The call to motherhood

In our increasingly egalitarian society are mothers losing their unique role? There are still important distinctions between the sexes. Mothering is a profession.

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., is professor of church history and theology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

It is often said that "behind every great man there is a great woman." This saying applies both to the vital role wives play in the success of their husbands and to the inestimable molding influence mothers exert on their children's future lives. W. R. Wallace expressed truth eloquently in the words "The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world."

It is noteworthy that in the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, the name of each king's mother is mentioned, presumably to the shame of those mothers whose children became evil kings and to the praise of those whose sons became good kings.

It is equally significant that Scripture gives us the mothers' names of great spiritual leaders such as Moses, Samuel, Jesus, John the Baptist, and Timothy, undoubtedly because their mothers made significant contributions to the success of their ministry.

While Michelangelo worked with hammer and chisel to sculpt an imaginary Moses out of marble, Jochebed worked with devotion, love, and faith to mold the character of her son. We can be quite certain that it was Jochebed's early influence that enabled Moses later in life to choose "rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11:25).*

There are three significant aspects of the call to motherhood: (1) a sacred calling, (2) an endangered calling, and (3) an indispensable calling.

To be a mother is not merely a biological and social function; it is primarily a sacred calling because it stems not from a human appointment or a church ordination. There has been considerable discussion on whether or not women should be ordained to the priesthood. No one, however, has ever raised the issue of whether women should be called or ordained to mother hood. A woman's sacred calling to motherhood arises from two unique powers that God has granted to every mother: the first is biological; the second is spiritual or moral.

Biologically, God has endowed every woman with the marvelous and in a sense miraculous capacity to conceive and nourish human life in her womb. No matter how hard a man may try, none can ever duplicate childbirth.

In the ancient world men were mystified by what they thought was a magical power invested in women, which resulted in worshiping female goddesses such as Isis, Cyvel, Diana, Venus. To a Christian, the woman's biological capacity to conceive and bear children is not a mysterious magical power, but a special divine endowment. It is a sacred endowment that enables every woman to imitate the great Creator of the universe in bringing new creatures into existence. Since life is a sacred gift from God, a mother who brings a new life into this world is fulfilling a most sacred calling.

Spiritually, God has endowed every woman who becomes a mother with the unique power to mold her children's character for time and eternity. Practically all of us have first learned about love, honesty, integrity, and faith in God through our mothers. The powerful molding influence that God has granted mothers staggers our imagination. "Next to God," Ellen White rightly writes, "the mother's power for good is the strongest known on earth."— The Adventist Home, p. 240. The same author notes that a mother "has in her power the molding of her children's characters, that they may be fitted for the higher, immortal life. An angel could not ask for a higher mission; for in doing this work she is doing service for God."—Ibid., p. 231.

An endangered calling

The call to motherhood is being endangered today by many subversive forces. More and more mothers, whether out of choice or out of necessity, are abdicating some of their motherly responsibilities by placing their preschool children in the care of others. This trend should concern all of us who believe that no one else can substitute for a natural mother in molding the character of her children. Several significant factors are encouraging this trend. Three of them deserve special mention.

Ungrateful husbands. One major factor endangering the call to motherhood is perhaps the lack of appreciation on the part of many husbands for the vital ministry their wives are performing. One of the most difficult things for a mother to accept is not the misbehavior of her children or the "low pay" for her home work; rather, it is the ungratefulness of her husband. For her to hear, at the end of a taxing day spent heeding the many needs of home and children, her disgruntled husband complaining as though she had done nothing during the day is most disheartening.

"Could the veil be withdrawn and father and mother see as God sees the work of the day, and see how His infinite eye compares the work of one with that of the other, they would be astonished at the heavenly revelation. The father would view his labor in a more modest light, while the mother would have new courage and energy to pursue her labor with wisdom, perseverance, and patience."—Ibid., p. 233.

Mother's Day affords a welcomed opportunity to those of us who are fathers to resolve to become more appreciative and supportive for the vital ministry our wives are performing daily in the home, rearing our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. A mother who feels highly appreciated by her husband will be less inclined to seek self-fulfillment in professional employment outside her home.

Economic necessity. A second major factor is the economic necessity of their families. A fine Christian mother recently told me, "I wish I could stay home to look after my three children, but there is no way we can stretch my husband's salary to pay for the church school fees of the two older ones, the mortgage, car repairs, medical bills, and all the other bills."

This mother, like countless others, has to leave her children for several hours every day in the care of somebody else, not out of choice but out of necessity. The problem is even greater for those mothers who are single parents and thus are sometimes obliged to leave their children for even longer hours during the day in order to meet necessary financial obligations.

