Motherhood, Untimely Born

Natural motherhood is a blessing, but spiritual motherhood is also a source of joy and cause for praise.

A curious command and promise opens Isaiah 54:1-3. While Isaiah is speaking directly of the little post-exilic community in Judea, he is also speaking more broadly of the future glory of True Israel.  We just saw the anguished victory of the Suffering Servant in the passage before; now the Servant’s task is seen as fulfilled, and the prophet breaks into a hymn and shouts of praise from the “barren, childless woman,” welcoming the dawn of the New Age.

Hold up… did we read that right?  What reason could a childless woman possibly have to rejoice? It’s ironic that Isaiah uses a childless woman to illustrate Christ’s eternal covenant of peace for his Bride. In Old Testament culture, being childless was a shameful state, yet this was the culture into which Christ would come.  When God spoke through the prophet of a “redeemed barrenness”, he spoke directly against Israelite culture. It’s one thing to glorify motherhood, yet another entirely to idolize it.

Some of the greatest recorded blessings of God came through barren women; women who were tormented and marginalized by their own culture – even by those in their own households.  We need look no further than Elizabeth, Sarah, and Hannah; motherhood in each of their cases was a supernatural act of God, for God’s purposes alone.  Even barren places birthed great fulfillment – after all, can anything good come from Nazareth?  Yes, and amen! Christ himself didn’t come into Israel at a time of the great kings, or after a great victory in battle; he was born into Israel when there was no fruit on the fig tree; true to the words of Isaiah, he came to Israel after a lengthy silence from God, “like a root out of dry ground.”

In God’s economy, the barren woman so often receives a double portion; temporal blessing, as well as eternal. Sarah became the mother of nations, Hannah nursed the prophet who would anoint a king after God’s own heart, and Elizabeth reared the herald of the coming Christ.  All provided symbols of supernatural Kingdom fruitfulness and expectant hope beyond the temporal into the eternal.

Yet the fruit-bearing in view in Isaiah 54 shows an even greater miracle – fruitfulness in glory is promised from no birth process whatsoever, either natural or supernatural. This is truly worth noting then, as God specializes in creating ex nihilo – in bringing something from absolutely nothing.

Christ, the Greater Legacy

According to the 2010 US Census, the number of single fathers in 2010 was 1.8 million, compared to 600,000 in 1982.  About 46% were divorced, 30% were never married, 19% were separated, and 6% were widowed.  This means at the very least that 1.8 million children are growing up perhaps never having known “mother” in a functional sense.  Add this to the number of young men and women who have never rightly known “father”, and the social and spiritual opportunity grows in proportion to the crisis.

My husband raised two young children to adulthood as a single father.  Today, they are beautiful and Godly people, making their own way yet still in need of occasional ‘parenting’, guidance and mentorship.  I often wish that I had known them as little people, privy first-hand to the stories that now live fondly as exaggerated legends around our kitchen table!  The addition of our daughter-in-law has brought our number of children to three, increasing our joy exponentially. There’s a depth to their acceptance, love, respect, and care for me that I deeply appreciate, in part because I do not know what it is to have children of my own.  It is beyond precious, indeed.

“Reaching”, Ruth Naomi Floyd Images © 2013.

I feel a similar depth of love to the numerous and diverse young people who stream through our home on a regular basis.  They don’t look like me, and do not carry my name. I am learning their histories rather than having experienced them.  Yet when we who have known no children open our hearts to those who are seeking ‘mother’ or ‘father’, absence meets absence, longing meets longing, and love is born … ex nihilo.

Many of us will come to fulfillment in motherhood somewhat akin to the way that Christ met Paul, as to one “untimely born.”  Paul didn’t meet Christ in the natural manner of the apostles, walking alongside him on the crowded roads during his earthly ministry; yet his comparatively unconventional encounter with the glorified Christ on the dusty road to Damascus held no less value, meaning, or impact than that of the other apostles.  Such is it with spiritual motherhood, “untimely born.”

Spiritual motherhood offers an opportunity to become a wise and compassionate influence to our current “social orphans,” adults who have been left with a parental void of wise counsel, compassion, and/or love. When the Church steps in to address their spiritual and life issues, she speaks against a long line of opportunists offering an endless supply of false identities to while away their hours, days and years.

As spiritual parents, we anticipate Christ in glory as he gathers in the nations under his Name alone, the only Name by which we are eternally known.  We are able to enlarge God’s tent and ours far beyond parameters restricted by our own name or blood.  By intimately ushering the motherless through the practical and spiritual aspects of life, the “never-married” and the childless all participate in the redemptive Kingdom building process, and foretaste this joy that Isaiah has in view.

Children are a memorial, biologically and spiritually.  Naturally, my husband and I want see the name of Ellis continue after we are gone, but our desire is far greater to see the name of Christ magnified through subsequent generations.  The question then is, whose name will our children memorialize?  Our personal one which is temporal and will one day pass away, or the Name that is eternal and above all?

The Cause for Praise

Once one has borne children, one can’t know what it is like not to have borne them; bearing children and not bearing children are two different existential frames of reference.  Of course, the woman who has borne children can know what it is to mother one not of her own blood, if not through adoption then certainly through mentorship.  Conversely, the barren woman may never know the joy of bearing children, yet the joy in view in Isaiah 54 is apparently one that can only be known in the absence of natural child-bearing.  Through spiritual motherhood, the barren woman experiences a cause for praise that the natural mother will never know, receiving blessing in the temporal and storing up treasure in the eternal.

As I reconcile my own infertility and search for meaning and purpose within it, I begin to recognize the great Kingdom potential that lies within me.  Spiritually speaking, we are all barren apart from the regenerative power of Christ to draw us to Himself and make us new.  Motherhood – indeed parenthood in any form – should be life-changing for all involved as we  share joys and sorrows, disappointments and victories, and find meaning in them from God’s perspective.

Through the influence of older and wiser spiritual mothers in my life, my question has changed from “How does God fit into my infertility,” to “How does my infertility fit in with God?  Isaiah 54 takes me beyond wanting comfort for “what has not been”, and helps me resist those who treat my “untimely motherhood” as a mere consolation prize.  When I see the nations stream through my front door hungry for “mother” and Godly counsel, I realize that even my infertility may have a great and exalted impact on the Kingdom.

Truly, to be regarded as “mother” when one technically and biologically is not so is a simultaneously exquisite and humbling experience – in fact, it brings a surprising and unspeakable joy. Quite frankly, it makes me want to shout…

About the author, Karen Angela Ellis

Karen Angela Ellis blogs at KarenAngelaEllis.wordpress.com, where she explores the zones where identity, human rights and theology intersect.  Mrs. Ellis holds a Master of Arts in Religion (Theological) from Westminster Theological Seminary, and a Master of Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama.  She teaches internationally alongside her husband, theological anthropologist Dr. Carl F. Ellis, Jr.  Follow her on Twitter @KarAngEllis.
  1. Thank you so much for this.