Christians have a rich tradition of speaking about God as father. When Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, he begins, “Our father” (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). In this and many other ways, the New Testament writers explain that through salvation, believers are brought into the family of God. This means that believers can identify one another as members of the same family with God as their heavenly father.
What is less well known is that the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, compares God to a mother. In Isaiah 49, Zion, that is, Jerusalem, laments that God has forsaken her. The Lord responds that even a nursing mother might forget the infant nursing at her bosom, but God will never forget Israel (Isaiah 49:15). The metaphor is based on the love a mother would have for her child, and then asserts that God’s love for his people is even greater than this. Elsewhere in Isaiah, God compares himself to a woman in labour (Isaiah 42:14). Just as labour cannot be stopped once it begins, so God will not stop his work until it is finished.
In the New Testament, Jesus longs to be received by his people, to gather them to himself the way that a mother hen shelters her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37). The Bible does not call God a mother, but it does apply maternal metaphors to God.
Many people can be thankful for good relationships with their parents. Unfortunately, some people are not able to fulfil the role of parent for their children. This means that for some people, comparing God to a father or mother brings with it a complicated set of emotional responses which make these biblical metaphors challenging.
As Isaiah 49 suggests, human parents may fail, but the Lord will never forsake his people. Whatever our relationship with our human families, Jesus extends an open invitation to all people join the family of God, a family defined by love, acceptance and forgiveness. Whatever the shortcomings of human families, Jesus welcomes all people to enter into a relationship with God who loves humanity more perfectly than any mother or father. To the degree that someone succeeds in loving their family members, they are embodying the love that defines the character of God.
■ The Rev Dr Katie Marcar is a senior teaching fellow and research fellow in biblical studies in the theology programme at the University of Otago.