Under these circumstances no mother can be expected to be the perfect mother who is able to meet the spiritual, emotional, and physical needs of her children. Such mothers, however, deserve not our condemnation but our commendation for their heroic efforts to be both the providers and the trainers of their children. God understands their burdens and anguish, and we must likewise show our compassion and support.

Professional Satisfaction. A third and more serious factor endangering the call to motherhood is the search for a sense of professional accomplishment that some mothers fail to experience while performing the many household chores and attending to their children.

It is obviously more glamorous and prestigious for a woman to display her professional skills in a hospital, school, office, or business place, rather than in a home where nobody seems to notice her accomplishments. The home, after all, does not offer such professional satisfactions as promotions, pay raises, and the respect and admiration of peers.

But there remains the question Is it right for preschool children to have to pay the price of parental neglect so that mothers can experience the sense of professional satisfaction? The answer to this question is dependent largely upon one's priorities.

The mother who sees the satisfaction of her personal ambitions as the first and ultimate goal of her life will not hesitate to sacrifice the well-being of her children to achieve such a goal. On the other hand, the Christian mother who views the molding of her children's characters as a sacred calling will make the right decision.

Could it be that the three factors mentioned above are reflected in the ever-increasing rates of juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, high school dropouts, teenage pregnancies, et cetera? These painful and prevailing problems tell us that one of the greatest needs of our society today is the need of full-time mothers.

An indispensable calling

To appreciate how indispensable the calling to motherhood is, let us briefly reflect on the unique capacity of a Christian mother to communicate to her children three vital qualities: faith and love, self-worth, and moral values.

Since no one else can love a child like a mother, God has especially endowed them to communicate faith and love to their children. These two qualities go hand in hand because we can have faith only in the one we love and we can truly love only the one in whom we have faith.

In Scripture God reveals the depth of His love for us by comparing it to that of a mother for a sucking child: " 'Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?' Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you" (Isa. 49:15).

Mother love is so deep that it chooses to ignore any physical imperfection the child may have. I vividly remember when I first saw my wife in the hospital holding our first child, Loretta. She proudly showed me the baby, and asked me, "Isn't she beautiful?" "Well," I replied, "what about her flat nose?" Frankly, to me she looked as though somebody had flattened out her nose in a boxing match. "Don't worry about it," she told me. "Her nose is going to be fine." She was right. In her love for her child my wife chose to look beyond an esthetic imperfection. The fact that a mother can love the fruit of her womb like no one else enables her to communicate love and faith to her children like no one else can.

In 2 Timothy 1:5 Paul writes to young Timothy: "I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you." This text contains the complete biography of two great women of the New Testament. Their fame is derived not from having established a Dorcas Society or some kind of Christian women's organization, but from having transmitted to their son and grandson a sense of faith and commitment to God.

We can rightly assume that it must have been quite difficult for mother Eunice and grandmother Lois to train Timothy in the fear of the Lord since his father was a Greek (Acts 16:1), that is, an unbelieving Gentile. A mother with an unbelieving husband can tell best how difficult it is to impart religious values to the children. It is possible that Timothy's father died during Timothy's infancy, since no more mention is made of him. In that case, Eunice, like young widows today, had to work outside her home to earn a living. This may explain why his grandmother played a conspicuous part in his religious training.

Eunice and Lois seem to step right out of the pages of Scripture to emphasize the vital truth stated in Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it."

The heart of mother and grandmother must have been heavy when they bade Goodbye to their beloved Timothy as he joined Paul and Silas in their mission outreach. But what comfort must have been theirs when they realized they had passed on to Timothy a living experience, making him a most valuable worker for Paul and for God.

A second vital virtue that mother is uniquely equipped to communicate to her children is faith in themselves, or a sense of self-worth. In my teaching career I have often had pupils without motivation and almost resigned to failure. In many cases I have found that this problem is traceable to a low self-esteem, resulting from a sense of rejection by parents and friends.

A Christian mother is uniquely equipped to instill in her children not only faith in God but also faith in themselves, because she sees in her children not only what they are but also what they can become by God's grace.

It is my personal conviction that, generally speaking, mothers are better equipped than fathers to instill self-confidence and self-worth in their children. This has been true in my personal life. I vividly recall how my father reacted when I failed to pass the fifth-grade government exam, which at that time in Italy qualified a student to enter the academic school. He said that my failure to pass indicated to him that I should forget about pursuing academic studies and enter a vocational school instead.

