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Rainflies, Canoes, and God as Our Mum

by Juliann Bullock | September 05, 2021

I was a new, young missionary in the middle of my field orientation course. We had hiked out to a remote Papua New Guinean village where we would be spending the night, and we were enjoying the warm hospitality of the people who lived there. It had been raining for quite a while, and the absence of electricity or indoor plumbing meant that, sooner or later, we would need to venture out with our headlamps to find the outhouse. This is not something I enjoy at the best of times, but on this particular evening I was dreading it even more than usual because the rainflies had hatched.

Every once in a while, during a heavy rain, a new generation of these large flies hatches all at once, and hundreds will instantly cover every exposed surface. They are particularly attracted to light, which made a trip to the outhouse with a headlamp a daunting prospect. As my friend and I approached the outhouse, trying to work out how to have enough light to not fall into the outhouse hole, while also minimizing the areas of ourselves that would inevitably be covered in rainflies, my Australian friend exclaimed, “I want my mum!” I wanted my mum too, but mine was in Texas and hers was in Australia, so we bravely carried on without them.

Not being Australian myself, I had never called my mom “Mum” before, but when I later told her about that experience, I referred to her as “Mum” and have often used that name for her since. Even though she had never referred to herself that way, I felt no need to ask permission to call her something different—in fact, having a new and special name for her expressed my love for her and the unique bond I felt with her even while I was on the other side of the world.

Deciding What to Call God

Do we have a similar freedom with God? Although the Bible is full of vivid maternal descriptions of God, many people are still uncomfortable using the word “mother” to talk about God or to talk to God, because the Bible never explicitly uses mother as a title for God. But does this make it wrong for us to call God Mother? Are we free to address God in ways that are not explicitly modeled in Scripture?

There are many situations in which it would be inappropriate to invent titles for someone. The president’s staff are not free to call him whatever they want. They are required to stick to the prescribed title and call him “Mr. President.” If you found yourself speaking to the queen of England, it would be advisable to address her as “Your Majesty” and avoid inventing your own title for her. But her children probably have a lot more freedom than that.

The underlying question is this: what kind of a relationship does God want with us? Does God want us to speak to God as we would speak to a president or a monarch, being careful to use only the prescribed, preapproved titles that are explicitly used in Scripture? Or, might God want to have an intimate, parent/child relationship with us, in which we are free to express our love for God with any title, even our own unique title, as long as it accurately expresses the reality of who God is, as revealed in Scripture?

Let’s see what the Bible has to say about this:

  • “So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God.” (Heb. 4:16, NLT)
  • “You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me.” (John 15:14–15, NLT)
  • “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, ‘Abba, Father.’” (Rom. 8:14–15, NLT)

The Supreme Ruler of the universe calls us friends, adopts us as sons and daughters, and tells us to come boldly before God’s throne. God does not want us to relate to God as fearful slaves, scared to use a title that has not been preapproved by the master. God wants us to come as beloved children, and beloved children have the right to express their love for their parents through intimate titles—titles like Abba, Daddy, or even Mother.

Many people have used Romans 8:15 to argue that Paul is telling us to see God as our Father rather than as our Mother. But the context makes it clear that gender is not the point here. Instead, Paul is making a distinction between calling God “Master” and calling God “Daddy.”1 The point is that, as God’s children, we have the privilege of relating to God on intimate terms, such intimate terms that we are free to use familiar titles like Daddy—or Mum.

What We Call God Matters—but It Doesn’t Change Who God Is 

Of course, any title we use for God must be consistent with God’s nature as revealed in Scripture. The language we use to talk about God should accurately express the reality of who God says God is. Here’s how the Bible describes God:

  • Deuteronomy 32:18 describes God as the one “who had given you birth.”
  • Isaiah 49:15 compares God’s love to the love of a nursing mother.
  • Deuteronomy 32:13 says that God breastfed the nation of Israel.
  • Job 38:29 suggests that God “gives birth to the frost” and is “the mother of the ice.”

These passages indicate that maternal titles for God are certainly consistent with the way God is revealed to us in Scripture. No, titles do not create reality, but accurate titles acknowledge a reality that already exists. Refusing to use a title can be an attempt to deny the existence of that reality, but it does not make the reality any less true.

For example, the person responsible for managing a group of employees is often given the title of “manager.” If someone were doing all the work of a manager, but was not given the title, then their employer could potentially avoid paying them the salary that a manager deserves. The title would accurately describe the reality of that person’s work, but withholding the title would allow the employer to deny that reality when writing the person’s paycheck.

Another example is that when I use the title “mother” to refer to my own mother, I am acknowledging the reality that she is the woman who raised me. This would be true whether or not I used the title, but every time I call her my mother, I am affirming the reality of my relationship with her. Not only that, but I am also expressing a desire to relate to her as a daughter. If I were to refuse to call my mother by any maternal title, I would be communicating to her that I either did not think she was fulfilling the role of a mother in my life or that I did not wish to fulfill the role of a daughter in her life.

If we refuse to use maternal titles when referring to God, we refuse to acknowledge that God fulfills any type of maternal role in our lives. Since Scripture is full of maternal language about God, a refusal to acknowledge that reality is a refusal to accept all of who God says God is. Calling God “Mother” as well as “Father” affirms the reality of who God is—as revealed in the Bible—and acknowledges our desire to relate to God in a way that is consistent with all of God’s self-revelation.

Rediscovering All of Who God Is

If you were paddling a canoe, and paddled only on the left side, you would quickly find yourself crashing into the bank on your right. By consistently and exclusively using masculine language to talk about God, I believe we have (figuratively) crashed into the bank of God’s masculinity.

For years I lived on that bank, fearful to talk to or about God with anything but the father-language that could be quoted directly from Scripture. I was stuck there in the shallows, entangled in branches, and found it difficult to move forward on my journey toward knowing God. I could not even see the other side of the river, and many people told me that there was not another side. I had no idea how to return to the middle of the river, where I could freely race along in the joy of knowing God as God truly is.

If I were actually in that canoe, trying to get back to the middle of the river, I would need to paddle primarily on the right side for a while. Not forever, or I would just end up stuck on the left bank. But for a season, to truly correct my error, I would need to keep my paddle mostly on the right, with perhaps an occasional left stroke here and there.

In general, it would not be any more appropriate to use exclusively feminine language to talk about God, because God is not a woman any more than God is a man. But for a season, to help me branch out from the exclusively masculine imagery for God that has been so deeply ingrained into my imagination, it has been helpful for me to focus on the feminine language and imagery that the Bible uses to describe God and to begin using some of that language when I talk to God.

When I relate to God as Mother, God does not ask me which chapter and verse I’m basing that relationship on, or whether I have obtained permission from the appropriate authorities to use that title. No, God holds me in her arms and tells me that I am her beloved child. Let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious Mother-Father God.

This article appears in “Gendered Language and the Church,” the Autumn 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

1. Jann Aldrege-Clanton, In Whose Image? God and Gender (London: SCM Press, 1992), 36.