When I was 14, I lost my mother. Not to death or divorce, but to schizophrenia, a disease that robs a person of the moorings of reality itself. Mom had always been fragile and often strangely distant, and as a child I'd sensed that I needed to protect her. She was gentle and kind, but she was not strong and she moved through the world with a hesitancy that suggested constant threat. When I was a teenager, she completely lost touch with reality and started a journey our family wasn't prepared for.
Like most cases of schizophrenia, Mom's illness is treatable, but at first the treatments themselves impaired her functioning in even basic ways. We hoped for full recovery, but the following decades of hospitalizations, delusions, medications, relapses, and fragility made clear what we'd already guessed: the mom we knew and had hoped to see again was gone. Although physically present, emotionally and mentally she was effectively absent much of the time. With Dad preoccupied, my younger sister and I cared for Mom and raised ourselves—with some help from our older siblings—from that point on.
I lived in survival mode during those teenage years. When I left home and finally had a safe distance, I began to feel acute grief for my mom and for myself. During college, I began working with counselors and bringing my grief before God. While the process of healing began, I continued to feel a sharp sadness as a young woman, a longing for what my friends had—a new sense of closeness to their mothers (and respect for their mothers' wisdom) as they came of age.
One Mother's Day, I sat through another sermon that idealized moms, and I responded as usual: an acidic mix of anger, grief, and longing boiled to the surface. I had some time to myself, and perhaps for the first time, I opened the floodgates and let that wave come pouring out before God. When my sobs had settled into a quiet ache, I told God what I longed for: a mother who could guide me, pass along what she has learned about life around the next corner, cheer me on, soothe me with reminders of her love, and occasionally let me rest in her wisdom and strength. I asked God to deaden my longing or to bring someone into my life who could partially fill that role.
As I was praying, suddenly the phrase from Psalm 68:5 came to mind: "Father to the fatherless." Then the thought, Mother to the motherless. This was a possibility I had not considered: that God himself could fulfill my need for a mother.
How God Nurtures Us
Until that point, I'd unconsciously thought of God as a bearded man in the clouds, even though I knew he wasn't a person like us. The masculine presentation of God was so ingrained in my thinking, I'd missed all the ways God wants to be like a mother to us. I felt as if he was longing to do that for me, so I gave myself over to God's nurture—and found comfort.
God is not a woman, nor is he a man (Numbers 23:19). He has chosen to reveal himself largely in masculine terms, and I am not rejecting this revelation. God is my perfect heavenly Father. But as the only complete being, perfection itself, God also contains and demonstrates all the traits of a perfect mother.
A study of Scripture shows us many ways God is like a perfect mother: God is described as a woman in labor (Isaiah 42:14) and as having given birth to his people (Deuteronomy 32:18). He is compared to a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15), to a comforting mother (Isaiah 66:13; Psalm 131:2), and to a mother teaching her child to walk (Hosea 11:3).
God is described as a mother bear whose cubs have been taken away, as a hungry lioness (Hosea 13:8), as a mother eagle caring for her young (Deuteronomy 32:11-12), and as a mother hen (Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34). David compared God to a woman (Psalm 123:2-3), and Jesus himself likened God to a woman cleaning her house to find a lost coin (Luke 15:8-10).
God provided just enough healthy food for his people (Exodus 16:11-18), and he provides for us as well (Philippians 4:19). He urged his disciples to rest (Mark 6:31). He bandages our wounds (Psalm 147:3) and will wipe away our tears (Isaiah 25:8). He comforts us (Isaiah 51:12) and carries us close to his heart (Isaiah 40:11).
I don't think of myself as motherless anymore. I still grieve, still feel the ache of missing what I wish I had in this life. But now I take that ache straight to God and find what I need in his love and nurture. For "even if my father and mother abandon me, the LORD will hold me close" (Psalm 27:10).