As we begin each new day, not knowing what we’ll experience, we trust in God’s great love. Whether the day be good or ill, whether it be happy or heart-breaking, God’s love will surround and sustain our lives. That’s the promise in the new Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church (USA):
“Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, God is faithful still” (lines 49-51).
“For a long time,” the Lord remarks, “I have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” God is like a woman in travail, proclaims the prophet, painfully thrashing about and destroying all that imprisons Israel and keeps her in exile, then wonderfully giving birth to a great miracle: the return home (Isaiah 42:14-17).
All this time, though, Israel is lamenting, “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Not so! “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast,” God asks, “and have no compassion on the child she has borne?” It’s most unlikely! Tragically, however, it does happen. Nevertheless, says the Lord, “though she may forget, I will not forget you” (Isaiah 49:14-15).
In fact, not only is Israel not forgotten, but God is doing something wonderful and new! So many will come home that Israel will wonder, “Who bore me these? I was bereaved and barren; I was exiled and rejected. Who brought these up?” It seems to be implied that God gives birth to them, that God raises them. And so it is. These sons and daughters are brought by and include the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:19-23).
It’s from the prophet Isaiah, then, that we take the comparison: “Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child, God is faithful still.” The description is, therefore, fully biblical. It is a picture of powerful emotion and comfort.
I grew up in the Christian & Missionary Alliance, a denomination established by Presbyterian pastor A.B. Simpson. He spoke of the Holy Spirit as the “One who meets all the heart’s longing for motherhood.”
“As our heavenly Mother,” Simpson preached, “the Comforter assumes our nurture, training, teaching, and the whole direction of our life.” Working with “considerate gentleness and patience/’ the Spirit raises us to maturity in Christ.
Simpson may well have been influenced by Presbyterian patron saint John Calvin. Commenting on Isaiah’s motherhood metaphor, he notes that God “expresses astonishing warmth of love and tenderness of affection” through this comparison “to a mother who singularly loves her child/’ even though brought forth “with extreme pain.”
“It may be thought that these things are not applicable to God,” Calvin admits; “but in no other way” than by using such metaphors can God’s “ardent love towards us be expressed.” So that you and I might be able to understand the “unknown” – God’s full and perfect love – the Lord must “borrow comparisons from known objects.”
It’s quite true “that God is everywhere called a ‘Father'” (which might be considered a more appropriate title), but God is not satisfied with that example. That God’s “very strong affection” might be expressed, it is necessary for God to use another and stronger picture: to be compared “to a mother.”
Now Calvin becomes eloquent. “What amazing affection does a mother feel toward her offspring, which she cherishes in her bosom, suckles on her breast, and watches over with tender care, so that she passes sleepless nights, wears herself out by continued anxiety, and forgets herself!” God loves us like that!
That’s why Moses is so sorrowful, even angry, when we abandon the God who created us and redeemed us. “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18). The second verb refers to pain experienced in labor; it might be translated as “the God who delivered you in pain.” Sin angers Moses: “That’s no way to treat the God who loves you like a mother!”
So instead of rebellious attitudes and actions, with hearts estranged from God and from one another, you and I need to put away pride and haughtiness and anything that alienates us from God and God’s family. And we should center ourselves in the Lord: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a child quieted at its mother’s breast; like a child that is quieted is my soul” (Psalm 131).
Thus centered and calmed, we will hear God’s promise: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you” (Isaiah 66:13). “You heart will rejoice,” the Lord goes on to assure us, “and you will flourish like grass; the hand of the Lord will be made known” (v14). Isn’t that exactly the message of hope, the comforting strengthening good news, that you and I so desperately need?
Yes, God is our Father. That’s what Jesus called God: “Abba, Father.” That is how Jesus taught us to pray: “Our Father.” We rejoice that God is merciful and forgiving, “like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home.” But God’s also “like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child.” Good News for whatever each new day brings!
You, Lord, are never far away, but, through all grief distressing, an ever-present help and stay, our peace and joy and blessing; as with a mother’s tender hand, you lead your own, your chosen band: to God all praise and glory! Amen.
- Andrews, Leslie – “Restricted Freedom: A.B. Simpson’s View of Women in Ministry” in The Birth of a Vision: Essays on the Ministry & Thought of Albert B. Simpson ed David F. Hartzfeld and Charles Nienkirchen. Regina, Saskatchewan: Canadian Bible College and Canadian Theological Seminary, His Dominion supplement No 1, pp 219-240.
- Douglass, Jane Dempsey – “Calvin’s Use of Metaphorical Language for God: God as Enemy and God as Mother” in Archive for Reformation History vol 77 (1986), pp 126-139; reprinted in Princeton Seminary Bulletin 8:1 (May 1987), pp 19-32.·
- Hardesty, Nancy A. – Inclusive Language in the Church. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987; now Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Presbyterian Church (USA) – A Brief Statement of Faith. 202nd General Assembly (1990).
- Simpson, Albert B. – When the Comforter Came. Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1991 reprint; especially chapter 3 on “The Motherhood of God,” pp 11-14.
- Various Commentaries on Isaiah, Deuteronomy, Psalms. The modification of verse 3 of Hymn #15, “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above” Johann J. Schutz), in Presbyterian Hymnbook (1955 edition) is my own.