Do we have to make God the Mother a love muffin and God the Father the Big Boss? Does God the Father get to be Omni-Everything and God the Mother simply present? If we become aware of our own unconscious, societally-based sexism; correspondingly adjust our view of mothers; and see how power is related to love, we can begin to strengthen the mother metaphor for God.
Stereotyping Mother God
One of the problems of calling God Mother is our stereotypes of mothers and women, which can be helpful emotionally but may also reinforce a binary, sexist way of thinking.
To pick up on your own unconscious sexism (if it exists), slowly read the following two verses from Psalm 98 (Swallow’s Nest), one using masculine pronouns, and the other feminine. Notice your different images of God as you read:
“Sing new songs to El Shaddai for the wonders She has done! Her helping hand and holy arm have become our health and salvation.”
“Sing new songs to El Shaddai for the wonders He has done! His helping hand and holy arm have become our health and salvation.”
For me, the second verse seems almost neuter, as we all know that God helps and is powerful. The first image conjures images of a woman cooking Hamburger Helper and a nurse providing medicine. My ever-lingering stereotypes of my own sex get in the way of seeing God as Mother as simply helpful and simply powerful.
A Stronger Mother Figure
Lynn Japinga, author of Feminism and Christianity, writes:
The word he apparently transcends sexuality. At first this argument seems to transcend logic as well, but there are many English words in which the female version is inferior to the male or is sexualized in a particular way. A master is skillful or in charge; a mistress is an illicit sexual partner. A lord manages property; a lady has perfect manners and breeding, but does little more than drink tea. Sir is a term of respect; a madam runs a brothel. Christians throughout history have considered the female and the feminine at best subordinate, and at worst, dangerous. They did not think they honored God by calling God Mother or Midwife.
Especially because of this historical and ongoing sexism, the metaphor of mother is a helpful and needed addition to the father metaphor. Yet, we can move away from these false woman-as-weakling and mother-as-cook-and-nurse stereotypes to a stronger Mother figure for God.
God is Almighty, Mothers are Strong
Many years ago, my dissertation adviser told me he thought me changing a liturgical phrase to “Mother Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,” was just obviously wrong. Could a mother be almighty, someone powerful enough to create everything? For him, that was the land of paradox.
But mothers are strong, the kind of persevering, won’t-give-up strength that Jesus wanted the male disciples to have when He told them, “The spirit is willing, but the body is weak” (Mt. 26:41b). They fell asleep during His time of deepest need. Three times. Jesus prayed alone as His heart broke. Moms stay awake when their children need them. They wake up when their kids are sick, sad, or scared in the night. And they provide.
As William Makepeace Thackeray said, “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.” (Thanks to Jory Micah for the quote!). To a child, which every adult once was, moms might as well be God as far as the power they have. Not always the power to control, which isn’t God-like or good parenting anyway, but the power to affirm, teach, influence, and empower. (And, sadly, the power to hurt when we emulate the brokenness in our parents).
Unlike the impassable Greek godddesses and gods, but like the invisible God, our children’s pain affects us. This makes us all the more powerful.
Power to Create More Than Babies
But what about that old definition of masculine strength that my adviser had in mind? The strength of omni-competence, the maker-of-heaven-and-earth kind of power? Women have those creator gifts, too.
God made women to shape our world, alongside men. We are sometimes “hidden figures,” struggling for recognition for our accomplishments, but women bless the world in every profession in increasing numbers. (See this book with a provocative title for more: The End of Men and the Rise of Women by journalist Hannah Rosin). And we still keep the hearth, on average doing much more housework and child care even when male partners are unemployed.
Jesus Showed Us Love is Strength
Other stereotypical masculine qualities, like dominance or authoritarianism, aren’t the strength of God. They are misguided notions of who God is, that Jesus came to change. Jesus didn’t come to condemn and judge the world, but to heal and save it (John 3:17). Jesus came to serve the world (Luke 22:27), not control it.
So, the stereotype may persist about Mother God being a love muffin, but love is the strength and power of Mother Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.
God is love itself (I John 4:8, 16b).
God is Wisdom, and Wisdom is a Woman
In the book of Proverbs, a mysterious character appears named Wisdom. And even more surprising, Wisdom is a woman. When I first grappled with these passages, I concluded that Wisdom was just a literary device, not God or a part of God. (See my post here). But after having read more on this topic, I’m pretty sure Wisdom was later thought to be God or a part of God, even if the original writer of Proverbs did not intend it.
Jesus refers to Wisdom as her in Luke 7:35. He is clearly referring to God, perhaps even Himself. The TNIV commentators agree. (I believe Luke may also be alluding to the wisdom of the woman who shows up in the next passage.)
Wisdom is another feminine metaphor for God, and an aspect of motherhood that doesn’t always leap to mind when we think of generic women. Historically, women have been perceived as having a lack of intelligence, and even today children and adult men associate men with intelligence. (Fact: women in developed countries now score equal to or better than men, on IQ tests).
Wisdom’s Big Picture
Wisdom is intelligence and knowledge applied in the world, but it is even more than that. It sees the big picture, and again, the big picture is love.
On Facebook, I often encourage other moms who doubt their gut instincts by saying, “Moms know!” In my experience knowing-one’s-kid is just one of the physical changes that come with motherhood and the increases in oxytocin, the love hormone.
We know not only because of our intelligence, but because we love. It’s a divine gift one can identify with Wisdom herself.
God is Fierce like a Mom Recovering Her Child
My least favorite verses with feminine imagery for God are the mother bear ones. Hosea 13:8 says, “I will fall upon them like a bear robbed of her cubs, and will tear open the covering of their heart….” But moms, at the height of their powers to save and heal, are warriors. Since they know their children, they are their voices when the child is bullied or has a disability.
In the online moms support groups I’m a part of, I’ve seen the best of motherhood and humanity in the women with children with autism, especially this Facebook group, Recovering Kids. The moms spend nights and days researching what will bring their child out of muteness or bring relief from Sensory Processing Disorder, often without the support of skeptical partners and relatives.
And their children thrive. When I think of myself and the kind of mother I want to be, these moms come to mind. Their motivation is love, with the fierceness of a mother bear robbed of her cubs.
Motherhood at Its Best
God is not just a love-muffin. But God is love. William Placher writes in Narratives of a Vulnerable God, “…Christians will be most faithful to the Biblical narratives if ‘Father’ [or ‘Mother’] functions, when used, primarily as a symbol of love rather than of power.”
But he’s not quite right. Love is power. And power without love is destructive; it is in fact, evil. That’s a secret that patriarchy keeps us from seeing.
The vulnerability of Jesus on the cross saved the world, like a mom having a c-section with arms strapped down on a table can save a baby. What we all need is a divine parent, whether mom or dad or both, who loves us with the strength of motherhood at its best. And I believe and hope that we find that love in the invisible God who is Mother, too.
Do other examples come to mind of the strength, wisdom and fierceness of mothers?
Does love equal power and power equal love, or is God’s omnipotence separate from Her love? I will write another post on this later.