This is from the story by Robert Munsch. It is very dear to me because my mom would read it to me. She read it to me to remind me that she loved me no matter what. That one day she won’t be around, so she wanted me to remember how much she loved me and how I should pass on that love.
That sounds a lot like the love of God, don’t it?
Today we are going to reflect on mothers. We are going to reflect on the significance of the gift of our mothers, and how the love of our mothers remind us of God’s love.
First I’ll tackle the tough stuff of metaphors we used to understand God: Is God a he or a she, a father or a mother? Or neither and both? Second, with that ground work laid, we will survey the rich images of motherly love in the Bible.
Understanding God as Father to understand God as Mother
First, we need to understand what God as Father means. Why in the Bible does God refer to himself as a “father,” or at least as a “he” rather than a “she” or both? I have often wondered that.
God in the Bible is always referred to as “he.” Jesus teaches us to pray to God as “Our Father.” Some people get offended at that. They think that is sexist. Some Christians have advocated modifying liturgical documents, editing out male references on that basis. I think that misunderstands why male references are used. Changing, for instance, the prayer, “Our Father” to “Our Mother” misses why it is the way it is.
Nevertheless, many conservative Christians don’t understand why God is portayed this way. One feminist objector to the faith, Mary Daly said, “If God is male the male becomes God,” and sadly, a lot of Christians think that. And so, church history has seen the Bible has been used to value men more than women under the notion that men are closer to God than women because God is male and not female. Their concern is not without warrant. Some Christians have argued on theological grounds that women were not in the image of God (based on a misreading of 1 Cor. 11) or that women are less human then men (which followed the Greek philosophical traditions of Plato and Aristotle that saw women as “defective” males). However, this is not why God refers to himself as a father. The abuse does not necessarily invalidate the use, but it does reiterate that to call God “Father” is not so much correct as why you are saying it. If you are calling God “Father” because you think these things, your notion of God has been reduced to something idolatrous. God is male because God is not a thing.
Why does God get communicated as a father in the Bible?
First off, God in beyond gender, but God communicates with us personally, so he takes on gender. God is the “I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14) indicating freedom of existence, but God is not an “it.” So the use of the personal pronoun, “he,” is not to insist God is male so much as to prevent God from being abstracted. God is beyond creation and therefore beyond gender and sexuality. God is beyond everything. Yet he reveals himself to us using the good things around us. God allows himself to be imaged in order to have relationship.
God uses many images, not just gendered ones. Anything that is good can be used to communicate God’s goodness to us. God is a shepherd, a warrior, a king, a servant, a midwife, an artist, rock, light, fire, etc. This includes fatherhood as well as motherhood, because these roles are intrinsically good. While the Bible uses “he,” God is not more a he than a she. God is these things to get to the inherent goodness of himself that his created order shares from him.
God is understood as a “he” and a “father’ in the Bible for a very good reason. We, just like in the world of the Bible, have many absent fathers. God constantly communicates himself as a father, because there are so many people out there that, while they have a good mom, they don’t have a father. God communicates himself to us as a father, primarily because that is the love that most of us our missing, the love of a father. God seeks to be a father to the fatherless. God is a loving father in a way that says to absent fathers, true fathers do not do this. God communicates himself primarily as a father not because of patriarchy but to counter its abuse.
In fact, one of the first displays of God as a father in the Bible is the blessing and protection of Abram. God acts like a father to him as Abram leaves his father’s household. Abram is left fatherless, leaving his father’s idolatry for God’s call of obedience, and here God promises to be his father, protecting and blessing him. God is a father to the fatherless.
God is a father and the Holy Spirit is a “he” as well, particularly in the New Testament to reiterate the closeness of relationship they have to Jesus.
So, God primarily communicates to us that he is a loving father, the Father of Jesus Christ. However, many people neglect that God often does in the Bible speak of himself as a mother, loving us like a mother. This only makes sense:
God’s love is good.
Our mother’s love is good.
All that is good is of God.
Therefore, our mother’s love shows us God’s love.
Or, God’s love is good like a mother’s love.
Specifically, God loves like a mother.
Now this is important. While the Bible only uses the pronoun “he” for the reasons sketched out. To call God a “mother” or even to provocatively say “she,” is not actually against Biblical faith. While God is not referred to in the Bible as a “she” there is no reason to say God is more a “he” than a “she” or that masculinity is closer to God than femininity. The pronoun is not used in Scripture, but that does not necessarily mean it is “unbiblical.”
