Motherhood: Paradoxes, Wisdom and Love
The following was a talk I gave in my sacrament meeting for Mother’s Day, May 10, 2015.
Today I want to address motherhood as it relates to paradoxes, mother Eve in the garden, scriptural themes that are given the female gender, and how motherhood encompasses far more than just the bearing of children.
When two things collide and don’t seem to fit together, we say it is a contradiction. A paradox is something true that only appears to be a contradiction because we do not yet see the whole picture.
We experience paradoxes all the time, some in the form of people, life events, or nature, and there are plenty in scripture, church history, doctrine, and policy.
I believe that we should not fear paradoxes; they are a necessary part of our mortal experience. Encountering them and wrestling with them reveals a lot about how we think, what we desire, and what we are willing to do when our vision of the truth becomes clearer. It is our willingness to dive in between the two extremes of the paradox that the truth is found.
The first paradox appeared in a place called Eden.
Eve and the First Paradox
God forbade Adam and Eve from partaking of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, while another being came along coaxing them to partake.
What was Eve to do? Don’t eat of the fruit, eat of it, you will surely die, you will not surely die. Eve was well aware of God’s commandment and questioned the legitimacy of what the serpent was proposing. But, something happened inside of Eve:
“the woman saw [or discerned on her own, independent of the serpent] that the tree was good for food, and that it became pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make her wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat” (Moses 4:12)
Then came the fall, you know the story. After these events, Eve reflects:
“Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.” (Moses 5:11)
Eve understood that virtue was superior to innocence. Innocence is a state arrived at unknowingly while virtue is a state arrived at willingly (thanks Bro. King!). With open eyes, mankind could move forward in God’s plan.
What Eve exercised in the garden was wisdom.
Wisdom is defined as: “The right use or exercise of knowledge;” There is another word to be aware of: prudence. “Prudence is the exercise of sound judgment in avoiding evils; wisdom is the exercise of sound judgment either in avoiding evils or attempting good.”
In Eden, we could say that Adam was exercising prudence in his desire to avoid transgressing God’s commandment not to partake of the fruit, but Eve, the “Mother of all living,” exercised wisdom in bringing about the necessary fall which opened the way for redemption and eternal life.
All human beings alive today once existed in the womb of a woman. We each developed in an Edenic state of innocence that required nothing on our part to live day by day. Through birth, we fall from that state, are severed at the navel from the umbilical rod that connects us to the tree of life, and we enter the telestial world.
Wisdom brought about the fall and wisdom will lead us back to the presence of God as we catch hold of the end of the iron rod and make our way back to the tree of life, with open eyes and crowned with virtue.
Gender and Purpose
In scripture, certain things, places, and attributes are given gender. Here are is a small selection of some that are feminine:
- In Helaman 11:17, earth is a “her”
- In Moses 7:48, earth is “the mother of men.”
- In 2 Nephi 8:3, Zion is a “her”
- In 2 Nephi 20:11, Jerusalem is a “her”
- In Alma 42:24, Mercy is a “her”
- In Moroni 7:45, Charity is a “her”
- In James 1:4, Patience is a “her”
- In Mosiah 8:20, Wisdom is a “she”
- In Proverbs 8:1, Understanding is a “her”
Because of our Eve theme, I want to single out wisdom. Throughout scripture, wisdom is a she (ponder Proverbs chapter 1 carefully). We have this profound verse in the Book of Mormon which states:
“O how marvelous are the works of the Lord, and how long doth he suffer with his people; yea, and how blind and impenetrable are the understandings of the children of men; for they will not seek wisdom, neither do they desire that she should rule over them!” (Mosiah 8:20)
What does that mean? Think back to the garden and how wisdom is personified in Eve, the Mother of all living. In a definition for the word “mother” I found the following reference to “mother of pearl,” yes, the stuff in shellfish:
“The matrix of pearl; the shell in which pearls are generated; (Webster’s 1828 Dictionary)
The word matrix means “womb.” Note that a pearl is generated due to an initial irritant, an unpleasant experience (much like the appearance of the serpent in paradise). The initial irritation is overcome with something beautiful and valuable, perhaps an allusion to the way the feminine component to humanity may overcome the blindness and impenetrable understandings of humanity with wisdom.
The Proclamation on the Family states: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”
The Proclamation continues saying: “By divine design… Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.”
Note that it says primarily and not only. This means that although the nurturing of children is a top priority, motherhood is not only the nurturing of children, there is more.
We talk a lot about motherhood, families, and children as Latter-day Saints, and this frequent repetition can be recurringly painful to single sisters or women who are unable to have children. How can someone in that situation not feel as if they are faced every day with a huge contradiction? How does one reconcile not being able to fulfill a purpose that they are told is part of a divine design?
Where might we find wisdom in this?
In a talk titled “Are we not all mothers” by Sheri Dew who is perhaps the most influential single LDS woman in the Church, we find some interesting truths:
“Motherhood is more than bearing children, though it is certainly that. It is the essence of who we are as women. It defines our very identity, our divine stature and nature, and the unique traits our Father gave us.”
