by Michelle Terry
My 3- and 5-year-old sons are playing superheroes again. In the heat of battle against the “bad dudes,” my 3-year-old sustains an injury. Being a superhero is a dangerous line of work. Immediately, he turns back into my preschool son, and he’s tugging at my legging, tears streaming down his face, expecting words of comfort, hugs, and kisses. Of course, that is exactly what he gets. My kisses still hold magic for him, and he’s off bringing down the powers of evil again in no time.
Part of me
My 10-month-old son is upset, probably a result of the two teeth coming in at the same time. With a worried brow, he locks his eyes with mine and whines. As soon as he latches, he calms down and settles into a deep sleep. As he sleeps, my mind wanders back to when they were kicking and rolling around in my womb. I delight in the memories of them, when they were still physically a part of me. I found great joy in knowing they were growing from a few cells to the screaming, plump babies that greeted us on their birthdays.
Their birthdays did not come without some blood, sweat, and tears. My oldest son’s arrival was the worst of the three. The pain was disorienting and scary; I had never experienced anything remotely close. I will be forever grateful for the nurse on duty, who talked me through the contractions and helped me successfully birth my firstborn. I can still hear her voice, giving me direction and assuring me that everything was going to be fine.
Motherly depictions of God
Until recently, these experiences were all just a part of “a day in the life of. . .” some precious memories to me, others were so routine that they blur with countless other instances of the same. But a few well-timed cues from the Holy Spirit, and I am seeing these things through a new light.
See, each story I just mentioned aligns with a description of God. A feminine description of God. God as a mother who comforts her child. “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 66:13) God as nursing mother, (Isaiah 49:15), and God’s children as newborn infants (1 Peter 2:2). God who is pregnant and gives birth (Isaiah 46:3-4, Deuteronomy 32:18, John 3:5). God as a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14), and God as the midwife delivering a child (Psalm 22:8-10).
There are more examples too. . . God as a mama bear, God as a mother eagle, Jesus as a mother hen, God as a woman looking for her lost coin. The list goes on, and on, and on. But we rarely lift them up in churches, at least not any that I’ve attended. Until I looked into it, I had no idea there were so many passages that spoke of God in feminine terms.
Even when there was a passage with a feminine description of God, it was not really mentioned. When I learned about the woman looking for a lost coin, I learned that we were the lost coin and God was looking for us. I don’t recall anyone asking me to ponder why on earth Jesus chose to compare God to a woman doing housework.
It seems that God has far less of a problem being referred to in the feminine than we have with referring to God in the feminine. We don’t talk about God as woman or mother, even though the biblical witness does and even though the saints before us frequently did. We are poorer in our understanding of God for not lifting up those passages.
If you didn’t realize it–and some people really don’t, because we often only refer to God with male language–God is not a man. God in human form, Jesus, obviously is, so there’s that. And we talk about the Trinity in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But that is just language we use trying to describe the indescribable.
Any language about God is just that… it’s about God. It is not God, and it doesn’t capture the entirety of God. So leaving out entire chunks of how God is described leaves us with less understanding of God, which is why we should pay attention when God is described in terms of a woman, and as mother.
God comforts us as a mother comforts her child. That deep bond– the one that allows my kisses to retain their magic with my sons for a while longer and the one that still makes my stress melt away at the sound of my mother’s voice on the phone–that is a glimpse of the bond God has with us. Since mothers are notoriously imperfect, we can rejoice that even the most beautiful part of our relationships with those who have mothered us is just a hint of God’s love for us. How does knowing that shape how we understand God’s grace?
We tend to make our relationship with God so educational! Theology has its vital place in our life with God, so I am not denigrating it. But sometimes we make believing in God more about the head than the heart. What if we thought of our relationship with God less about getting the answers right, and more about being like a newborn? You know what the newborns I have cared for love most in life? Being snuggled up and drinking some of mama’s milk. My infant does not know my birthday, or what my favorite color is, or what my interests are … but he knows me and trusts me unreservedly.
What if we imagined our life with God as a time to get close and receive life-giving nourishment, trusting God in the same sort of way as an infant trusts her mama?
What if we saw God’s work in the world similar to a woman in labor pains? Labor is awful, it is horribly painful–and it is beautiful and miraculous. God’s redemptive activity in the world might cause pain, both to God and to us. But God’s work is also beautiful and miraculous and ultimately produces life.
How does it help us realize God’s pervasiveness in our lives to know that God was with us at our births, helping us into the world? Or that God is with us during times when we’re being reborn in some capacity, giving direction and cradling our new life in the Divine arms? What if we imagined God during those times, we imagined God encouraging us as the nurse encourages the laboring mother?
Finally, how does it help us understand ourselves to think about God’s feminine descriptions? There is not a single woman I know who doesn’t struggle with self-acceptance. We’re too fat. Or too wrinkly. Or too tired. We fear we’re not good enough friends, daughters, spouses, sisters, or mothers.
But we have been made in God’s image; male and female God created them (Genesis 1:27). We can rejoice in that and live out our call as women who are God’s children without so much worry over being incomplete somehow. God makes us complete. It doesn’t mean we never make mistakes and never sin… it does mean that we can stop being so hard on ourselves for not being our (or someone else’s) idea of perfect. We can go about even the most mundane parts of our lives knowing that God is involved in all of it.
When we start realizing that God is not contained by any one type of imagery, we grow in our understanding and our relationship with God. We begin to see ourselves as God’s beloved treasures; and the tasks of our lives as God’s work. And we begin to share the joy that comes from all of that with others, and we find that God has changed not only us but our world.
1. Which of the biblical feminine descriptions of God resonates with you? Why?
2. Do you agree that it is important to include female imagery in our understanding of God? Why or why not?
3. Does it make any difference in your self-understanding to think of God in feminine terms? Why or why not?
O God, both Father and Mother of us all, we thank you for the many ways you teach us about yourself. Thank you for nurturing, loving, and protecting us more fiercely than the best mother. Thank you for giving us so many women who reflect you as they nurture, love, and protect those around them. Guide us as we seek to understand and to imitate you in our lives. Amen.
Michelle Terry is on the adventure that is life with God with the members of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Middletown, Ohio, where she is the pastor. She and her husband are the proud parents of three young sons.
This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue.