Carried: Finding Rest Through Scripture’s Obstetrical Images
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of FOCUS.
Life sometimes puts us in places we don’t want to be. We choose the profession of medicine because we want to help our patients live as fully as they can. Yet, we then find that laws and society have taken the practice of medicine into what sometimes seems a headlong rush into death rather than life. Likewise, the long work hours and overwhelming needs are accompanied by a weariness that makes us wonder how long we can go on.
For me, that “place I didn’t want to be” has looked like believing I was going to join a team working in a little village in Afghanistan, only to find that I sometimes was the only doctor there to serve 150.000 people. She might try to rework this opening phrase. It has looked like becoming increasingly tired and sick while being left with an excruciating decision: come home from Afghanistan, leaving the small village without a doctor, or pressing on at the cost of my own health. It has also looked like finding myself with a severe recurrence of a chronic illness that left me unable to get out of bed. My illness would ultimately force me to return from Afghanistan and end my medical career only five years after completing my obstetrical residency. Unexpectedly, it has also looked like PTSD, anxiety, and depression — which nobody wants, but which is the reality for too many of us.
When we find ourselves in a place we don’t want to be, how do we let it press us deeper into God? The answer to that question is a little different for every person, because God relates to each of us in a slightly different way, honoring the way he has made us. It’s all grace, and a lot of it is a mystery as we open our hurting hearts to God and he takes the lead in the process.
In my life, God’s gentle creativity meant that just as I was giving up my license to practice medicine, I began to experience the birth drama from a different and larger perspective. Until then, I had been preoccupied with performing my role as the obstetrician in the drama that I never dreamed it might not be my only, or even primary, role. Slowly I began to see that God’s love is so big and his desire to draw us into Himself is so great that no single metaphor is sufficient to communicate that love. God circles and doubles back, revealing himself in Scripture in all the different roles in the obstetrical drama: as mother, father, husband, doctor or midwife, even baby whom we, along with Mary, are graced to carry. Since God’s roles as father and husband are more commonly discussed, here we’ll focus on the other three.
When I lost my health and my medical career, I was no longer the doctor, the one supposedly in control, caring for others. I couldn’t even see myself as the mother, laboring hard, participating in the bringing of new life into the world. Suddenly, I was the baby, unable to cook for myself, wash my own clothes, or even sit up for long.
Though I was very familiar with the way Scripture refers to God as both father and husband, I hadn’t thought much about God as mother. That seemed a bit too strange and new age for me, until I found myself in a place where I felt as helpless as a baby and desperately needed the tender, caring love of a mother. I soon began to see that Scripture is full of images of God as mother often paired with images of God as father.
For example, in Deuteronomy 32:6 Moses asks the Israelites, “Is [God] not your Father?” And twelve verses later, he accuses them, “You deserted the Rock, who bore you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (v. 18) That second verb, “to give birth,” (chyl), means to “writhe or travail or wait,” referring specifically to labor pains.
When God reveals himself to Moses on the mountaintop, God calls Himself, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God.” That word compassionate in the original Hebrew is rachum, which comes from the Hebrew word for womb, racham. At the heart of God’s nature is a mother-love, a womb-love, a tender, protective, nurturing love. As God declares, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isa 49:15)
It still intrigues me that I was so slow to live in the biblical images of God’s mothering love the way I easily do in images of God as father, when I belong to a Christian tradition which affirms the importance of being “born again.” How did I miss that in the images of being “born again” and “born of the Spirit”, God is pictured as the birth-giver, the mother?
The image of God as mother that has touched me the most deeply in my journey has been that in Acts 17. A couple of years after coming home, still quite sick and struggling to cope with daily life, I had a dream. In it, I was bicycling in four-lane traffic. I sensed God inviting me to rest in His love, and responded that, though I wanted to, I didn’t know how in the midst of the traffic. He called me to come and see. I found myself still pedaling my bike, though the traffic had disappeared and I was surrounded by love, as though it were some sort of amniotic fluid, though not liquid. It was easy to pedal, easy to breathe, easy to rest. Realizing that there was no need to continue my frantic efforts, and wanting to explore this new space, I stopped pedaling. I found I could push out in all directions and remain surrounded and held in the love. It held me. I sensed God encouraging me to push out and explore, to try to find the limits of the love that conceived me and carries me, sustaining me in being. I might be unaware of it, but I cannot change it. My whole life and self is held in this everlasting love. I began to understand the apostle’s words in Acts 17: “In Him we live and move and have our being. We are his offspring.” (Acts 17:28)
With this picture of God as a mother carrying us in her womb, Paul is correcting the thinking of his hearers. The true God doesn’t need our service to hold His kingdom together. “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all people life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:24-25) The startling reality is that, unlike the pagan gods who depend on human service, our God serves us!
