MidWeek Message (Apr 1-Apr 7)

A few days ago, one of my children asked me, “Is God a man or a woman?”  She explained that she’s noticed how we use the pronoun “he” to talk about him and that we speak of him as the father.  So is God male?  It’s a good question, especially for a girl who’s starting to notice and push back against the patriarchy in her world.

Many have been wounded and oppressed by patriarchy, and far too often the failures and pains caused by earthly fathers can distort our understanding of our heavenly father.  And so, in some contexts, to call God “he” or “Father” might not sit comfortably.

Let me say very clearly that the abuse of women and the elevation of men is an ugly reality.  It runs through human history, starting when things went wrong in the Garden of Eden, and many today have the scars to prove it’s still alive and active.  So when our Bible calls God “Father”, what should we do?  Should it embarrass us?  Should we edit it out?  Should we replace it with “Mother”, or maybe with some other term like, “the One”? 

Well, I think answer is to use this conversation as an opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing when we speak about God.  The Bible uses both masculine and feminine language for God.  And that’s a big deal.

Sometimes Scripture speaks of God as a mother bird who protects and shelters (Ruth 2:12; Ps 17:8; 57:1; 91:4).  It speaks of God as a mother bear who ferociously protects her children (Hos 13:8), and as a human mother who comforts and nurtures (Isa 66:13; 49:15).  These and many others like them are clearly metaphors.  But likewise, pronouns like “he” and words like “father” are used metaphorically to speak of God.  God is beyond gender.  God is not male, but we can use masculine language to help us faithfully and truthfully speak of God, even though we quickly bump into the limits of human language.  God is not female, but we can and should use feminine imagery to help us faithfully and truthfully speak of God, who is yet always beyond our full understanding.  We must be careful not to confuse the reality of God with our limited, creaturely language of God. 

In the ancient world, ‘mother goddess’ cult worship was a liability for God’s people.  It was common in that world to use fertility, sexuality, life, and health in religious worship of various mother goddesses.  This is an idolatry that turns nature into the divine; it turns motherhood into a god.  In that context, it was not misogynistic for Scripture to avoid calling God “mother”.  Actually, the use of the language of Fatherhood for God along with the feminine imagery for God points to something radical—God’s utter transcendence over nature.  God is neither male nor female because those are creaturely things, and God is the creator.  Human words and concepts are all we have, but we must always be mindful that God cannot be held captive to them.