That Time Paul Talked About Breastfeeding

My husband and I worked in local church ministry for over ten years before moving abroad to serve for the last five and a half. There’s something I want you to know about this life: you’re going to need a lot of fortitude for the journey. Working with people, in any time and any place, is hard. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your home country or a host country. Working with people is heart-wrenching and soul-filling, and you need endurance.

This is something else I want you to know: in the years ahead, never hesitate to serve out of your feminine strength. A lot of teaching models are filled with masculine metaphors. There’s battle this, and army that. There’s fighting here and soldiering on there. The Bible itself is filled with battle-speak. We are to put on the full armor of God so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes. But the same Paul who told us in Ephesians 6 that our battle is not against flesh and blood and that we were to arm ourselves and stay alert and be persistent and stand firm, that very same Paul was not ashamed in his first letter to the Thessalonians to compare himself to a woman.

In I Thessalonians 2:7, Paul, Silas and Timothy jointly describe their conduct among the believers there: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children” (ESV). I was in a training session this summer when I first truly took hold of this verse. We had studied the great faith and love of the Thessalonian church in chapter 1, and now we were in chapter 2 studying the attributes of the men who’d told them the Good News. When we got to the verse about these three men acting like a mother, some of the men seemed to want to brush it off and focus instead on verse 11, where the letter writers compare themselves to good fathers.

But I couldn’t brush Paul’s words off. I remembered how physically demanding it was to be a nursing mother. I had to speak out: “We have this idea of a mother with her nursing baby that’s all sweetness and light. But it’s not. It’s really hard work. You have to feed yourself well, so you can feed your baby. You have to get up at all hours of the night to care for a crying child, and you have to try not to be cranky about all that lost sleep.”

As I spoke, women all around me nodded their heads in agreement, and several told me afterward how glad they were that I had said that. They had lived it, too, and they knew the challenges of mothering. You need a lot of stamina. You don’t sleep through the night for months on end. Sometimes you get painful mastitis or yeast infections. You have to keep up your water and calorie intake. To your embarrassment, you leak milk everywhere. Or you have to work hard to make enough milk. Sometimes you can’t figure out for the life of you how to make this child stop crying, but somehow you have to stay calm while you do it. On top of that, you’re basically tethered to your child because you don’t know when they’ll need to eat again. You sacrifice many things for this child, this child whom you love so tenderly and so fiercely.

Somehow this was something the apostle Paul understood. When we serve people, we have to make sure we’re getting our spiritual nourishment first, before we can pass anything of value on to them. Living and working among the continual, desperate needs of other people can physically and emotionally deplete us. And sometimes other people’s needs interrupt our planned and preferred schedules. Paul knew all this. He lived all this. At the same time, Paul felt incredible affection for the Thessalonians. Paul, Silas, and Timothy loved them so much that they shared not only the good news with them, but their own lives as well (verse 8). And they’d spent plenty of time praising them in the chapter before.

Over the past few months I have been unable to let verse 7 go. I’ve learned that in the Greek, the noun was unmistakably feminine. It was trophos: a care-giver, a person sustaining someone else by nourishing and offering the tender care of a nurse. I’ve learned that it had the connotation of mother’s care, of holding a child close, wrapped in her arms. There is familiarity here. Affection. Tenderness. The verb was thalpo: to cherish, nourish, foster, comfort, nurture, or keep warm. There is action here, decision, deliberate investment. And the phrase “her own children” (heautou teknon) indicates belonging. An inclusion. A turning towards.

All of these feminine-sounding words can illuminate our own roles, wherever God has placed us. They are not weakness. They are not unnecessary or irrelevant or dispensable. They are strength and they are resiliency and they are essential. Whether or not you’ve ever been a nursing mother, you have a yearning for relationship that can solidify your ministry, not undermine it. Whether or not you’ve ever been a nursing mother, you have an instinct to care for people sacrificially. Whether or not you’ve ever been a nursing mother, you have the capacity to lead with endurance.