“Eve set the pattern. In addition to bearing children, she mothered all of mankind when she made the most courageous decision any woman has ever made and with Adam opened the way for us to progress. She set an example of womanhood for men to respect and women to follow, modeling the characteristics with which we as women have been endowed: heroic faith, a keen sensitivity to the Spirit, an abhorrence of evil, and complete selflessness.”
She sums up what a mother’s ultimate role should be:
“Look around. Who needs you and your influence? If we really want to make a difference, it will happen as we mother those we have borne and those we are willing to bear with.”
Sometimes those two are one in the same.
“Who needs you?” If you have children, then they need you. If you don’t, then look around. We are all God’s children, Jesus understood that. For all the talk of family and marriage in the Church, the record paradoxically portrays Jesus as a single figure who went about doing good.
Instead of verses filled with Jesus parenting his own offspring, we see him opening his arms to the children of others, young and old. His love transcended smaller familiar bounds and encompassed all humanity.
Back when I was a teenager, I was listening to a radio show that focused on family issues. A woman called in and expressed that she and her husband couldn’t have children of their own but desperately wanted a child. Adoption was their only choice, but she was afraid that she would not love the child as much because “she would not be related to the child.” The show’s host, immediately exercising her wisdom replied, “Well, you love your husband don’t you? And you’re not related to him.”
The woman’s realization was palpable, she realized that Motherhood was more than just genetics, it was about choosing to love, choosing to be there for another soul and to help them in love.
Remember wisdom; in the midst of a swirling paradox, Eve found her truth which was the truth. To say that her solution was outside of her ‘comfort zone,’ or expectations is an understatement of Biblical proportions. As Eve watched the consequences of her wisdom unfold, she “heard all these things and was glad” (Moses 5:11).
The God of the entire Universe is, to us, a personal God. A God with infinite universal purposes has, even for the least of us, a personal purpose – may we find it.
The Divine Mother
In 1909, the First Presidency of the Church wrote: “All men and women are in the similitude of the universal Father and Mother and are literally the sons and daughters of Deity.” (“The Origin and Destiny of Man,” Improvement Era 12 (November 1909): 78)
The Proclamation on the Family states: “Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents…” (1995)
Elder M. Russell Ballard taught in 2001 that “we are part of a divine plan designed by Heavenly Parents who love us. (M. Russell Ballard, When Thou Art Converted: Continuing Our Search for Happiness (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2001), 62.)
We know that there is a Mother in heaven, but where is she? What are her roles? Why do we know so little about her?
I don’t know all of the answers to those questions, but maybe there are some clues in the following conversation I had years ago with a disaffected member of the Church who was furious that he was always told to pray to the Father and not to Jesus. This was his personal Savior and he couldn’t talk to him through prayer? What an absurd notion!
Ironically, it was Jesus himself who instructed us to pray to the Father in his name.
I responded to this disaffected brother with another idea, one that was right there in the scriptures the whole time.
“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
The Father wants us to seek him in prayer, while the Son invites us to act, he wants us to find him in the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. We find him as we become like him.
I wonder if women are uniquely positioned to find the Mother as they exercise wisdom in bearing children and guiding souls. Many things are spelled out in scripture, but others are only for those who have eyes to see. Planted there are catalysts that can direct us to truths only found in personal experience.
In a vision, Nephi beheld the tree his father saw and desired to know it’s meaning. Instead being directly told the meaning, he was shown a woman. Then, he saw the same woman with a child in her arms and he was asked if he understood the meaning of the tree.
Nephi responded, “Yea, [the tree] is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.” (1 Nephi 11:22)
There are many ways to interpret symbolic imagery, for this case I will suggest that the tree is the woman, the mother, and Jesus was the fruit of the tree, the son of the mother.
Alma taught: “For behold, justice exerciseth all his demands, and also mercy claimeth all which is her own; (Alma 42:24)”
Justice and mercy can only be satisfied with a mediator. So how does mercy claim her own? Think of the tree, she gives birth to a mediator, enabling mankind to move forward.
Though all of us feel that we fall short, as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, daughters and sons, take wisdom from Eve who understood that falls can be necessary steps to progression.
But didn’t Jesus teach us to “be ye therefore perfect?” (Matt. 5:48) How can we “be perfect” when there is a recurring feeling of inadequacy? Is this a contradiction or another paradox?
Neal A. Maxwell once said:
“The first thing to be said of this feeling of inadequacy is that it is normal. There is no way the Church can honestly describe where we must yet go and what we must yet do without creating a sense of immense distance.” (Neal A. Maxwell, Notwithstanding My Weakness, October 1976)
We know that God expects perfection, but we also know that he expects us to forever fall short because he sent Jesus. God’s definition of perfection is not the same as the world’s definition. Here is wisdom from Moroni on the kind of perfection God expects:
“Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him,…and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ;” (Moroni 10:32)
Jesus didn’t command us to have Pinterest-worthy kitchens, bedrooms, snacks, activities, dinners, desserts or lives. He didn’t ask us to look around and compare and contrast ourselves to one another. Here is what really matters:
“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13) and “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it.” (Mark 8:35)
Throughout time, prophets have poured knowledge into the earth, but what good is all the knowledge in the universe without wisdom to guide it?