God is a Spirit; He wants us to worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.
OK, Happy Mother’s Day to everyone who is a mom and everyone who had one. In honor of the day, we are going to look at the ways the Bible uses motherhood as an example of God’s love for His people.
We need to be careful, even more so than usual, of confusing the imagery with the reality. On Mother’s Day, sentimental feelings abound, but as is the case with all things in this world, the reality is more complicated. Let me give you a couple examples.
First, over a decade ago, an email story made the rounds, telling about a report published in National Geographic magazine about a mother bird killed in a forest fire. When walking through the area after the fire was extinguished, rangers found a bird’s body “petrified in ashes.” A little heart-sick by the sight, they attempted to break up the corpse by knocking it over with a stick. When they did so, three little chicks scurried out from behind the body, unharmed.
This inspirational email drew a moral to this story about motherhood and the kind of loyalty mothers feel for their children, sometimes even defending them at the loss of the mother’s life. It’s a great and inspiring tale, and it’s also not true.
National Geographic denies having printed such a story and officials at Yellowstone national park deny having had or publicized such an experience. Worse still, one of their bird experts said that for a bird to sacrifice herself in such a way was contrary to all we know about bird behavior.
I offer this solely as a cautionary tale about how the world is more complicated than our symbols can hope to account for. The best way to honor moms is with real memories of them in the fullness of who they are or were. Sentiment can get in the way of truth more subtly than an outright lie.
Second, some of you may remember the furor started by a women’s conference held in 1993 in Minneapolis. It was called a “Re-imaging Conference” in which the 2200 attendees were invited to “re-imagine” God as a woman. It was hoped that this exercise of imagination might ultimately empower women to overcome bias and a culture that oppressed them because of their gender.
What made headlines about the conference was not anything it did to help women, but the flaky stuff that happened there in unbiblical and ill-advised attempts to be provocative and turn male-dominated culture and theology upside down. One example is worship directed at Sophia, a goddess of worship.
Some may claim that the conference was well-intended, but got hijacked along the way by pagans and feminists. The extremists got all the attention and the more orthodox elements were ignored.
Here we are 25 years later. I think it’s fair to ask what difference this conference made. I read a speech given by one of the participants trying to defend the conference. It was thin stuff. Personally, I think attempts to paint over centuries of Christian teaching and tradition were unwise and did little, if anything, to expand our faith or our public life. Gender inequality still exists. The Re-imaging Conference is a trivia question that only serves as an illustration of how divided we can become when the extremists are allowed to frame the discussion.
All of that to say this: the Bible declares God is our Father, but also uses motherly images to show the comforting and protective aspects of His character. A full view of God acknowledges both. Further, a full view of God acknowledges That He is a spiritual being, a higher form of personhood that is not limited to one gender. When we say God is our Father, we are not saying He has a physical form like dear old dad. We are not saying He has any gender. We are saying that He has acted toward us in ways we understand as being typically masculine and in ways we understand as being typically feminine. When doing theology, we need to be careful about mistaking our words for the reality. God is greater than our words. Otherwise, we fall into error akin to that seen at the Re-imaging Conf.
- There are Bible Verses that Compare God to a Human Mother.
For a long time I [God] 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. (Isaiah 42:14) It is comforting to know that God has promised to save His people. More than that, He is EAGER to do it. His eagerness is similar to that experienced by a pregnant woman eager to have her baby. Sometimes other people get eager for the day to arrive!
As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem. (Isaiah 66:13) We have good biological and cultural reasons to associate comfort with mothers. The fact that God comforts His people in a way like a mother’s comfort of her child does not mean that God possesses a feminine gender; this is a figure of speech that is meant to have an emotional association.
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I [God] will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15) It’s comforting to know that even though He brings discipline and allows us to suffer trials, God has not forsaken His people. Using this metaphor, Isaiah invoked the steadfast love a mother shows her children.
- There are Bible verses that compare God to a Mother Bird and a Mother Bear.
A common image of God is of a mother bird sheltering her chicks under her wings. We can look at six examples.
May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge. (Ruth 2:12) The word for WING can also be translated as “skirt” for a woman’s garment or “robe” for a man’s garment. This imagery can be applied to avian and human moms.
Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings. (Psalm 17:8) In v. 7, David asked God to show THE WONDER OF YOUR GREAT LOVE. Apparently God answered this prayer as in v. 8 he offered this image of a protective bird as an illustration of God’s wonderful love.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed. (Psa. 57:1) In this verse, the psalmist is calling out for God’s MERCY, not his love, but the analogy of a protective bird is used again.
