The role of motherhood can often seem like a joyless, thankless task. It’s a vocation that is losing popularity in our society. But, as Lesley Ramsay shows us, motherhood lies at the very heart of God’s rescue plan for humanity.
What is your vision of motherhood? Listen to this blogger:
I was talking to one of my friends, yesterday from high school, she stated that her daughter was 15 and son 10. And soon she would be free of the burden of taking care of them. What does that mean? Free? She’s always been free to do as she pleases with or without children. My sister always says don’t have kids. I ask why? She says they are a pain.1
Is this what you think motherhood is like—an ordeal to survive? Is the essence of motherhood hard work and sacrifice, with the kids gone at 18, hardly wanting to know you anymore? In this article, I want to raise your eyes out of the laundry bucket—off the mess in the dining room—beyond the tense discussions with your teenagers—to see the enormous privilege it is to be a mother.
The purpose of marriage
However, we won’t appreciate motherhood until we understand God’s purposes for marriage.2 Motherhood and marriage are foundationally linked. I’m not saying that if you have a child outside of marriage, you’re not a real mother; this is a fallen world and things go wrong. You are still a mother. But we need to recognize that parenthood and motherhood grew out of marriage. Why did God give us marriage? Most people think it is primarily so we can enjoy being together forever, and procreation is secondary. Some couples even say, “We don’t want children because they will interfere with our relationship”. But this is not what God emphasizes. Consider Genesis 1:26-28:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Notice the following. Mankind is created to exercise responsible “dominion” or rule. It’s not ruling harshly; it’s rule like God rules. But man must be made in God’s image in order to do this. So God makes humans male and female, and then commands them to procreate: “Be fruitful… multiply… fill… subdue” (i.e. creation, then task, then procreation).
Compare Genesis 1 to Genesis 2. We’re more drawn to Genesis 2 because it’s suffused with warmth and delight—especially verse 18 where God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him”. Unfortunately this makes us think that the purpose of marriage is to solve loneliness. However, Genesis 2 is closely linked to Genesis 1. In 2:5, we’re given a picture of incompleteness: there is plenty of water but “there was no man to work the ground”. The man’s appearance in verse 7 is not arbitrary, but the logical answer to creation’s need. Only then is the garden created, and the man is put into it to “work it and keep it” (vv. 8, 15). This work is the same as in Genesis 1. It is not a miserable burden; it is very good. However, the man can’t do it alone; he needs a helper. If the work just involved manual labour, another bloke would have been good. Instead, God makes a woman, and sex is born (vv. 21-24). Christopher Ash comments,
This is delight with a shared purpose, intimacy with a common goal, and companionship in a task beyond the boundaries of the couple themselves… The purpose of the man-woman match… is that the woman should be just the helper the man needs, so that together they may serve and watch.3
I said earlier that the purpose of marriage is not to solve the problem of loneliness. That’s because in Scripture the solution to loneliness is not marriage, but friendship, love and fellowship with God and with other believers. These things exist in marriage, but marriage is not the chief remedy for loneliness, otherwise all single people are destined to be lonely. So what is marriage for? What can a man and a woman do together that two men and two women can’t? The answer is bearing children. Putting Genesis 1 and 2 together, humans bear children (i.e. they are fruitful and multiply) so that the task God gave to them can widen and continue with more workers.
So this part of the Bible is saying two things. Firstly, marriage is not principally about being inwardly focused on each other; it’s outward-looking—two people focused on serving God by working and looking after his creation. Children are central to this task. But couples can only do this work well if they’ve got a great relationship with each other, loving each other because God is love. Secondly, we do not have children for our sakes or even for our children’s sake; we have children for God’s sake—to serve him by contributing to the task he entrusted to us.
However, we mustn’t jump from Genesis 1-2 to the 21st century; there’s still the ‘small’ detail of the Fall to consider. Our rebellion against God changed everything: now Adam and his heirs can no longer do what they were commanded to do. We are no longer fit to rule. Does God want us to keep on producing more rebels? Is the work he calls us to now the same? Before the Fall, the task was stewardship; afterwards, the task is rescue. With Abraham, God initiates a plan that culminates in Jesus’ death and resurrection: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Gen 17:6). The language of procreation and fruitfulness has now been transferred from humanity to God’s people. Now what is needed is a new race of redeemed people who desire to bring glory to their creator. Malachi 2:15 says, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring.” Why does God want godly offspring? So that they will bring him honour and glory: Christians are to be fruitful and multiply so that, together, mums, dads and their children can participate in God’s task of rescue by proclaiming Christ.
