A mother’s love for her children is one of the strongest and most mysterious forces in the world. It carries her through the pain of childbirth. It washes over her face as she smiles at her baby for the first time. It endures through exhausting days and sleepless nights, over the course of months and years. It is nurturing, faithful, protective, and sacrificial.
And that is why it is also one of the clearest pictures of God’s love for us, his children.
A mother’s love is nurturing. It causes a baby to grow and develop in a way it could not on its own, and is exhibited in nearly everything a mother does to help her little child—feeding him, rocking him, changing him, talking to him, smiling at him.
Consider the example of a mother’s smile. “After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives the child’s smile in response,” writes Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. “She has awakened love in the heart of her child.”
When a mother smiles at her infant, she gives a glimpse of an even bigger truth: that God has loved us from the very beginning, especially through his Son Jesus, and that God’s love awakens in us the potential for love. That is why the apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
A mother’s love is faithful. It stays up late nights with a screaming baby, days and weeks and months on end. It endures exhausting days of changing diapers and cleaning messes. It patiently persists in innumerable and unmentionable ways, even when no thanks are given in return.
When a mother faithfully attends to the needs of her baby, she reminds us of an even bigger truth: that God will always do what he has said and fulfill what he has promised (Ps 141:6). We can take him at his word and rely upon him. His love endures through sleepless nights and exhausting days, in myriad and unmentionable ways.
A mother’s love is protective. With her infant, a mother is always on alert, waking up at the slightest sound, caring during times of sickness, guarding against potential harm. As the infant grows into childhood and, later, adolescence, she remains alert and continues to be protective.
When a mother protects her children, she provides a glimpse of God’s promise to protect his children. Consider especially the way a mother protects a small child who might hurt herself touching a burner, falling down the stairs, or stepping out into the road. In that same way, God offers to save us, to protect us from our own sin and its consequences.
That is why Scripture declares, “The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and…my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).
A mother’s love is sacrificial. More than anything, a mother’s love is sacrificial. A mother stretches herself literally and metaphorically, from the time of conception until the twilight of her own life. A mother never stops being a mother.
In this way, a mother’s love teaches us the deepest and most profound truth about God: that God loved us enough to come to earth, take a human body, and sacrifice himself on the cross for us.
Why would he do that?
Unlike other religions, Christianity teaches that each of us is born with a tendency to sin. The very first couple—Adam and Eve—refused to recognize God as God, and, like them, we do the same. We refuse to recognize God as God and we break his law repeatedly. Because God is the universal King and ultimate Law-giver, our sins are mutinous; they represent an attempt to dethrone him and rewrite his laws. The Bible teaches that the just penalty for our law-breaking is death.
Yet the Bible also teaches that God’s love for us, his children, is sympathetic and sacrificial. He does not want us to suffer the penalty of our sin. For that reason, he took on a human body and came to earth as Jesus. When he did that, he “traded places” with us. He lived the sinless life that we should have lived, and died the death that we deserve to die. He took our guilty record, died for it, and offers us his perfect record in return. That is why the apostle Paul declared that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
No mother is perfect. Every earthly mother will let us down. But we love our mothers for the good we have seen in them and received from their hands. We love them for the ways they have nurtured us, been faithful to us, protected us, and sacrificed for us. And we thank them that they—even if they are unaware—have provided us with a real, even if imperfect, picture of God’s love for us.
Bruce Ashford is the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.