He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge. (Psalm 91:4) In v. 3, the reader is promised to be saved from THE FOWLER’S SNARE, doubling down on the bird imagery. The psalmist is the bird trying to elude the hunter and God is the parent bird giving him a safe shelter from the hunter.
Jesus renewed these images when he lamented over 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; Luke 13:34) Jesus expressed His grief over the people’s unwillingness to recognize Him as their Messiah. In so doing, He drew from the Old Testament passages we’ve read and puts Himself in the role of the divine mother hen. His heart’s desire was to save His people from their sin and the city from destruction, but they utterly refused the refuge He offered.
A variation of this image looks to mother eagles, which are known to teach their eaglets to fly by pushing them out of the nest but catching them before they plunge to their doom. “[God] guarded [Jacob] as the apple of his eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest and hovers over its young, that spreads its wings to catch them and carries them aloft.” (Deuteronomy 32:10-11) This infers that though we have times in our lives that it feels like God has tossed us out to fly or die, He is watching over us to catch us before we truly hit bottom.
The other side of these biblical images of motherly warmth is the fierce protection momma gives when her young are threatened. In another observation of nature but with a different animal, Hosea 13:8 reads, Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open,” says the Lord.
There are three wild animals mentioned in this chapter; lion, leopard, and bear. All three were native to that land and were notorious for their relentless and ferocious natures in killing prey, especially in defense of their young. The maternal instinct can produce wrath as well as warmth. Beware the fury of a mother whose cubs are threatened! This is not a sentimental mother-image, but it is comforting to know that God will protect us and will make things right.
- But God is Never Called “Mother.”
We’ve seen how the Bible uses maternal images to describe the character and action of God. However, the Bible never uses feminine gender for God and never called God “our heavenly mother”.
Some people will explain that by citing that the Bible writers lived in a patriarchal culture. While I think you can argue that point, it still surprises no one that in such a culture, it would be expected to use masculine pronouns for God.
On his internet blog, Shiao Chong offers a better reason. It is his point that the Bible writers would never call God “Mother” because the pagan religions of the day had idols of a “Mother Nature” kind. They made an idol in a female form, a Mother Goddess, because they hoped to create fertility by worshiping her. This was not an attempt to glorify women, but to gain some control over nature by personifying it. Unlike modern pagans, calling god “mother” was never about empowering women. It was about glorifying nature. God inspired the Bible writers to use metaphors of the fatherly qualities of God with motherly qualities, as need be.
Fatherly qualities are not meant to suggest that God has a masculine gender, nor do the motherly qualities prove that God has a feminine gender. Together, they prove that God is not limited to a gender as we are: He is greater than both.
God is a Spirit; He wants us to worship Him as Spirit and as Truth.
There are not many verses that present God in a female way but they are part of the Bible and they present a side of God we need to convey more often. If we were to attempt something similar, we could say of God, “He is like a grandma who puts your coloring pages on her refrigerator.”
Using figures of speech like this does not change our belief about the person of God – He is a spiritual being, without gender – but they help us understand, by association, the characteristics we typically associate with fathers and mothers. The figures of speech do not define the reality of God, they describe Him to us in symbolic terms that have personal and emotional terms.
We’ve seen that the love of God is protective, comforting, loving, and sheltering. Those are qualities that some Bible writers used motherhood to illustrate. At this moment you may be wondering if this has anything to do with anything other than theology.
ON A THEOLOGICAL LEVEL: We need to understand what God is saying to us. God has promised to love His people. He has declared His love in His desire to comfort, nurture, and protect us. In this relatively short supply of verses, those qualities have been illustrated by examples of motherhood. These are beautiful and sentimental images that deserve to be heard as such, not used as flimsy justification for re-imaging God. God does not need a “hostile makeover!” Let’s defend our theology on this point.
ON A RELATIONAL LEVEL: Genesis 1:27 tells us that God created human beings of both genders in His image. This verse makes it clear that no one is “more like God” because of our gender. So this discussion has ramifications for something utterly essential, like our gender and our identity as men and women. The truth is; both genders together that most completely portray the image of God.
ON A PRACTICAL LEVEL: an application can be found for parents: mothers and fathers must follow God’s example to be the kind of parents He wants us to be. He is our Father and we must refer to God as such, but He shows us love in forms that we might consider masculine and feminine.
Shiao Chong’s Blog: “A Reformed Christian’s views on the Christian faith and its engagement with culture and all areas of life.” https://3dchristianity.wordpress.com/2011/05/06/biblical-maternal-images-for-god/
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary