What we believe about God impacts every part of us, shaping every aspect of our lives. Whether consciously or unconsciously, our mental picture of God influences our thoughts, feelings, decisions, and actions. Our assessments about God’s character—even if they’re false—form the foundation from which we build our self-identity and determine how we relate to God, others, and the world. A.W. Tozer writes,
What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…. the most portentous fact about any man (or woman) is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.
Growing up in church, I knew the basics of the Bible, and thought I had a pretty good idea of who God was. Yet when I became a mother, my mental image of God exploded from a two-dimensional cardboard cutout to a full-bodied incarnational three-dimensional being. The truths I knew in my head about God came alive in the daily process of parenting. God’s attributes as a loving father, sacrificial savior, steadfast provider, wise leader, fierce protector, relentless redeemer, gentle comforter, and constant companion became undeniably real as I experienced similar emotions as a mother on an infinitesimally smaller scale.
Motherhood Changed My Understanding of Love
As a new mom, I spent countless hours gazing adoringly at my baby girl, marveling at her for no apparent reason other than she was my daughter. Emily had done absolutely nothing to make me love her. In fact, she caused me much discomfort for nine months, pain at childbirth, constant exhaustion, and nonstop work. Yet, my heart was full of irrepressible love for her. Like most new parents, I couldn’t stop talking about my baby, sharing her pictures, and bragging about how remarkable she was. When she was sick, I stayed up nights tending to her, praying for her, and gladly would have changed places with her. There was nothing I wouldn’t sacrifice for my child. Even when I was apart from her, she was never far from my thoughts. It was as if there was a new track in my brain that kept constant vigil on her wellbeing so that I could anticipate and meet all her needs.
When Emily was a few months old, I was struck by how this incredible love I felt was but a glimpse of how much God loved me. I remember journaling in awe and wonder with tears running down my face, “God, is this true? Is this how you feel about me? Do you really adore me?” Of course I knew Jesus loved me, for the Bible told me so. But as I encountered new depths of my own love and willingness to sacrifice for my child, I experienced God’s love in a visceral way as never before. This impacted not just my relationship with Jesus, but also my ministry. Growing secure in God’s love gave me increasing confidence to step forward, take risks, and care less about others’ approval. His amazing love anchored me and set me free!
Motherhood Changed My Understanding of Grace
Through motherhood, God also gave me a fresh lens on his forgiveness and grace. As a recovering legalist, I spent years trying to be “good enough” and struggled to forgive myself for my mistakes. I retained a false mental picture of God, frowning in disappointment over my failures and grudgingly doling out forgiveness when I approached him with fear, guilt, and shame. Based on 1 John 1:9 and Romans 8:1, I knew this was not an accurate picture of God, however, I had trouble letting go of this image until God used experiences with my daughters to show me his heart.
As my kids grew up and inevitably messed up, I found myself surprisingly eager to forgive them. When they acknowledged their mistakes, I grieved with them over the consequences of their actions and we moved past it. Sometimes, when I sense my daughters withdrawing from me, acting guilty, defensive, or oppositional, I’ll ask, “Is there something you need to tell me?” I invite them to share, not because I want to punish them, but because I don’t want them to carry the burden of sin alone or allow it to create a barrier between us. Like the Father in the Prodigal Son parable, I wait eagerly for them to come and confess their mistakes so that our relationship can be restored. I crave an authentic relationship with them, one based on honesty and a change of heart, not just a change in behavior.
This is the same process God wants from us. Psalm 51:17 points out God’s desire for us is not religious rituals but “a broken and contrite heart.” If I, a sinful mother, can forgive my child freely and gladly, how much more would my perfect Heavenly Father forgive me fully and joyfully? When I fail, God is not looking to punish me or hold it over my head. I am not a burden or a disappointment, but a beloved child who is always welcomed. Jesus is constantly inviting me into deeper relationship and willing to meet me wherever I am. This is pure grace.
As I’ve increasingly embraced God’s grace, it’s became easier to extend it to others. For example, volunteer leaders sometimes avoid me when their ministry isn’t going well. In the past, I may have written them off as being uncooperative or uncommitted. But experiencing God’s grace repeatedly in my own life helps me to keep reaching out in kindness, speaking truth in love, and developing authentic relationships with them.
Motherhood Changed My Understanding of Trust
Finally, motherhood helped me see trust from God’s perspective. We often say to our children, “Trust me, I know what’s best for you” or “Trust me, it’ll be okay.” As parents, we have our children’s best interest at heart. Yet when I say “no,” refuse their wishes, or impose my will over theirs, it can cause frustration and resentment. Children only see the instant moment, but it’s our job to see the big picture and make decisions for their long-term well-being. In every stage of parenting, I am implicitly and explicitly asking my kids to trust me because I know what they need, and I want the best for them. Isn’t God asking the same from us?
When difficult situations arise, when life doesn’t turn out the way we want, and when we can’t understand why God allows certain things to happen, we cry out for God to fix it. But, like our children with their limited understanding and narrow perspective, we need to recognize that we have an incomplete, finite view. Matthew 7:11 says, “So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” If we as imperfect parents do our best to take care of our kids, how much more can we trust our perfect God to take care of us?
I often remind my daughters, “Life is hard, but God is good.” This underlying trust in God’s goodness carries me through the ups and downs of ministry. For example, one of the constant challenges of ministry is to recruit volunteers. In the past, when we didn’t have the necessary number of leaders, I would feel anxious, stressed, and tempted to persuade people to serve without regard for their well-being or spiritual gifting. As I’ve grown in trusting God, however, my prayers have changed from begging, “God, bring the people we need,” to “God, this is your church, your people, and your ministry. So I trust you to do what you will, and we’ll follow your lead.” This prayer is like a deep sigh of release. I put the ball back into his court—where it belongs—and I stop trying to control the situation or impress people. In the same way, when leaders approach me with issues, I give the best advice I can, but more importantly, I encourage them to let go and trust God through the situation.
I’m sure that if I hadn’t become a mother, God would have found other ways to teach me these critical insights about himself. I am immensely grateful for this incredible gift of motherhood and thankful for how God has used it as a vehicle for my spiritual formation. Being a mother is not only the greatest joy of my life but has radically transformed my view of God. He has given me tangible glimpses into his heart as our Heavenly Father who loves, forgives, and guides us, his beloved children.
Carolyn Taketa is the Executive Director of Small Groups at Calvary Community Church in Westlake Village, California. She has two teenage daughters.