Many thanks to Dr Tim Bulkeley who today wraps up his series based on his book, Not Only A Father, looking at gendered language for God. For more on Tim’s background, see the first post.
Theology is only real when we live it. So chapter 6 of Not Only a Father tries to suggest ways we can practise experiencing God as Mother. Here are a couple of examples:
Stop! Paint a New Picture
Too often, not least because we call God ‘Lord’ so often, we behave as if God were a demanding boss, or a teacher checking out whether we have ‘been good’. Let’s stop. Only a different God will help us to get off the treadmill of knowing God just as the boss. We know that Christ revealed a ‘different God,’ but somehow this ‘knowledge’ has not made us free. Too often, what we know with our ‘heads,’ our ‘hearts’ deny. To help us change our hearts, the ‘Lord,’ or better our ‘Abba’ (Daddy) provides another picture.
(Yhwh was God’s personal name, revealed to Moses, but before Jesus’ time pious Jews had stopped using God’s name, to avoid ‘taking it in vain.’ They substituted the word ‘Lord’ instead. So really in the Old Testament when we read LORD we should think of being on first name terms with God!)
Read Psalm 131. Know that you can ‘climb on God’s knee’ like a toddler (the child in the psalm is ‘weaned’ so not hoping for a feed 🙂 ) snuggled up to her Mum, and let yourself be still. Learn to be in the delightful, dependable presence of God who loves like a Daddy and like a Mum too! Stop reading. No more for at least a few minutes! Spend some time to really explore and discover what this picture means.
God who Provides
Read Numbers 11:1-15 in a good recent translation to get the feel of what is happening. Then look at the fairly literal version here:
11 So Moses said to the Lord,
‘Why have you treated your servant so badly?
How have I deserved this?
You lay the weight of this whole nation on me.
12Did I conceive this whole nation?
Did I give birth to them that you say to me,
‘Carry them in your arms,
as a nurse carries a baby she feeds,
to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors’?
13 Where am I to get meat to give to this whole nation?
For they come whining to me and say,
‘Give us meat to eat!’
14 I am not able to carry this whole nation alone,
they are too heavy for me.
15 If this is how you are going to treat me,
kill me at once
(if I have found favour in your sight)
and do not let me see my misery.’
Why do the people complain? (Be fair to them. After all sometimes you and I are less than fair when we complain to God, or friends or family!)
Think how Moses feels. Did he really argue, ‘God, you are their mother, you feed them!’ Think how often Bible stories show God feeding people, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, even Peter’s vision maybe.
Besides the stories, glance through some psalms and notice how often they thank God for providing for the writer’s needs.
God the provider is sometimes, as here, pictured as God the Mother. In the Ancient Near-East, providing food and clothing was ‘women’s work’. It still is, in many families. When you leave home to live in a flat or hall of residence you begin to learn about this constant providence. At home your mother’s caring and providing does not have opening hours. ‘Third parties’ are unlikely to share this generous view! Meals are at meal times, or you fend for yourself!
God, like a loving (and untiring, superhuman!) mother cares and clothes, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even the creation of the universe allowed God a day off (Genesis 2:1-4). However providence does not. For God, though creation was a six-day business task, providing for ‘family’ is different. Like a mother, God is never off-duty!
Not only for ‘special people’
Read Matthew 6:25-34. Are you tempted to imagine that God only provides for those in ‘the Lord’s work,’ like missionaries and ministers? Is it only for special needs? Many people have a story of the day the cash ran out and someone gave unexpected help. But the idea that such provision is only for special needs, or people, is wrong.
God’s provision is not limited to special occasions. Matthew 5:45 is one place which clearly shows that Jesus claims God provides for all. Mothers feed all their children, not only those who are good or hardworking!
That is why we need to put Moses’ picture of God the Mother together with Jesus’ teaching about sparrows and flowers. God’s provision is easy to learn with our heads. It is difficult to believe with our actions. It is especially difficult in a world that is so much ordered by effort, where we are all marked and graded by how hard we try.
It is not just the items on sale in the shops that have values assigned to them, the worth of people is ‘measured’ too. Is the CEO of Telecom really ‘worth’ $1,000,000 every year? The fact that we can understand the question, shows how deep is the instinct to compete and evaluate.
Maybe, as we learn to picture God as Mother, we will learn that grace is not cheap. It is free!
What about public worship?
Here I’ve only really explored ways we can use the idea that God is motherly as well as fatherly to enrich our personal devotions, or perhaps with a small group. What about more formal worship settings and prayers? How can we, and how should we rework what we say to express better the full richness of God?
In asking these questions I am aware that for many of us the picture of God as ‘father’ works well. Either our human fathers were good and caring, or we have seen (and perhaps envied) such good examples.
But for many people, in this broken world, the picture of father alone does not really encourage a full picture of God. Our public worship needs to help them too! If our private prayers only call God ‘Father’ or ‘Lord’ our public prayers will present to many people only God the stringent school teacher or policeman.
It is a cause of sadness to me that almost the only examples of public worship that use motherly language or pictures to relate to God come from outside the Baptist or Evangelical area.
Although some Evangelical churches now try to avoid sexist language this does not often extend to avoiding unisex word pictures of what God is like. The Anglican and Catholic prayerbooks (I think) make some attempts to broaden the imagery as well as to avoid sexist language. But most Baptists (even in the churches I attend and visit, who tend not to be the most conservative) don’t really try.
I have come to believe that public worship by and large follows (as well as to some extent shaping) personal devotion. My hope is that gradually we can get more people experiencing God in wider deeper ways, and that this will spread into church 😉
If I knew one of the popular song writers I’d suggest a strand of worship songs that include deliberately mixed gender images of God… BUT for most Christians God is still (actually, despite what good theology says) experienced as male.
That’s why I think the positions taken by many theologians are a cop out. In the comfort of our studies we remember and write that God is not gendered, indeed not part of any class of beings, but our worship language does not reflect this. It should. Theology that is not lived is dead.
I hope in this series I have begun to convince you that God is richer and deeper than our language expresses, and that adding ‘mother’ to our stock of word pictures can enrich our experience.
The question I’d like to leave with you is how we might both experience this ourselves, and encourage it for others?
Thank you, Tim, for this very helpful series. It’s clear from the viewing numbers that plenty of you are interested in these ideas, so I’m keen to hear from you. Is it a relief to hear Tim’s views? Is it a bit weird for you? Do you already use both male and female images for God? Do you distinguish between these metaphors for God and who God is really? Do you hear female language for God in the circles you move in? What’s your experience and what are your opinions?
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