To use the term “she” to refer to God is similar to referring to God as a “Trinity.” No where in the Bible is the word “Trinity” used. Nowhere is the language of “three-in-one” used. While they are not explicitly found in the Bible, they are compatible with its logic. In fact, the trinity makes sense of its logic, helping us to image the God of the New Testament. If God is good and motherliness/femininity is good, then their goodness can be used to communicate God.
Think of a similar example. In the Chronicles of Narnia, God is portrayed as a lion: majestic and powerful. One could just as easily use a dog to represent God. Any dog lover will understand this simile: God is loyal, a companion, a protector, a friend. Yet God is not a lion or a dog.
Scripture goes further to use non-living objects to communicate God. God is a rock, connoting secure firmness. God is a fire, indicating warmth, power, the capacity to purify and even to destroy.
Now, like I said, when we understand why Scripture uses “he” and “father” we know that it is not in a sexist or patriarchal way, although some abuse them for that purpose. We don’t need to jettison that language, nor do we need to have such a fuss about conceptualizing God as feminine. All the goodness of creation communicates God, not least of which is motherly love.
So, this is what we are going to mediate upon today. God’s love is like the procreative, unconditional, sacrificial, protective love of a mother. Our mother’s love points us to the love of God, and this will allow us to appreciate both God and our mothers today.
1. We come from God like how a mom gives birth to us
“You have forgotten the Rock who bore you and put out of mind the God who gave you birth.” (Deut. 32:18)
Deuteronomy warns don’t forget that you came from God. God is your creator like how a mom gave birth to you. Don’t forget that you owe who you are and what you are because God created you like a mother.
My earliest memory was when I was a little over three. I remember the day we moved into our house that I grew up in in Stoney Creek. I don’t remember anything of the house before that. I don’t remember anything of what my parents had to do for me before that. At three I was walking and talking.
That means for three years before that, I don’t remember how much my mom had to work to feed me, clothe me, bath me, brush my teeth, change my diaper, put me down for naps, comfort me when I was upset.
My mom told me that I cried incessantly for months after I was born. My mom brought me to the doctor, concerned about how much crying I did. The doctor told my mom that it was nothing, and she was just being crazy. After several times insisting to the doctors that she was not crazy. They ran some tests to find that I had a herniated stomach from birth. It took six months for them to finally get around to diagnosing it and operating on it.
My mom told me that the operation happened late December, and on Christmas morning, my mom woke up in a panic. I did not wake her up in the night, so she, like most mothers naturally do, assumed I had died and ran to my bedroom. She found me waking up smiling. My mom, until that day, had not slept a full nights rest in six months up until that point. You can imagine the patience, the perseverance, the devotion that takes? That is the same patience, perseverance, and devotion God has for us.
Deuteronomy warns don’t forget God who bore you; don’t forget the God who gave you birth. You are not a self-made person. You exist because someone cared for you while you could not care for yourself.
God here feels forgotten and under-appreciated like a mom!
I admit that I am a man. Red Green has taught me the important mantra “I am a man; I can change; if I have to; I guess.” Nevertheless, I forget special occasions often. I am also a human. There is something about me that causes me to be very forgetful of God some days.
In the times that I have forgotten Mother’s Day, I don’t think my mom was mad at me or disappointed because she missed out on her reward for all her good work in my life. Moms don’t do what they do for any recognition. Saying “thank you” to your mom on Mother’s Day is not rewarding her because she needs a reward, right? But every parent wants to know that they have raised their kid right. That means they have come to recognize goodness done to them when they see it, whoever is doing it, and they respond appropriately: with gratitude and appreciation.
The same goes with God. God wants to see us mature in his goodness, and that includes learning to have gratitude towards him and responsibility towards others. This is why praising God in church is so necessary. It is not necessary to God. God does not need us to sing to him. We need to sing to God. We need to be constantly thankful so that we can dwell deeper in the awareness of all that is good.
Thus God reminds us: Don’t forget the one who bore you, says Deuteronomy. Don’t forget.
2. God protects us like a mother bird
God guides Israel like a mother bird teaching her young to fly:
“Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions, the Lord alone guided him” (Deut. 32:11-12)
This is a fascinating picture of God’s providence:
How often do we refuse to trust God in order to guide us?
