God as Gendered

Years ago, a book called The Shack was released and stirred a great deal of controversy within the evangelical Christian world, in part because of its portrayal of God the Father as a large Black woman. Interested in what it was really all about, I picked up a copy of the book and actually enjoyed it a great deal. No, I don’t picture God the Father as a large Black woman – but neither do I picture Him as an old white dude with a flowing, snow-white beard, XY chromosomes, and a penis. The God who exists outside of space and time, who spoke the universe into being, creating it ex nihilo, who created us in His image – I don’t think He can be reduced to either of those human-like representations.

I liked what the God character said in the book, when asked why She was showing up as a woman – “I am neither male nor female, even though both genders are derived from my nature. If I choose to appear to you as a man or a woman, it’s because I love you…Hasn’t it always been a problem for you to embrace me as your Father? And after what you’ve been through, you couldn’t very well handle a father right now, could you?” The main character, “knew she was right, and he realized the kindness and compassion in what she was doing. Somehow, the way she had approached him had skirted his resistance to her love. It was strange and painful and maybe even a little bit wonderful.”

Isn’t that who and what God is? Showing up in ways we don’t expect? Looking different than what we thought? Demonstrating compassion and kindness? Working in our lives in ways that are strange and painful and wonderful?

I just finished reading Sarah Bessey’s latest book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, and one of the most encouraging parts of it was her description of her thought process in imagining God mothering her.

She writes, “Most of us identify God in parental terms as a father – and that is deeply meaningful to me as well…But just as my own father gave me a glimpse of God’s good character, so did my mother. She could not be erased from the goodness of God’s expression…I find that the older I get, the more I care for the ones I love and for the world, the more I need both – I need both the energy of the mother and of the father. I need the fullness of the expression of God, not a lopsided caricature of either. And in times of suffering or loss or exhaustion, it has turned out that I needed a mother” (p. 172-173).

And she tells of how this has played out in her life recently, saying, “This has been the question God has given to me as a practice of spiritual discernment during my life with chronic pain: How would God like to mother me today? If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today? It’s a great question to ask in prayer when I feel scattered and exhausted and empty” (p. 172). She notes, in her discussion of self-comfort versus self-care that, “Perhaps self-care is simply joining with God to care for ourselves as a mother would care for us” (p. 170).

I am well aware that this idea of God as Mother – or, really, as anything other than an old white dude – can be controversial among Christians. One of Rachel Held Evans’s last tweets before she died was, “I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog posts, and dozens of articles, and only once have I used a feminine pronoun for God. People still point to that as a reason I should be killed in order to quicken my eternal torment in hell. No joke.”

And yet, there is imagery of God as a mother in multiple Bible passages. Isaiah 66:13 says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Psalm 131:2 says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Jesus compares Himself to a mother hen, saying, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37).

I’m finding myself comforted tonight, thinking about God as both Father and Mother. I am encouraged as I think about the difference between self-comfort and self-care and how this image that Sarah Bessey sets forth of, ” If God was a strong, patient, wise, kind, no-nonsense, deeply loving mother, what would She want for me today?” can be a guide for me as I move forward. And I am thankful for the men and women who have gone before me, who are reflecting back for us the wildness, the nurture, and the utterly-beyond-gendered-ness of the Living God.