Fortunately, Mother did not share the same view. Her motherly instinct told her that if I were given another chance, I would succeed. At the cost of tremendous personal sacrifice, Mother enrolled me in a private school that prepared me during the next three years to take the eighth-grade government exam, which I passed. Truly I would have never become a minister and a teacher were it not for my mother's vision that saw in me what others failed to see and instilled in me a sense of self-worth and of mission.

Many who have been blessed by a Christian mother can testify that had it not been for a mother's love and faith in us, we would have never attained to our present goals. It behooves all of us on Mother's Day to thank such mothers for the many blessings that through them have flowed into our lives.

A third vital virtue that mother is uniquely equipped to communicate to her children is moral values. The perception of what is right or wrong, which we call conscience, is first communicated to the impressionable minds of children by mother. During the course of each day many situations arise when mother has the opportunity to teach the difference between obedience and disobedience, right and wrong. The moral values that mother communicates to her child will often spell the difference between a future moral or immoral life.

Samuel's mother, Hannah, offers a fitting example of the lasting impact for good that a believing mother can make on the future life of her child. She believed that God was the creator of children. When God granted her the child she had fervently prayed for, she determined to make his training a supreme priority. She gave to Samuel all the love, faith, and moral values that only a believing mother can give.

While Samuel was little it is doubtful that Hannah ever left him with others. When her husband invited her to go up with him to Shiloh for the annual trip to the tabernacle, the record says: "Hannah did not go up, for she said to her husband, 'As soon as the child is weaned, I will bring him, that he may appear in the presence of the Lord, and abide there forever' " (1 Sam. 1:22). In that decision alone Hannah revealed the tremendous importance she attached to her sacred calling to mother her child. Because of her devotion, Hannah has set a stirring example of the powerful influence a good mother has on her children.

When Hannah took Samuel to the tabernacle, she was painfully aware of the corrupt environment. Though Eli, the priest, was a good man himself, his sons "lay with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting" (chap. 2:22). Yet Hannah left Samuel at the tabernacle without great fear. She knew that the God who had given her the child and who had given her the wisdom and strength to communicate to him love, faith, and moral values was the God who would protect her child in the midst of a corrupt environment.

Hannah expresses her confidence in God's protection in the triumphant prayer she offered before leaving the tabernacle. This prayer has been called the forerunner of Mary's Magnificat. She says, for example: "He [God] will guard the feet of his faithful ones" (chap. 2:9).

What a reassuring promise to all of us parents who are called to send our children to schools or to work in places where the environment is less than ideal! It is comforting to know that after we as parents have done our best, God will do the rest in protecting the feet of our children, helping them to live in accordance with the moral values we have imparted to them.

The Keeper of the Springs

The late Peter Marshall, former chap lain in the United States Senate, tells a poignant story.

Once upon a time, a certain town grew up at the foot of a mountain range. To ensure that all the springs that supplied water were kept clean, the city council hired a ranger who lived high up in the hills. With painstaking dedication he patrolled the hills, cleaning up every spring and pool he found, removing silt, leaves, and mud, so that the water ran down clean, cold, and pure.

A dramatic change occurred, however, when a group of hardheaded businessmen took over the administration of the city council. They scanned the budget for any possible waste and then came to the conclusion that the salary of the keeper of the springs was a waste, especially since nobody ever saw what he did up in the hills. To save money, the council fired him, and a large reservoir was built just above the town.

When the reservoir was finally built and filled with water, to the surprise of many, the town began experiencing no end of problems. The water tasted bad, as a green scum soon befouled its stagnant surface. The delicate machinery of the mill was constantly clogged with slime. The swans moved away from the town. To make things even worse, an epidemic broke out, bringing sickness and sorrow to practically every home in the town.

In desperation the city council met again. In great sorrow they acknowledged the blunder they had made in firing the keeper of the springs. They sought him out and begged him to return to his former job, which he gladly did. He began to make his rounds, cleaning up all the silt, mud, and rotten leaves that had accumulated at the various springs and pools. It was not long before sparkling, clean water began flowing again to all the homes in the town. The wheels of the mill turned again, the stench disappeared, sickness waned, the swans came back, and everybody was happy and healthy again.

Peter Marshall explains that our mothers are the keepers of the springs of the family, the church, the community, and of our society as a whole. Their work, like that of the ranger, is often unnoticed, and yet it is indispensable to our well-being. Upon them rests the sacred calling of keeping the springs of our lives pure and clean, so that faith, love, integrity, and honesty may freely flow in our own lives and to others around us. Ultimately their influences will help guide us to the eternal kingdom.


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Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., is professor of church history and theology at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1986

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