In my driven state, I needed this corrective and I keep needing it. Some months after I had this dream, my mom sent me six hundred pages of emails that I had sent home from Afghanistan. It was a huge treasure trove containing my story from Afghanistan, the following years, and how God met me in it all. I didn’t anticipate, though, the effect that reading those emails would have on me. I began reliving being attacked by a gang of wild dogs at midnight and feeling a mother of six stop breathing and grow cold under my hands during surgery. For the first time, I felt how traumatic my time in Afghanistan had been and my mind and body reacted in ways I couldn’t control. I couldn’t write, I couldn’t make decisions. I was edgy and irritable all the time and seemed to have no control over these debilitating moments. I didn’t feel safe, the world didn’t feel safe and I soon while I began trauma therapy. During those harrowing periods, this picture of being carried was where I retreated and found some rest. All the shattering that was happening in my mind and body was happening while I was safely in the womb of God. Even when I couldn’t hold it together and felt unsafe I was safe, carried in the womb of God, in a love that would never reject me or forsake me.
When we talk about inviting Jesus into our hearts, it’s easy for us to “shrink” him, to think of Him in ways that make Him seem smaller than He is. It’s true that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit; God does live in us and we live in him. Yet, our carrying Jesus within us happens within the larger context of God carrying us. That never changes. God promises in Isaiah, “Listen to me […] you whom I have upheld since you were conceived and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will carry you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.” (Isa 46:3-4) This is the truth of being God’s creatures: we will always be carried.
We are small and dependent, safely carried and nurtured like a baby in the womb, yet we are also pictured as carrying Christ within us. We get to participate in God’s work in the world.
Mary lived this mystery in the most tangible way, but the mystery doesn’t end with Mary. We too are not only carried in God throughout our whole lives, but we are also graced to carry God’s life in ourselves. The same Greek verb used to address Mary (Luke 1:28)means “to highly favor,” and is used just one other place in the New Testament, this time referring to us: “His glorious grace, with which He has highly favored us.” (Eph 1:6). And Luke, who begins his first book with the promise spoken to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Lk 1:35) — begins Acts with a very similar promise given to us: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” power to bear the life of God into the world. (Acts 1:8) And so, the apostle Paul speaks of Christ dwelling in the hearts of believers through faith (Eph 3:17) and uses explicitly obstetrical terminology when he speaks of Christ “being formed” in those to whom he is writing. (Gal 4:19)
In this sense, we not only assume the role of child, utterly dependent on God for our survival, we are also given the massive honor of carrying God’s life in us and bearing Him into the world. As much as the two seem like a paradox, they do fit together. As Jesus says in John 15, we are completely dependent and impotent on our own: “Without me you can do nothing.” Yet we are also promised, “If you remain in me, and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” We can’t bear God’s life into the world on our own any more than a virgin can bear a child without God’s supernatural intervention, but we have the promise that as we make our home in God’s love, His life will thrive in us. This picture comforts me in those frequent times when I’m aware of my smallness, limitations, and inability on my own to make a difference in the world: My job is to stay close to Jesus — to return again and again to His love, and to trust that as I make my home there, Jesus’ life will grow and flourish in me.
In Galatians 4:19, the apostle Paul paints a picture in which all Christian believers (women and men!) are pregnant women and Christ is the baby growing inside of us. It’s an incredible privilege to carry Jesus within us. But I also know from my experience as an obstetrician walking with women through their pregnancies, that as much as they might want and love the child being formed within them, pregnancy can be frightening. Spiritual pregnancy — Christ being formed in me — has at times felt scary and out of my control too, particularly knowing that this One being formed in me isn’t afraid of calling me to come and die on my way into new life. Here I find comfort in another obstetrical image from the Psalms.
When the Psalmist’s life is threatened by enemies, he prays, “It was you who took me from my mother’s womb.” (Ps 71:6) The Hebrew text reads, “It was you who cut me from my mother’s womb,” picturing God cutting the psalmist’s umbilical cord at his birth. And when David’s sense of being abandoned by God was accompanied by physical illness, exhaustion and desertion by friends, he finds hope in the reminder that the same God who was present at his physical birth, guarding his life, still tends him: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb. You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” (Ps 22:9)
It is quite possible that Jesus himself turned to the image of God as birth attendant for comfort. From the cross, His raw back rubbing rough wood with each word, Jesus cries the first words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” As a boy growing up in the Jewish faith, He would have memorized large portions of Scripture, and in His agony, this entire psalm may well have become His prayer. While every part of him burned — His pierced hands and feet, His dislocated joints — Jesus, along with the psalmist, may have cried that His heart had melted within Him. (v. 14) He was being torn apart, as though by “roaring lions that tear their prey.” (v. 13) For help in the tearing, burning intensity of His labor, He may have found comfort in this reminder: “Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast. On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.” (v. 9-10) “In you our ancestors trusted . . . and you delivered them.” (v. 4) Into the skilled and gentle hands that had delivered Him and thousands before Him, He could commit His body and spirit.
When we find ourselves in places we don’t want to be, we can find comfort in remembering God’s strong and multifaceted love. We are safely carried, filled with God’s life, and wisely and gently tended by the One who knows how to bring to birth what is ours to share with the world.