When I was weaning my third son two years ago I was suddenly aware of the passages in scripture that talk about a nursing mother (Ps. 22:9, Is. 49:15). It’s not a ton, but the ones that are there are beautiful, compelling, and even jarring to someone who is on the more conservative end of the theological spectrum. We don’t talk much about God being seen in a mom nursing her baby (or even God being seen in motherhood in general).
In the final days of nursing him I was overcome with emotion. I was sad. I was grieving. I was torn between what my heart wanted, but what everything else around me said: “it’s time.”
I was imaging God.
In nursing my baby, I was telling my son what God is like. I was living out one aspect of what it means to be an image bearer—and a female one (though there are many aspects to living this out).
Let me explain.
Often in our conservative circles, we get nervous when someone brings up the scriptural imagery about God and mothers. We don’t call God “mother” (because he identifies as Father), so to bring up motherhood language feels too close to liberalism sometimes. I get it. I want to be orthodox. But it’s in scripture and it’s better to deal with it head on, then let someone else deal with it and interpret it in a way that we don’t see as biblical.
Scripture does not put a gender on God. He is neither male nor female. Maleness and femaleness are designed to give us language for what God is like—your femaleness gives you (and all who come in contact with you) a category for God. This is why womanhood should be celebrated, because it’s pointing people to a God who made women (and men) in his image (Gen. 1:26-27). Often when we talk about motherhood and Mother’s Day we focus on the sacrifice and talk about motherhood being a woman’s highest calling. As a woman, I’m thankful for that support. But I also think that there is something more compelling in scripture regarding the point of motherhood. And it has nothing to do with calling, whether you work inside the home or outside the home, or how many kids you have.
It’s about the God you image.
There are multiple ways that women image God in the world, but since it’s Mother’s Day week (and since I will again be weaning a baby in a month or so), I want to draw out the one that speaks to mothers directly—and the one on my mind the most these days.
In Isaiah 49 the prophet Isaiah is in the middle of talking about God’s purposes for Israel. There is judgment, there is defeat of enemies, and there is a promise of restoration. Israel has sinned greatly. They deserve their punishment. But God is going to bring them back and restore them. In order to help the people understand what God is like, to know they can trust God to make good on his character towards them, Isaiah asks:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child?”
We know the answer, right? They knew the answer. All women who have ever nursed a baby shout a resounding “no!” Not only can your body physically not forget that baby that you are nursing, your heart cannot either.
Why does Isaiah bring this up in reference to God? This was a culture where women were not praised or valued, and where nursing wasn’t just the culturally acceptable thing to do. So why does he do this? Why in the middle of a chapter on how God is going to restore Israel does Isaiah bring up a nursing mother? Why does he compare a nursing mothers love to God’s love?
We know that answer, don’t we?
A nursing mother’s love is strong. It is powerful. It is some of the greatest love out there. And here Isaiah is essentially saying:
"Do you want to know that God is going to restore you? Do you want to know in your bones that God is worthy of your trust? Do you want to know that God is never going to forget you, his people? Look at a nursing mother. Look at her care. Look at her sacrifice. Look at the lengths she will go to for that child. God’s love is greater and stronger than even that."
I think this is often why we have such a visceral reaction to a mother who does forget her children. Deep down in our soul we know this to be true—God is not like that. God cannot be like that. And we were meant to point the world to the God we image. In Psalm 22, David says he learned to trust God at his mother’s breast. Why? Did he consciously trust God? Did he have saving faith at that young of an age? No. He didn’t. He learned what God was like by the daily, sustaining work of his mother to feed him. As surely as his mother fed him day after day, God was the one who was doing the work and impressing upon him an understanding of his character. This is imaging God.
The point of our femaleness, our good work as women, our good work as mothers is not so we can praise women for their strength. It’s all designed to turn our eyes towards the creator, our God, and say “see how much greater is the Father’s love for his children!”
This Mother’s Day, let’s honor the good work that mother’s do. But let’s do it not because it’s the best thing a woman can do. Let’s honor the mothers among us because of what they tell us about God. He is good. He is faithful. He is tender. And he sustains us each and ever day. This Mother’s Day, let’s honor the image bearer for the God she represents.
***I know that Mother’s Day is incredibly painful for many, many women. I’ve been there a number of Mother’s Days, with empty arms and an empty womb. Please know that by honoring women who are mothers for the fact that they image God in their work as mothers that I am in no way ignoring the fact that you image God, too. And I see you and hear you. You aren’t forgotten this day. Motherhood is only one way that women image God (in the same way that fatherhood is one way for men). It's not the only way and it's not the best way. It's simply one way. So if you find yourself wondering where you fit, you absolutely do by virtue of bearing God's image.