More Than We Have Imagined: When God Is Like a Mother

By Lee Ann M. Pomrenke

It is universally acknowledged that the images we hear, speak, and sing in church shape how we understand God. Metaphors are the best we have to describe how we relate to the unfathomable God of All. Father, mother, friend, or ruler are only metaphors, not statements of fact. Yet they are the ones we use to mold our imaginations.

For example, Christianity has for many centuries leaned so heavily on the metaphor of God as father—which Jesus uses in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere—that the default picture of God in the imaginations of many Christians is an older man with the propensity to act as judge or disciplinarian and who remains at some emotional and physical distance from us. Whether or not that describes your father or the father you are trying to be, the cultural assumptions of such roles are deeply ingrained.

But is God only like a father—and only in the ways we recognize?

Like a Mother

To pigeon-hole God does a disservice not only to God—whose reality is beyond all genders and human roles—but also to us, who tend to value more the people who resemble the roles and characteristics we associate with God.

Womb of Life and Source of Being, ACS 948

For a long time in many branches of Christianity, the ordained office of ministry was not open to women. If the phrases “mothering God” or “God our mother” were repeated often in scripture, the trends in church leadership were different.

Yet the Bible—and Christian art and music—are not bereft of descriptions of God behaving as mother, even if the explicit word or phrase is not prevalent.

One way to correct our course from facing so far in one direction is to listen to and truly see what those who mother do and recognize those behaviors in God’s actions. I know that all who are intimately involved caregivers changed by the experience—my definition of “mothering”—reflect God’s commitment to humanity.

Now imagine a generation growing up in congregations where God is referred to regularly with both feminine and masculine images and pronouns.

Who can be a case study for us? Whom are we already scrutinizing for their relative oddity among us?

Clergy mothers, of course. Our concepts of God and the clergy are already enmeshed, so perhaps we can embrace that for a moment and see God through the lives of clergy women.

In my book Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, 2020), I narrated a collection of behaviors I knew were part of my role as church leader and as mother, like two sides of the same coin: incessant waiting, divided attention, emotional labor, and much more.

As frequent targets of congregants’ transference of emotions about their own mothering figures or lack thereof, clergy women also find ourselves poised to address a favorite metaphor of insular congregations: “this church is like a family.”

That might be so. But claiming that without examining it prevents us from realizing what unhealthy family behaviors we have been passing down too. Clergy mothers are uniquely positioned to call a “family meeting” and reframe how we choose to portray ourselves in the world. What a gift this self-examination can be to the church!

Developing Our Imaginations

Now imagine a generation growing up in congregations where God is referred to regularly with both feminine and masculine images and pronouns. People hear and call upon an expansive God from the pulpit and in classrooms, in small groups and in songs. The value of equity among leadership becomes embedded in our metaphors.

Our view of God expands as well. As I unpack how much give-and-take there is in a mothering relationship—so that the parent as well as the child is changed by it—then we must ask this.

Is God also changeable? Is God also transformed by relationship with us?

If so, the incarnation means something different than satisfying a debt to a disciplinarian God. There are also—most certainly—the cringe-worthy illustrations of intimate caregiving in my life and in God’s behaviors that must be uncovered. Anger flares up so quickly and powerfully when the same children into whom we have poured ourselves then disobey us. Might we develop empathy for God as we acknowledge our shared experiences?

Now comes the moment when we take these metaphors of a mothering God—and our commitment as mothering church leaders—out into the world. In the final chapter in my book I note that, “I am convinced that the skills and passions honed by raising children are not meant to stay within our narrow definitions of family.” Nor can a more expansive, vulnerable, transformed image of God stay within the church.

If we trust that this is how God relates with humanity, then it will change how we are willing to interact with and be changed by our siblings—all children of God—far and wide.

About the Author

Lee Ann M. Pomrenke is an ELCA pastor, mother, and author. She currently works as an editor for Luther Seminary’s digital resources—Faith+Lead, Working Preacher, and Enter the Bible—and hosts Faith+Lead’s Book Hub events. Her first book is Embodied: Clergy Women and the Solidarity of a Mothering God (Church Publishing, Inc, 2020). She lives in northwest Ohio with her husband and two daughters, blogging occasionally at

Photo. The image at the top of the post if from the Dominus Flevit Church on the Mount of Olives, across from Old City of Jerusalem. At the foot of the altar is this mosaic of a mother hen gathering her chicks. The image recalls Christ’s words in Luke 13.

Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing: An Invitation to Celebrate

Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing combines an old tune—INVITATION NEW from William Walker’s hymnbook Southern Harmony—with a joyous new text by Paul Damico-Carper about the new life we have in Christ. Between washing our masks and watching election news, the Elm Ensemble was able to record (virtually) Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing this fall and to grab some time with Paul to ask about this tremendous addition to Christian hymn texts.

Is there a specific occasion that got this project going or were you just working on these words and found your way to INVITATION NEW?

