In the evangelical churches of my young adulthood God was considered a man.
I was told this many times by pastors and by lay-Christians, men and women alike. Even a New Testament professor of mine from my liberal arts college (who was once a pastor of a liberal denomination) told us one day in class, “I mean no disrespect to women, but God is described as a Father and there are ways that men embody the image of God that women simply can’t.”
Interestingly enough, I went to a woman’s college and so this pronouncement was made to a class of young women. No one argued of course, not even the declared feminists. He was the authority.
Now think about this: According to the CDC, close to 25% of women experience physical assault by a romantic partner. Many of these women have children who internalize early that male violence to loved ones is normal. 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. (This is a conservative estimate – I think it is higher.)
How does insisting on the masculinity of God affect girls and women like me who experienced both domestic violence and sexual assault before even beginning Kindergarten?
I can tell you how God worked with the realities of my life to reach me (and the realities were not good). My extended family includes a man who broke a woman’s shoulder and knocked out her teeth, a man who stabbed a woman over two-hundred times, and a man who beat a woman in the face, threw her down a flight of stairs, and strangled her.
I didn’t think of these things as strange or “the exception to the rule;” I thought of them as part of life.
We looked like an average suburban family and perhaps we were. I heard plenty of things from other kids that matched my own experiences. The women in my family talked among themselves in “hushed” voices about bruises covered with make-up and about their latest hospital visits. They warned me in quiet voices about things to avoid and they remained outwardly deferential to men.
So how could God reach me to convince me of good intentions? The church that I knew was sure that God was a man; well, I experienced men as powerful and dangerous people who nonetheless had to be placated.
In my case, the first way was a powerful dream that I had when I was 14-years-old. In the dream I was in my childhood home and the sense of danger became more and more desperate. I knew I had to escape, but, afraid to leave home alone, I tried to convince someone to come with me. All of my friends said “no.”
Eventually, I set out alone. Once away from home, my childhood hero Harriet Tubman appeared in front of me. I knew she was Harriet Tubman, famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, the “Moses” who led hundreds of slaves to freedom, and here she was to help me.
In my dream Harriet Tubman was young, ageless really, tall and athletic, with form fitting 1970’s clothes, a big afro, and a fierce, stunningly beautiful face. She told me I could come with her if I wanted, and she would lead me and others to freedom. The dream ended with me in the center of a group of other people, running through a cityscape of twisting alleys, following hard after our leader.
The dream symbolized a few things. It mirrored the fact that after leaving home at age 14, I felt essentially alone in the world and I knew the “1970’s Harriet Tubman figure” represented God, who met me soon after I made the break with my old life.
The woman in my dream was unrushed with the stillness of great strength, but I also saw that she was ferocious. Under her wing I would be safe forever. And the way she made her offer – that I could join her if I chose – welcomed me into the adult-world. This was my decision and my choice and that had a power of its own. I saw I would belong to her (and to this community of her people) with a new kind of depth.
At the time I accepted the dream for the guidance it gave me. Later I understood that I was able to successfully receive all of this – the fierceness and strength of God and the respect of God for my choice and my personhood – because God showed up as a woman.
Male ferocity would have driven me back into my shell. I couldn’t take an offer of respect and autonomy from a man seriously. In my experience, men made these offers to girls and women, but took them back just as quickly if they didn’t like what the girl or woman did with her freedom.
Another way God reached and healed me was as a man. When I decided to dedicate my life to God, I thought immediately of Jesus, who I had learned about growing up. I began talking to Him and reading the four Gospels.
Jesus may not do this with everyone, but He came to me with a distinctly masculine energy; I spent my prayer times absorbed in His love, His care, His lightness of heart. He was afraid of nothing: He owned the world.
He accepted and loved me unconditionally and had all the time in the world for me. No therapist or program could have accomplished what Jesus did by simply being with me. He began to heal my relationship with men. Because He radiated safety, I began to see that I could be safe with some men.
Jesus was kind; He was safe; He was on my side. I know I am not the only woman traumatized by male violence and healed by the Perfect Man. Jesus’ redeems all of humanity, but I think that when He chooses to, He can use His masculine aspect to redeem human men not only for heaven and eternity, but in the hearts of women here and now.
Jesus can be the example of what men are created to be, what Adam was in garden prior to “the fall”, and what they still can be with Christ’s help. Jesus can set men free from violence and He can set women free from the damage male violence does to their hearts, minds, and bodies.
Genesis 1:28 says, “So God created humankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.” I don’t think God is male and female in the way that human beings are, but both masculinity and femininity can express aspects of God’s nature (especially in specific circumstances in our lives).
I experienced God as a fierce woman and as a nurturing man; both flip the usual script of our culture, but those experiences opened my eyes to seeing God in more ways.
Kathleen Schwab is a lifelong lover of God, a literature teacher, a wife and mother. She is a co-author (along with Therese Kay) of “Messages from God: An Illuminated Devotional,” which is a five week devotional inspired by the synergy of words and art in medieval illuminated manuscripts. Find this Devotional on Amazon here.