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?