In summary, if you are married, having children and being a parent lies at the very heart of God’s plan for this world. Being a doctor, teacher, butcher, baker or candlestick maker doesn’t. In God’s eyes, what you do as a parent matters more than any other job you will ever have.
Of course, this view of motherhood is at odds with our society. These days, parents pursue their own goals and ambitions, and kids just have to fall in line. Women are much more reluctant to commit to having children because they do not want to give up their autonomy, independence, freedom and ambition, and those who do are often seen as second class citizens.
But my question is, “Does Christian discipleship know any other way?” Doesn’t being a committed follower of Christ mean that we give up our ambitions, autonomy, independence and freedom to be like him? Mark 10:45 sums up Jesus’ life: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many”—that is, he came to earth to serve and give, not so that he could have autonomy, independence, freedom and ambition. He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:6b-7). This sort of attitude should invade every aspect of our lives. So being a mother means being like Jesus—being willing to give up your life and take up your cross daily for the sake of your children. But mothers are not alone in this; fathers have to do exactly the same thing—for both their children and their wives.
So we should not be surprised that being a mother is hard. At times, mothers may feel like we have no lives of our own—that we are continually giving and giving until there is nothing left—that our goals and desires are always subsumed under everyone else’s needs—and that we’ve lost our identities because we are only known as ‘Charlotte’s mum’. At times like these, it’s good to reflect on Jesus. People didn’t know he was the Lord of the universe; he was known only as the friend of sinners. His life was not his: from the moment he was born, he was on the road to Jerusalem and the cross where he died to rescue sinful humanity. We will not appreciate motherhood until we understand what Jesus did.
The Bible on motherhood
What does the Bible say about being a mother? There are a lot of books and courses out there that try to convince you that their advice is biblical. But I think we need to distinguish between biblical instruction and commonsense. On the one hand, we shouldn’t deviate from the Bible’s guidelines; on the other hand, we should have a healthy regard for commonsense, but not take it as gospel truth for everyone. Over the years, people have said to me that they have been made to feel like disobedient Christians by other zealous members of their church because they have not signed up for a particular philosophy of parenting. Let me urge you to avoid this. It’s hard enough to be a parent without being made to feel guilty too. Parent in a way that you feel is best for your children, and leave others to make choices that suit their families.
But that said, the Bible does make several unconditional demands on us.
The first is to love your children. Paul tells the older women to “train the young women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4). This is a strange verse: why do mothers need to be told to love their children? Isn’t that just natural? Well, it’s not when you realize that love in the Bible is not an emotional reaction, it’s an action. Love is unselfish: it’s putting my needs and rights to one side so I can do the best for you. It is totally at odds with my natural, self-centred tendencies. That’s why mothers needed to be reminded and trained to love their husbands and kids.
Most of the time we do this automatically. But it’s always tempting to listen to the world, which says, “Giving everything for your kids is not good for you. You have rights and needs. You are a modern, tertiary-educated sophisticated woman. Raising kids is a waste!” Loving our kids means doing the best for them, not for us.
One of the ways we love our kids is through nurturing them—physically, psychologically and spiritually. To nurture something is to help it grow to maturity. Because mothers have the special, intimate privilege of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding (all things which fathers cannot do), mothers are the ones best placed to nurture children to physical maturity. And because we spend so much time with them (especially during their early years), psychological and spiritual nurture follow.
The Bible speaks about spiritual nurture the most. God desires godly offspring (Mal 2:15), and a mother’s influence on her child begins pretty much from birth (Ps 22:9-10). This continues throughout the whole of life: Timothy’s faith was learned from his grandmother and mother, who acquainted him with the Scriptures from childhood (2 Tim 1:5, 3:15). God wanted Abraham to instruct his children and household to be godly (Gen 18:19). Moses told the Israelites to “teach [the Lord’s commandments] diligently to your children, and… talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut 6:7).
Spiritual nurture, then, is not just Sunday school or Bible study before bed; it’s a whole-of-life exercise. It’s giving your child a world view with God at the centre. It’s not enough to parent a child by conceiving and giving birth; mothers and fathers must nurture children in godliness through prayer and deed. It is taking every opportunity to shape their character. It happens when you find a lost wallet on the road, and you explain that we have to return it to its owner because it doesn’t belong to us and because that would please God. It happens when you lie down and there’s a storm going outside, and you pray with your children, “Lord, please help us to trust you and not be afraid”. It happens when you get up and say, “What a great new day! Let’s pray that God will help us to live for Jesus today.” This sort of nurture presupposes that mother and child will spend lots of time together because these opportunities can’t be timetabled into a certain part of the day. Quality time with your kids is good, but it’s not enough; you also need quantity time.
