At Christmas time, a mother—Mary—is central to the story of Jesus. What can the role of motherhood, and women in general, teach us about the character of God?
‘Our Mother who art in heaven … ’ I beg your pardon?
I wonder how you will respond to that way of addressing God? Perhaps you’re excited, thinking, ‘It’s about time!’ Perhaps your curiosity is sparked and you’re thinking, ‘Hmm … I’ll need to give that some consideration’. Perhaps you feel horrified that War Cry is even going there! Whatever your response, do keep reading. Do give this some thought. Afterall, how we think of God is really important.
So, how do we think of him? Well, most of us do think of him … as a him. As a little girl once prayed, ‘Dear God, are boys better than girls? I know you are one but try to be fair’. For that little girl and for many others, it is a given that God is a bloke. God is a white, older gentleman who has long grey hair and a beard. Just ask Michelangelo.
It is quite reasonable to presume that the God worshipped by Jews and Christians is male. This God is referred to all throughout the Bible as ‘he’. This God was revealed in physical form in Jesus Christ, and Jesus was in every way a biological male. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he told them to address God saying, ‘Our Father who art in heaven’. He did not say, ‘Our mother … ’ So, it’s settled then … or is it?
What about John 4:24 that tells us God is spirit? God doesn’t have a physical body. ‘He’ doesn’t have a gender. 1 Timothy 6:16 reminds us that the God of the Bible is unseen. When Moses requested to see him (Exodus 33:19–23), what God revealed about himself was his intangible characteristics. God revealed his goodness, mercy and compassion.
That is to say, it doesn’t matter so much what God looks like, it’s what he is actually like that really matters.
And that, I think, is why God is described as a ‘father’. Not because he is literally ‘our father in heaven’, but because ‘father’ tells us something about what God is actually like. It tells us about his relationship with us. It tells us that he gave us life. It tells us that he loves and cares for us.
No language is adequate when it comes to describing God. But, in order to try and comprehend the incomprehensible God, we humans need to use words. Through words, the mind will connect new concepts with things we already understand, like connecting an incomprehensible God with roles we do comprehend like father, and, wait for it … mother.
While the Bible consistently uses masculine pronouns for God, in at least 26 places feminine—often maternal, imagery—is used to describe God.
In Numbers 11:12, speaking of Israel, God says, ‘Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant?’ God is describing herself (that does feel weird!) as a mother (so ‘herself’ is the right term here!).
In Hosea 11:3–4 we find these beautiful words, which again describe the relationship of a mother and her child. God says,
‘It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
taking them by the arms….
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.’
In Isaiah 49:14 God says, ‘like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant’. It’s women who experience labour!
Isaiah 49:18 tells us that God wears her children as ornaments like a bride, which does sound rather uncomfortable, but that’s not the point. The point is, a bride is a woman! And this bride is also a mother. In the same passage God reassures Israel that she hasn’t forgotten them, by asking them, ‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?’ (Isaiah 49:15). The answer is a resounding no! God is like a mother who will never forget her children.
Just as thinking of God as father helps us to understand our relationship with God, thinking of God as a mother illuminates certain parts of God’s character. It highlights a tender side, a nurturing side. A side of God that endured pain in order to give life.
There are plenty more examples to be found, particularly in Psalms and Isaiah. Do read through these books for yourself. Do give some thought to how you think of God. Like I said at the start, how we think of God is really important.
But why is it? Why does this discussion even matter?
If God doesn’t have a physical body or literal gender, perhaps we should just solve the problem by calling God ‘it’? Yet God isn’t an ‘it’. He isn’t some vague power or force. Using ‘he’ or ‘she’ to describe anything makes it a personal entity. A relational being.
Here’s why this does matter. The biblical story emerged in a patriarchal world. Men held all the power, and while there are a handful of exceptions, women were largely thought of as possessions with few rights of their own. Men had more value than women. Jewish men would daily pray, ‘Thank you God for not making me a gentile, slave, or a woman’.
Naturally, in this patriarchal world, the one sovereign God was seen as male. A solitary all-powerful female God would be absolute nonsense!
God understood the world to whom he was revealing himself. In that world male pronouns worked best. God knew that if Jesus had come to earth as a woman she wouldn’t have been so involved in religious life, or had opportunities to travel, or have had a voice that would be heard in the same way that a man’s voice would. For Jesus’ ministry to be the most effective, Jesus needed to be a man.
One of the radical transformations that take place in the New Testament—under the grace of Christ—is that women were given equal value to men.
Yet, even today, seeing God only as male, might suggest that males are more god-like. This might be, and has been, used by some to justify men’s supposed superiority over women.
Genesis 1:27 sets us straight on this issue. Right at the beginning of the Bible we read that both male and female were created in the image of God. This means that in God we find the fullness of both masculinity and femininity. Let that sink in for a minute.
Words and metaphors can never fully explain God. Even if we covered our bases by addressing God as, ‘Our Mother and Father in heaven’, it would still only scratch the surface of the enormity of God and his relationship with us.
I’ll be honest, I’m in the habit of calling God ‘he’. Hearing God being called ‘she’ sounds weird! It makes me uncomfortable.
But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe that discomfort is a call for me to remember that there is more to God than what I think. It’s a call to not limit my understanding of God. It’s a call for me to keep exploring the Bible to find new aspects of God that have been in there all the time, but that I have not discovered. However ‘Our mother in heaven’ makes you feel, I hope this article has encouraged you to ponder how you think about God.
By Carla Lindsey (c) 'War Cry' magazine, 15 December 2018, p20-21. You can read 'War Cry' at your nearest Salvation Army church or centre, or subscribe through Salvationist Resources.