How often do we think God is making us fall when actually he is helping us fly?
God, in the Bible, is often described as a mother bird protecting her young.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me, or in you my soul takes refuge; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge, until the destroying storms pass by. (Ps. 57:1)
Jesus even looks at Jerusalem and longs to protect them like a mother bird in Matthew 23: 37-38:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem!.. How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me! And so your Temple will be abandoned and empty.”
Paul, similarly, guides the church not as a father but as “a mother caring for her little children” (1. Thess. 2:7). Both examples, taken to their ultimate conclusion, poses the possibility that gender identity is porous with regards to roles and abilities, roles like be an apostle or a pastor not necessarily being “patriarchal” or innately “fatherly” roles.
Again, God is often described as male, as a father, as a king in the Old Testament to draw on the cultural experiences of men as protectors of the home. However, have you ever seen a female bird defend its nest? You can see what even Jesus prefers a motherly metaphor here, particularly, that of a mother bird.
Hawks have the ferocity to beat up bears if their nest is disturbed. Think about that. A 4 pound bird has the ability to send a 400 pound bear running for its life. Go ahead and look it up on the internet. It’s amazing. When a bear disturbs the tree where a hawk nest is, the mother hawk in a protective frenzy swoops down and claws the bears back. The bear runs yelping as the hawk continues to fly down, dive-bombing it. It’s incredible. The hawk beats up an animal 100 times its size in order to protect it’s young.
How confident that God will fight for you when you are in trouble?
How often to you think the things that are attacking your life are too big?
How often do we forget that God will fight for the death for us?
Believe it or not, God is fighting for you right now. The terrible thing about some of our sins – some of the dark things we are trapped in – is that we don’t know what trouble we are in. We don’t worry about all trouble we could be in.
Two things I look forward to seeing when I get to heaven. The first is all the moments God protected me in life that I did not realize. I imagine we will get to see the play by play of our lives in heaven, sort of like on sports channels. When that happens we will see all the moments God was there for us, saving us, protecting us, providing for us, and we did not even know it.
The second thing I look forward to seeing is all the prayers my mom prayed for me. How many times I went out and goofed around with my friends late at night and my mom could not sleep because she was waiting, worrying, and praying for me.
Moms fight for their kids, physically and spiritually. Moms want to protect their children with every ounce of their being. God is fighting for us right now and always. Do you realize it?
3. God also is wrathful like a mother
God’s wrath is often attributed to male metaphors, emphasizing power and patriarchal authority. However this appeal is not uniform. God is also seen as wrathful in a special way that only a mother can be.
“I will fall upon them [disobedient Israel] like a bear robbed of her cubs” (Hosea 13:8)
Notice that while God does not directly get the pronoun “she,” here the simile employs the feminine pronoun “her” to speak of God. God is wrathful like the awesome ferociousness of a mother bear whose cubs are in jeopardy.
Similarly, the salvific wrath of God is likened to a woman angrily in labor:
“For a long time I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant…I will lay waste the mountains and hills and dry up all their vegetation…I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” (Isa. 42:14-16)
I remember when my wife was in labor with our second son. Labor came on so quickly by the time we figured out that she had gone into full labor and got to the hospital (this happened in about three hours) our son was born within minutes of her arriving.
I will never forget on the way to the hospital seeing my wife in pain. She furiously tried to hit the wall of the van. I grabbed her hand trying to stop her, so that she would not damage a knuckle. She looked me with a killer look in her eye and lunged at me to bite my hand like Bilbo when Frodo did let him see the ring. That was a whole other level of wrath I had never seen before. I have never felt that angry.
Understanding God’s wrath as motherly helps to understand it rightly. God has wrath not because God has stopped loving us but because God loves us passionately. When I have done wrong, my mom was angry at me because she knew I was capable of better and would do anything to help me be the best I can be. That is God’s wrath. It is a loving wrath that wants to help us not hurt us.
4. God as motherly by professional role
There are other uses of feminine language that employs cultural language that refers to typically female roles. God is portrayed as a midwife attending a birth in Psalm 22:9-10, 71:6, and Isaiah 66:8-9.
“‘Yet no sooner is Zion in labor than she gives birth to her children. Do I bring to the moment of birth and not give delivery?’ says the Lord. ‘Do I close up the womb when I bring to delivery?’ says your God” (Isa. 66:8-9)
Paralleling God as shepherd (male) in the parables, God and his kingdom is described as being like a woman working leaven into bread (Lk. 13:18-21) and a woman seeking a lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), both chores of Galilean peasants woman. Jesus identifies God in these parables as women.