Paul. In the early days of the pandemic, some friends of mine put together something called the Triduum Project: a continuous YouTube livestream for the entirety of the Three Days. I got to host the last hour of the stream and wrote this hymn for the event. The initial impulses to write this text were to give the church an Easter text free of substitutionary atonement theory and rich with theology of the cross. I started writing it without a tune in mind, but it came to shape alongside a 7/4 tune in my mind with a grunge rock accompaniment using guitar power chords. Afterward, I shared the text in the ALCM Facebook group with a couple of recommended 8787D tunes. Pastor Blake Scalet (Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Summit, NJ) suggested INVITATION, and I loved the marriage of tune and text, especially on words like “cower” and “alleluia.”

What about this old shape-note tune made you think about the Easter message of new life in Christ?

Being a hexatonic tune with an implied modal character, there is enough ambiguity to hold both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. And it calls for trochaic feet that fit the proclamatory nature of this text. All in all, it feels like a tune that can convey triumph without triumphalism and access self-giving love without sentimentalizing it.

This is a richly Lutheran text, and you’ve made interesting phrases and word choices. First, this is likely the first time the bully has made his way into a hymn text. Anything interesting to say about that?

Bullies have been empowered in recent US culture and public discourse in a way that grieves the heart of God. But Jesus saves us by taking away the power of the bully—that is, the threat of death or injury. And by juxtaposing “bully” and “cower,” I hoped to hint that the bully problem is rooted in toxic masculinity. (Although neither word appears to be etymologically derived from the gender of the cattle it sounds and looks like.)

“Ransacking hell” is such a fantastically vivid phrase, and theologically not too surprising. What about unlocking heaven to save saints? That’s a cool one. Tell us more.

The old idea of simil justus et peccator (simultaneously saint and sinner) is at play here. It is also a commentary on the theological dangers of self-centeredness and overfocus on the afterlife as reward/punishment. I think of it in terms of the story of the prodigal son/s: one son needs redeeming because he has squandered everything, the other son needs redeeming because he resents a mercy that doesn’t seem “fair.” Inasmuch as we are sinners, we need mercy in the form of a hell that cannot hold us in agony. Inasmuch as we are saints, we need mercy in the form of a heaven that cannot hold us away from the world that God loves.

Then those last words of verse 3—gives himself without restraint—sets up the poignancy of verse 4 so acutely. I love your play on the hidden/revealed God idea that’s so central to Luther’s theology and how shame is meant (by human intent?) to be in certain places where it actually has no business being or cannot actually exist.

You bring out such great things in the text with your comments and questions! The whole idea of this stanza is that God dying on a shameful cross to give us true life is not only the great salvific act but also the archetype for how God continues to be at work in the world. Empire and bullies are ashamed of weakness and vulnerability, and they shame entire swathes of people as a means of controlling and dividing them (into races, classes, cultures, identities, abilities, and so on). But outside of the thirst for power, when our inherent mutual vulnerability is acknowledged, there is life that defies zero-sum analyses.

And finally, God’s grace going “where it’s forbidden.” That’s just fantastic. But tell us more. Where are these places, and who’s forbidding God’s grace?

There is a beautiful pair of images whose sources I wish I could cite: (1) that God is pregnant with the cosmos, and so everything is God, and (2) whenever we draw a line around ourselves, God shows up on the other side of that line. It is in this kind of world that it makes sense for me to say that God’s glory is known where we want to see shame, and where we want to keep God’s grace for ourselves, it slips out of our grasp and ends up exactly where we forbid it to go.

Is there anything else about your text or the project overall that you want to share with us?

I think that in the United States, “free” (from the last stanza) is a loaded word. I hope the rest of the hymn makes clear that I mean the freedom for the neighbor rather than a freedom from the neighbor, which so often is worshipped by American “civil religion.” It’s an honor to have so many people come together to bring to life words I’ve prayed over. Thanks!

Life from Death_INVITATION NEW (PDF Download)

The Artwork

The artwork you see above is a graphite on archival paper drawing by Richard Kathmann titled Scrub Apple Blossoms (38″ x 50″, © 2003 Richard Kathmann, Kathmann began the drawing as an artist-in-residence at the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in Ithaca, New York, and continued work on it for half a decade. The work on the drawing prepared Kathmann for Apple Blossoms I, a hand-pulled lithograph (limited edition of 10, 22 1/2″ x 30″), which he completed in 2003 as a studio protest against the Iraq War. Kathmann shared this about his inspiration for the drawing: “A scrub apple is a volunteer, a tree that nature and chance have planted. This one had grown at the edge of the forest. The lower skirt of dead branches was a sign of the smaller tree losing the fight for light as a leaf canopy from young, taller trees blocked the tree from the sun.” Both images are shared below, just under the hymn text.

Life from Death Is Jesus’ Doing

Life from death is Jesus’ doing when he dies upon the cross
and is risen, hope renewing in the midst of ev’ry loss.

Alleluia, alleluia! Christ, the one who wins our hearts.
Alleluia, alleluia! Christ, in who our new life starts.

Jesus makes the bully cower for he broke the hold of death.
There is no oppressing power that can match his living faith. Refrain

Ransacks hell to save the sinners; unlocks heav’n to save the saints.
Gives us bread and wine for dinner; gives himself without restraint. Refrain

God’s own glory still is hidden where great shame is meant to be.
God’s grace goes where it’s forbidden, gives us life, and sets us free.

More Artwork

INVITATION NEW – Southern Harmony 303