My children have learned which bedtime song to request from which parent. The song they associate most with me, contains these lines: “Oh, gently lay your head upon my chest, And I will comfort you like a mother while you rest.”
That motherly image of God depicted in Jill Phillips’ song ‘I Am’ captivated me as a teenage girl grappling to find intimacy with a great, unfathomable God, and I like to sing it to my own children. It took becoming a mother to pull me deep into the mother heart of God. Without knowing it, I was meeting God in a way I needed.
While my own rush of love hormones was delayed after a difficult birth, God’s love for me flooded the ordinary yet transcendent experiences of early motherhood. I reflected on having carried my baby inside my body and now in my arms.
God reminded me that she carries me too. The God who designed the mother-baby dyad, two people functionally moving as one for a time, was not an outsider looking in at the maternal experience. God’s love for a child was every bit as complex as mine.
This imagery didn’t originate with me. The Bible is full of motherly language for God. We see God crying out in labour (Isaiah 42:14) and comparing divine love to that of a breastfeeding woman who wouldn’t forsake her own child (Isaiah 49:15).
God cuddles and feeds Israel in the Old Testament (Hosea 11: 3-4) and Jesus uses the image of a mother hen gathering her chicks in the New (Matthew 23:37 and Luke 13: 34). Christianity is founded on the imagery of re-birth and yet we somehow manage to wrench the mother from the birth when we only conceptualise God as father.
Christians generally recognise that God is not constrained by gender. We’ve used “he” as a way of relating to God in a more personal way rather than because we’re theologically convinced God is literally male. Yet language is powerful. Our beliefs inform our attitudes and behaviour, and the way we see God affects the way we see ourselves and each other.
Only talking about God as male has shaped the way women have been treated by the Church, both pastorally and in ministry. Our limited language has also erected unnecessary obstacles for those for whom talk of a father’s love is painful rather helpful.
It’s not enough to say that we know that God is beyond gender if we are clearly gendering God by only referring to God as “he”. To say that that’s what the Bible uses disregards the fact that Scripture reflects its cultural moment. We know it does since thorough exegesis always considers cultural context.
For me, learning to relate to God as mother has opened up so many possibilities. Others are encountering the same, many who aren’t mothers or women. This is an opportunity to enlarge our vision of God and go deeper in our faith.
The God who nurses a child at her breast is uniquely approachable. She chooses to be vulnerable with us by baring herself and inviting us to get as close as possible, skin to skin, knowing that we may unintentionally hurt her.
The Spirit who rebirths us from her womb knows what it’s like to shift in transition and knows that nothing new is delivered without intense work. We carry a memory of being rocked by her. We grow familiar with her hum. We play with her hair.
Recognising this, I began to consciously include female and non-gendered images and language for God in prayer and speech. I’ve found it uncomfortable for the same reason that I think some baulk at the suggestion of calling God “mother”. This isn’t language we grew up with.
What we’re exposed to at developmentally sensitive periods in our lives often stays with us in the long run and those motherly descriptions of God don’t make their way into children’s Bible stories even though they’re there in Scripture.
For this reason, my own children are familiar with me calling God “mother” or “she” or simply “God”. They are more likely themselves to talk about “father God”. It’s what’s comfortable for them because it’s the language that surrounds them. I don’t challenge them but I hope that I’m opening up another way of seeing as they imagine themselves gently laying their heads on God’s chest as they drift off to sleep.
Adele Jarrett-Kerr is a freelance writer and blogger. She covers lifestyle, parenting and home education on her blog adelejarrettkerr.com
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