This again reiterates that if something is good it can communicate the divine. If a role is good, it can in some way, metaphorically communicate God’s goodness.
5. God refuses to let us go like a mother
“Listen to me, descendants of Jacob, all who are left of my people.
I have cared for you from the time you were born. I am your God and will take care of you until you are old and your hair is gray. I made you and will care for you; I will give you help and rescue you.” (Isa. 46:3-4)
God here is described as a mother, who bares her child Jacob, but continues on for the rest of our lives, providing, caring, rescuing. What wouldn’t a mom do to rescue their child?
Fire broke out in Harrison, Arkansas of January 7th of this year. Police and firefighters worked to search the homes of a burning multiplex to evacuate anyone inside. One of the homes was engulfed in flames on all sides. The firefighters sprayed through and ran in the home to check it. In the upstairs bathroom they found a woman, Katherine Benefiel, 41, heavily burned, arms wrapped around her five year old son, covering him from the flames. Both were rushed to hospital, but the mom succumbed to her burns. The son, while badly burned himself, remained in critical care, but lived. The story continues to mention that the pastor of the nearby church stepped in to help the family.
Katherine Benefiel with her last strength, when it was apparent that there was no way out, used her self as a shield to protect her son.
What wouldn’t a mother do to rescue her children? She would give her very life. Is it any wonder why Scripture uses the metaphor of the love of a mother to teach us about God’s love for us? Isn’t that exactly what God did for us in Jesus Christ on the cross? God loved us so much that God would die to save God’s children. God died so that we could have life, eternal life.
So, it goes much further than that. God’s motherly love goes beyond any earthly motherly love. Creation is limited. God is infinite. Thus, the love of a mother is similar, but also infinitely dissimilar.
“But God’s people say, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget the baby she is nursing, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isa 49:14-15)
Here Isaiah in his poetry enacts a similar move to the apophatic traditions of Christianity where God is ineffably more than all created things. God’s love is unspeakable better than any metaphor we use to talk about it. God reminds us that even the beautiful love of our mothers, while it points to his love, while God uses it to illustrate his love for us, it is inadequate at fully representing the perfection of love God has for us.
God bore us like a mother to physical life, but even more than that. God causes us to be born again of his Spirit to receive everlasting life.
God protects us like a mamma bird, but more than that, God protects us perfectly.
God has wrath like a mother, but perfectly, never doing so abusively.
God refuses to let us go like a mother, only God has laid down his life for us so that we can not only live this life, but for ever and ever in heaven afterwards.
This mothers day I am deeply reminded of this. My grandmother passed away this year. This means this year I do not have any of my families mother’s life alive. This week is a particular bizarre week. This week marks the anniversary of the passing of my grandmother (my Dad’s mother 16 years ago and the passing of my Dad from pancreatic cancer 8 years ago. My mom passed away 5 and a half years ago. That means, like I said, I don’t have any of the mothers directly related to me left.
Yesterday was also my wife and I’s six anniversary. We have been married for 6 years. It makes this time odd. It means I go out to celebrate the gift of having Meagan in my life, but it also reminds my that I don’t have my mother or grandmothers left to celebrate.
I do have a wonderful step-mom and mother-in-law, but of course, the can never replace my mom.
God, as I have been saying from Deuteronomy, says don’t forget where we came from; don’t forget who cared for us; don’t forget who gave us birth. He is urging us never to forget him, the author redeemer, sustainer of life, but to truly understand what God is communicating to us in these metaphors, we cannot take for granted the love we get from our mothers. Sadly, we won’t have them forever. I learned that the hard way.
May you cherish your earthly mothers as a gift from God that points us to his perfectly love.
May you know that God loves you like the perfect mother, who cares for you, protects you, even disciplines you when you are have strayed.
May you know that God in motherly love has died your death and given you life in Jesus Christ.
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For those that are interested in the more academic discussion on feminine language for God, I wrote an article for Priscilla Papers, which is the journal for Council of Biblical Equality. It is entitled, “The Father and the Feminine” and it weighs different more traditional and more feminist arguments for inclusive language, arguing for a biblically centred way of having dynamic language for God.