For some families, Mother’s Day is fun and frivolous, with kids’ homemade attempts at breakfast or heartfelt crafts. It may be bitter and resentful, with more empty wishes or regrets than actual memories. It may be the apex of celebration – like for my friends who on Friday finalized adoption of their twin boys.
But the holiday may also be gut wrenching, for moms or kids – even adult kids – who feel the deep pain of personal separation through simple distance, or estrangement, or even death.
In most churches I have attended, we generally refer to God as Father or some other masculine descriptor. But I have friends – Christian friends – and have been to churches – yes, Christian churches – that include different references to God. So in honor of mothers everywhere, I would like to take a little time to also explore the concept of God’s motherly traits.
First, let’s remember who God is.
Jesus provides a succinct description when speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well. In John 4:24, Jesus says: “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
So let’s remember that above all, God is spirit. God is not encumbered by our fleshly definitions of gender or roles.
Personally, I am most comfortable viewing God as “male” and as Father. But that’s just how God meets me. That picture doesn’t have to apply to everyone. Let’s not get caught up in biology and tradition when discussing a Spirit Being.
Mothers come in all shapes, sizes, genders, and expressions; and ALL reflect God’s own personality characteristics — traits we usually label as “maternal.”
Though scripture never refers to God as “Mother,” references abound describing God’s maternal characteristics.
In Deuteronomy, Moses recites a song that attributes both mother and father aspects to God, while at the same time chastising the nation of Israel for being rebellious children.
“You deserted the Rock, who fathered you;
you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18)
Sometimes God’s mom-reflection helps us calm ourselves when we feel overwhelmed; we rely on that closeness formed as a baby to quiet our spirit.
David tapped into that closeness. In a time of distress, he wrote
“And to think you were midwife at my birth,
setting me at my mother’s breasts!
When I left the womb you cradled me;
since the moment of birth you’ve been my God.” (Psalm 22:9-10. MSG)
He wrote in Psalm 131 during a more peaceful time:
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131:1-2)
Sometimes that comfort and stillness is the absolute best thing we kids need. It gives us a chance to absorb and to process life from a safe vantage point.
Then again, sometimes what we need is a champion, a warrior mom to cry out on our behalf, to have our backs while laying waste to the surrounding obstacles. Check it out: God’s mama bear side is in scripture, too.
“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 turn rivers into islands
and dry up the pools.
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.” (Isaiah 42:14-16)
Mama Bear God will cry out, will destroy, but will also guide. And that fierce fighter is someone we all need in our lives.
My Mama Bear was a woman named Linda. She is the mother of my middle school best friend, and provided sanctuary in an otherwise chaotic life when I was struggling. I have only seen her once in the last couple decades, but she will forever be an important part of my adolescence.
Maybe your Mama Bear is your “actual” mom, or maybe a teacher, or some other mentor. Maybe it wasn’t even a mom by traditional definition.
Perhaps you’ve had situational Mama Bears who stepped in to meet a specific need at a specific time, then moved along.
And perhaps you have been someone else’s champion at one time or another, crying out on their behalf, smoothing their path somehow, leading the way while they were blinded.
One of the folks at Expressions Church, Sara Cunningham, started her own Mama Bears group to stand up for LGBTQ kids of all ages who are dealing with rejection in the name of God, and to work with Christian parents trying to reconcile long-held religious beliefs when their own kids come out. It’s an amazing ministry.
She observed Mother’s Day with the culmination of her “Free Mom Hugs Tour,” a road trip from Oklahoma City to New York’s historic Stonewall Inn to hand out free “mom hugs” and carry the message of love and acceptance to Christian parents of LGBTQ kids. Sara and the other members of her group of Mama Bears draw deeply from God’s comforting maternal aspects.
The kind of maternal aspects God describes of Him/Herself through the prophet Isaiah:
“As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13)
But God’s maternal side also includes the deep pain felt by mothers over their children.
The minor prophet Hosea describes God’s lament over Israel’s indiscretions with the type of nostalgia any hands-on mother would recognize:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called, the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.” (Hosea 11:1-4)
With that imagery, I picture a loving mother, yearning for her teenage children to stop running from her, remembering all the support she had provided during their younger years, teaching them to walk, guiding them, healing their wounds with magic mom kisses and maybe some bandages now and then, tying little shoes, washing little cheeks, feeding little tummies, longing for the absolute best for them.
Jesus himself carried a similar motherly burden for Jerusalem:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13:34)
Jesus, God in the flesh, longed to gather and protect the scattered like a mother hen would.
But why is all this important?
Here comes the soapbox portion.
Recognizing this maternal side of God is important because we need to stretch beyond our binary constraints – both when dealing with God and when dealing with people.
We accept that God is the creator, and that God created us, as it is written in Genesis 1, in God’s own image.
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27)
If God created male and female humans, and humanity is made in God’s image, then God must encompass both male and female characteristics.
And yet we sometimes get hung up on the belief – the idea – that no one should view God as anything other than an old Caucasian dude with a long, white beard, wearing a robe and sandals (not to be confused with the other old Caucasian dude with a long, white beard who wears a red suit and rides a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer — that’s someone else entirely).
And if we get stuck in the belief that someone’s view of God has to fit in a picture frame that resembles the one we grew up learning, that carries into our worldly interactions and expectations of God’s reflection in people, too. People, too, can transcend our traditional definitions.
It’s okay to view God as someone we may have seen in old Sunday School coloring book depictions. But it’s just as okay to see God differently, whether as a black woman called Papa like in the movie The Shack, or even as something more abstract – like the universe or a concept.
And that means it’s okay to live within traditional definitions of self, gender, orientation and sex. But it’s okay not to, as well.
A friend of mine, when commenting on Facebook and in other forums, often acknowledges a higher power whom he refers to as “God by whatever name offends you the least.” I actually like that.
For some, it may feel like diluting the gospel. For me, however, it’s more like acknowledging that others have different perspectives on what just may turn out to be the same God. I still believe the God in my picture can be both mother and father, can and did send His or Her Son to die and defeat death so that I may enjoy the abundance of life through intimacy with Him … or Her.
Once we can accept that God transcends our ideas of gender, then we can also more easily accept that people, too, don’t need to fit in a binary box. That idea can even stretch beyond gender, gender expression, or orientation to include political alliance, education level, race, faith, language, or any of the other containers we use to classify, categorize and compare each other.
Remember, God is spirit, as Jesus stated. Remember also, that we are made in the image of God. That means we, too, are spirit.
Through Jesus, all boundaries and separations are erased, and we become one — with him and each other.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)
You see, not every mom is a hot-homemade-cookies-when-you-come-home-from-school, solve-all-your-problems, constantly smiling, never-raise-a-voice type of mother. They are all doing the best they can with the tools they have.
And that’s all God asks us to do. At the end of the day, despite what Hallmark tells us, mothers are all different. They’re all human beings acting as surrogates for God’s children.
And as much as moms love, even they cannot top the devotion of God, who spoke through the prophet Isaiah to remind the people of the depth of His own commitment to His children.
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15)
And then our Heavenly Father, being the ultimate Mother, too, showed a love deeper than we can ever fathom. As that famous verse reminds us,
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
Since we are all one, united in and through Christ, let’s act like it. Let’s stand up for someone who needs a Mama Bear. Let’s celebrate our differences as various reflections of God.
Watch Jenny’s sermon on this topic here.
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JENNY ARCHER is a case manager, volunteer associate pastor, and flawed human. When not road-tripping in her pickup, she and her wife live in Oklahoma City.