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The Motherly Compassion of God

by Erica McNair | July 13, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner!

The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed: “The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth.” (Ex. 34:6, CSB)

I can close my eyes and vividly remember the first night I held each of my sons. I sat in the hospital bed holding my precious baby boy, touching his soft skin, and softly whispering prayers over him. This delicate child I’d protected and carried safely inside of me for nine months suddenly seemed so exposed. As I held him during his first night in this big, wide world, I cried. I cried because I knew the heartache and the sin awaiting him. I mourned the loss of his innocence and the hurt the world would cause. I ran my fingers through his wispy little hairs, and I vowed to protect him. I vowed to love him no matter the circumstances of his life. I kissed him gently and promised I would do my best to always be there when he needed me.

I was raised with a picture of God as strong, vigilant, and manly. So my own emotions and tender heart felt misplaced in the presence of an almighty God. I was raised in a church culture where femininity was frowned upon. Emotions were flaws. Compassion was weakness.
    
This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Discovering the Motherly Compassion of God

In Exodus 34:6, the very first word God chose to describe himself was raḥûm (pronounced rakh-oom’), which means compassionate or full of compassion. Another translation for raḥûm is merciful. This word appears thirteen times in the Old Testament and is used almost exclusively in reference to God. To better understand God’s compassion-mercy, we look at the noun that raḥûm is built on: racham, which means “womb.”  

Womb.

God takes great care in appearing to us. We would be wise to pause and consider the significance of God’s word choice here. There is simply no mistaking the motherly love this word evokes. Such feminine tenderness opens up a whole new world of understanding when we consider God’s perfect love and full range of emotion. When God identifies as raḥûm in Exodus 34, God knew the Hebrew listener would recognize the connection to the feminine—to the deep bond and devotion best understood by a woman who has carried a growing child inside of her.

God is clearly full of this motherly compassion for each of us. How did we get things so twisted?

We’ve ignored this truth in an effort to make men more “manly,” and we’ve stunted godly qualities in the process. We’ve often refused to give women the space to speak or lead, writing off their emotions as weakness, and their abilities as inferior.

And yet Scripture shows us a tender God who embodies many motherly qualities:

Listen to me, house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been sustained from the womb, carried along since birth. I will be the same until your old age, and I will bear you up when you turn gray. I have made you, and I will carry you; I will bear and rescue you. (Isa. 46:3–4, CSB)

He watches over his nest like an eagle, and hovers over his young; he spreads his wings, catches him, and carries him on his feathers. (Deut. 32:11, CSB)

You ignored the Rock who gave you birth; you forgot the God who gave birth to you. (Deut. 32:18, CSB)

Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the child of her womb? Even if these forget, yet I will not forget you. (Isa. 49:15, CSB)

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list! These are merely a few standout Bible verses from Deuteronomy and Isaiah which opened my eyes to the motherly compassion of God. There are many more verses in the Old Testament which evoke this image of a motherly compassion within our awesome Creator God. These unmistakably feminine attributes of God allow us to more accurately understand God’s majesty and recognize the equal importance of men and women in God’s family.

Embracing the Compassion of God

If all this makes you uncomfortable, I’d like you to know that it made me uncomfortable once, too. I realize now, it was because I had put God in a box. I had a neat and “manly” image of God that I was afraid to reconsider. However, I cannot ignore God’s choice to use the word compassion, rooted in a word translated womb.

Our early church fathers certainly did not miss the connection, either. The Apostle Paul uses similar language for himself and his coworkers (likely including Silas and Timothy), telling the Thessalonian church, “We were gentle among you, as a nurse nurtures her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7, CSB).
    
Please don’t misunderstand my intention: I’m not suggesting we ignore the more traditionally masculine qualities of God. I’m asking you to broaden your understanding of our mighty God to include tenderness and gentle compassion. I want to challenge you to reconsider the notion that femininity is weakness. God’s Word is clear: women and men alike are imago Dei, made in the image of God. If Adam and Eve were a perfect reflection of God, might we consider that each new man and woman receives beautiful aspects of God’s character as well?

Does recognizing the more feminine qualities we see throughout the Bible make less of God? By no means! Allowing our understanding of God’s emotional capability to expand only serves to leave us more in awe. This knowledge takes God out of the box of our patriarchal society! It frees men to embrace emotion and women to see themselves more clearly as imago Dei. God’s compassion is evident again and again throughout the Bible—from God’s loving pursuit of Israel and to Christ’s healing hand and ultimate sacrifice. I finally see that my own tenderness toward my children is not weakness, it is merely another beautiful expression of a glorious and omnipotent God. Our brilliant Creator has imbued attributes of himself into each beloved creation. God’s motherly compassion allows us to know him more fully and to better embrace every person as a masterpiece created to reflect God.

Lord, may we not be confined to the societal rules which slip into our reading of the Bible and our views of you. Lord God, we praise you for your compassionate heart toward us! Thank you for revealing yourself as so much more than we could have hoped or imagined! Please break down any barrier which keeps us from seeing you clearly and knowing you more! You are glorious and mighty, and you are tender and kind. May we be like you and praise these qualities as we see them in the imago Dei all around us!

Photo by Gwen Mamanoleas on Unsplash.


Related Reading

Why Some Soul Wounds Require Understanding the Mother Heart of God 
An Ethic of Sacredness and Justice: Recovering the Imago Dei of Mothers 
My Body, Broken for You: Motherhood, Jesus, and Julian of Norwich