I was nine or ten, around the age that my own wide-eyed, freckle-nosed daughter is now, when the Children’s Director at my church picked The Ten Commandments for movie night. My friends and I were not overly enthusiastic about the choice; we would rather have given our church’s bedraggled McGee and Me VHS collection another spin than watched a Bible drama from our grandparents’ generation. Nevertheless, two scenes from the movie caught my full attention. One was the Halloween-worthy arrival of the Angel of Death, portrayed by a creeping vapor that poisoned firstborn sons on the spot. (It still gives me the shivers.) The other was the moment that Moses raised his arms under a roiling black sky in order to part the Red Sea. That image snapped into my mind like a missing puzzle piece. It was the exact visual representation of everything my young heart believed about God.
The fierce intensity in Charlton Heston’s eyes, his dominating stance, the power symbolized by his arm-cuffs, even his thickly silvered beard—all of it filled in my mental image of God as neatly as if Charlton himself had graced the pages of my Bible. That God was a muscly Caucasian man in his sixties, I had no doubt. Perhaps that had already been suggested to me through Bible cartoons or maybe it was a projection of my own small worldview, but I knew exactly what I was seeing when Moses spread his arms across our church’s TV screen: Father. Judge. Ruler. Smiter. The Divine Patriarch. The All-Powerful Begetter. God.
This visual cemented itself onto my mind’s eye and didn’t budge for many, many years. When I had my heart broken as a teen and tried to find comfort in prayer, I couldn’t get past the image of God’s penetrating glare. When I got engaged to my husband and found myself yo-yoing between hopes and fears about our upcoming marriage, I felt sure that the God who waged wars and parted seas couldn’t care less about my emotional upheaval. When I entered the misty and profoundly tender world of motherhood, I felt more removed than ever from this deity with his big beard, big stick, and wild eyes. I could no more imagine him nurturing than I could imagine him putting on a pink uniform and dishing up ice cream at the mall.
Aside from deliberate sin, womanhood felt like the furthest possible point one could be from God on the spectrum of humanity.
Five years ago, however, Charlton-Heston God was chipped out of my perspective over the course of a single Sunday morning. I’d opted out of church that day, adrift in a storm of spiritual disillusionment and heartache so intense that I couldn’t imagine setting foot in a place of worship. Instead, I sank into the sofa in my pajamas and reached for the pile of novels my neighbor had lent me earlier that week. The one on top turned out to be Wm. Paul Young’s The Shack, a fictionalized account of a man who meets God at the epicenter of his life’s deepest pain. If you’ve heard of the book, you probably know that it has generated a fair amount of controversy over certain theological points, not the least of which is its portrayal of God as a motherly African American woman. In fact, the only reason I’d heard of The Shack before picking it up that morning was because a Christian friend had cautioned me about its unorthodox theology.
I can appreciate people’s reluctance to look at God in a new way; the line between “unconventional” and “heretical” is fuzzy and tends to move depending on who’s speaking. However, my old way of looking at God had left me devastated, bereft of the very love that we sang about at church. I needed a different perspective like a newborn needs touch, and as I read The Shack cover to cover that Sunday morning, the idea of God personified in a woman dredged up a longing from my own personal Mariana Trench that threatened either to drown me or to carry me into a significantly altered spiritual landscape.
I let myself be carried.
In this new paradigm, I am God’s image bearer, not her opposite. The overwhelmed, peeled-apart kind of love I have for my children is a divinely inherited trait rather than a weakness. I read in the Bible about God as mother who gives birth, who nurses, who gathers close, who carries, who comforts, and who snuggles, and I recognize her when she sits down across the table from me for morning coffee—El Shaddai, the Breasted One, the one who “heal[s] the world through the Majesty of Nurture.” I can see the warmth in her eyes now. How deep her care for me runs.
I don’t always refer to God with female pronouns. I know it can make others uncomfortable, and I myself still feel the occasional ripple of awkwardness over the idea. In the solitude of my heart though, I know exactly who has been pulling me close these last five years, tending to the broken and love-starved pieces of me, redeeming the unapproachable image I’d carried in my head for so long: Mother. Nurturer. Comforter. Healer. The Cradle of Life. The Tender Shepherd[ess]. God.
About the author: Bethany is a fundamentalism survivor, a sedentary snowboarder, and a cappuccino junkie. She originally hails from Texas but has been adventuring in Italy with her husband and their two daughters for the last seven years. She writes about grace, relationships, and the risk-taking life at bethanybassett.com. You can also connect with her via Twitter and Facebook.
Also in the Motherheart of God series:
Exploring the Motherheart of God by Adriel Booker — “In Sunday school they taught us about God our Father and—if we were lucky—perhaps about Jesus our Brother. In youth group we learned about Jesus our Best Friend and in college and careers group we were taught about Jesus our Husband (or perhaps Lover, if you were a dude and ‘Husband’ felt awkward). But no one ever taught me about God our Mother. I had to learn that one on my own. . .” continue reading>>>
Relentlessly Tender by Megan Kimmelshue — “Jesus is, as Brennan Manning puts it, “relentlessly tender” with me and oh, how I need that tenderness as we brave these waters of the little years and the hormonal fluctuations of the postpartum months and sleep deprivation. I need to be nurtured, to have a safe place to cry my tears of frustration or those tears of I don’t know why I’m crying but I am. To stay with me while I tantrum, ranting and raving over little things that are hardly of any consequence but that mean something to me at that moment.” continue reading>>>
Strong, Fierce, Wild by Bronwyn Lea — “I’d gone into motherhood feeling I was taking a leave of absence the rich, cultivated spiritual lands of Ministry and Regular Quiet Times. I was expecting a wilderness. . .But God met me in the nursery and planted an oasis just beside the rocker-glider. God met me aching, tender, weeping, nurturing, delighting in my children’s delights, holding them through the sadness, rejoicing in their growth, participating in their adventures, relishing getting to know them as little people. And time after time, in those moments of quintessential mothering, I heard God’s heart whisper to mine. . .” continue reading>>>
Upcoming posts in the series from: Becca from Exile Fertility, Megan Tiez from Sorta Crunchy, Amy L. Sullivan, and Michaela Evanow
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