However, spiritual nurture also involves intentional instruction. Children start from self-centredness. I don’t know any mothers who have had to teach their children to be selfish. But we bust ourselves trying to get our kids to be kind and share. We need to make it clear to them that the world does not revolve around them. We need to show them that God is creator and Lord, and therefore we must love him, submit to him and participate in his ministry of rescue. We need to coach our kids to obey, honour and respect us as parents. But we do this not for the sake of our self-importance, but because it will enable them to obey, honour and respect God. Everything we teach them ought to have this end goal in view. But it won’t happen without fervent prayer, intentional planning and committed time.
Work at home
Thirdly, mothers are to be “working at home” (Titus 2:5)—literally, to be ‘home workers’. Feminism has told us that to be fulfilled, we need a career outside the home. The Bible says that’s a lie. In a partnership of two equals, one needs to take responsibility for ensuring that family and home are functioning well. For mothers, the home ought to be the place of primary concern and energy.
Let me emphasize what I am not saying. I am not saying that a mother will never work outside the home; life has seasons, and you will do different things as your children grow. I am not saying that a mother will never pursue interests and activities outside the home. The Bible doesn’t say that. But it does say that a mother’s first responsibility will be her home and family; everything else is a distant second or third.
I am also not saying that fathers should not be involved in the running of the home. Fathers should be. But in a partnership where both are committed to home and family, one has to take prime responsibility for that. You may reverse roles for a time (e.g. when the husband is unemployed but the wife can get work). But there is something in the way that God created us which means that home-making normally falls to the woman. Men and women are different; we ignore that to our peril.
So we need to ask ourselves: are our homes everything that they can be? Does your family get the lion’s share of your time and energy, or just the leftovers? Are you working so much outside the home that you are busy and stressed? Do you have time to read to your kids, sit and listen to them, and pray with them? Or are you so preoccupied with cooking, doing the laundry and making lunches that you don’t have time to hang out with them?
Fourthly, and somewhat contradictorily, the Bible says don’t love your children. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Our first love will always be for Christ; all other human relationships take second place. Christian parents ought to live lives so transformed, they will inevitably clash with society. The world will think, “You don’t love your children!” because you don’t idolize them. The world says, “Your children must be at the centre of your world”. God says, “I belong there”. The world says, “Give your children anything they want”. God says, “Don’t spoil them”. The world says, “Develop your kid’s gifts and talents so that they can take up the career with the most status and financial rewards”. God says, “I want your kids to serve me. This may mean ministry with low salary and status.” Our kids are much better served if we teach them they are not the centre of our world. They may say, “You don’t love us!” but we should reply, “I do love you. I just love Jesus more. And so should you.”
A fallen world
Unfortunately, because we live in a fallen world, some of us will have to struggle with infertility and unbelieving children. One in eight have trouble conceiving, and those of us who have been blessed with kids need to learn to grieve and weep with those who have not. We must remember that children are a gift and a blessing, not a right. Children are part of a right understanding of marriage, but you do not need children to have a true marriage.
We also need to remember that God only has children, not grandchildren. There’s no guarantee that your children will become Christian, no matter how much you pray for them and nurture them spiritually. If your children do not believe, you have not failed as a parent. The most important thing is your desire and how you have put that desire into practice. The result is God’s.
The word of God invests the role of mother with enormous dignity: with her husband, she looks to a God deserving of her service, to a world that needs rescuing and to a task involving raising godly kids—kids who will grab the baton and run the race of gospel proclamation and parenthood, which they will then hand on to their kids (Ps 22:30-31). What a great privilege to be a mother! Never ever let anyone denigrate it. Never ever say, “I’m just a mum”. Someone once asked a full-time mother, “What do you do for a living?” She smiled and answered, “I’m socializing two homo sapiens in the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition so they may be the instruments for the transformation of the world. And what do you do?”4
2. For more on this, see Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the service of God, IVP, Leicester, 2003 and Andreas J Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family, Crossway, Wheaton, 2004. Gordon Cheng reviews Christopher Ash’s book in Briefing #348 (September 2007).↩
3. Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the service of God, p. 121.↩
4. Quoted in Sharon James, God’s Design For Women, Evangelical Press, Darlington, 2002, p. 197.↩