Paul wasn’t ashamed of these qualities, and neither should we be. It is good and healthy to identify as a woman and serve out of our God-given identity. Of course, men can be nurturers too – just see verse 11. And women can be warriors – just see Deborah. But when I read these verses, I feel so much validation. Validation of my work and validation of my worth. All those years living and ministering as a woman, they weren’t wasted. And as someone who has had a fraught relationship with the Apostle Paul over the years, these verses are yet one more reason I can love both him and his letters, for he wasn’t afraid to lean into the feminine for the sake of the people he was serving. It is something we needn’t be afraid of either.

What has serving out of your feminine strength looked like in your life? What other female images used in the Bible encourage you?

10 Comments

  1. Erika Loftis August 20, 2017

    Oh my Gosh! Yes! AND THANK YOU! I have talked to a few women who have had to wrestle through their role as a woman. Does God really love us, or like us? For a while I was pretty sure God hated women. Our lives are so much harder, and the closer we get to “equality” the further it becomes. But God pointed out to me a radical feminist in the Bible.(I realize that “feminist” is a charged word, here I use it to mean “women are people too”.)But it is Jesus! Jesus who spoke to women like they were people. He didn’t ask the woman at the well to make him a sandwich. He asked her to be his ambassador to her entire town. He taught Mary and Martha, and acknowledged their friendship. If Jesus can honor those women, not because they cook so well but because of their humanity, and what they bring to the table with their story and everything, I knew he loved me too. My woman-ness wasn’t something God was embarrassed about it, but an essential and necessary part of what He is doing. And as my eyes were opened, I saw God’s Mother-Heart throughout the whole Bible.

    1. Elizabeth August 21, 2017

      I really relate to this! I’ve had a sometimes-tumultuous relationship with Paul’s view on women over the years. I’ve had to do a lot of searching and digging to make peace with Paul and Peter — because, as you say, Jesus’ view of women is entirely clear. I just love that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Love it. But anyway like I said, I totally relate to your struggle to reconcile parts of the Bible with your femaleness.

  2. Spring August 23, 2017

    I love this post! I actually have actually been reading through Fashioned to Reign, which talks about some of the issues you are addressing. He is pretty clear about the fact that God values both roles. What an empowering post thank you~

    1. Elizabeth August 23, 2017

      Ooh now I’m intrigued by the book! Will have to look into that one. . . .

  3. sarah August 25, 2017

    Thanks, Elizabeth, for always being a voice of encouragement to us specifically as women!
    When I thought about leading out of feminine strength, a random cultural example popped into my head:
    The place I lived in China was famous for their hot-headed people. And bc of that local characteristic, an interesting thing would happen whenever there was a fenderbender- everybody would rush out of their cars and start yelling at each other. But, eventually there would always be 2 men being held back by the crowd, pretending that at any moment they are going to rush each other and start a fist fight, and always 2 women negotiating the settlement. Everybody agreed that men were useless in these situations bc they couldn’t keep their tempers under control enough not to throw punches and make the situation worse, but, while the women were also angry, they were very much trusted to be strong and shrewd enough to work out a good deal. The women were valued for their emotional strength. And, their mad bargaining skillz. 🙂

    1. Elizabeth August 26, 2017

      This story is fascinating, Sarah, thank you so much for sharing!

  4. Dorette August 25, 2017

    Hi Elizabeth, this was such a beautiful post and I kept coming back to it this week.. I think I appreciate it even more because I’m in that stage of motherhood where I know exactly what you are talking about.. especially the breastfeeding part. I also shared it with a group of my friends who are pregnant or young mothers and they really loved it as well! I know we do not always take the time to comment to the posts we find meaningful, but I wanted to say thank you and keep on writing such beautiful truths 😉

    1. Elizabeth August 26, 2017

      It really makes me happy to hear that you kept coming back to this post and that you are sharing it with others. Thank you for telling me this.

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