I’m not much of a mom these days. At least, that’s what I’m tempted to feel like when I see all the other moms dashing here and there, taking their kids to sports practice and volunteering in their classroom, hosting big birthday parties and planning fun vacations. My son has a mom who spends much of her time in bed, in a recliner, and in doctors’ offices.
There are moments when I grieve who I can’t be for my 11-year-old, when I mourn the ways my terminal cancer diagnosis has laid heavy burdens on my son’s young shoulders.
How do I parent my child through all my physical brokenness and limitations, through the grievous reality of an impending death?
For help, I look beyond my cushy, entitled, first-world American context to find models of faith-filled moms who have gone before me—moms who were utterly weak but profoundly intentional in their motherhood. Their examples encourage me to wield even my greatest frailties for the long-term good of my son.
Elizabeth Scatliff Newton was the mother of John Newton, the English pastor and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Elizabeth died when John was not yet seven years old, but she had an incomparable influence on him in those brief years.
“Though Elizabeth was gravely ill for all of her son’s early life, she did not allow her condition to keep her from fulfilling her God-given duty. . . . She used what strength she had to express the deepest kind of love for her son. She taught him to know God’s existence, God’s holiness, and God’s demands on his life. She taught him songs that would remain in his mind and heart until his dying day. She taught him to honor the Bible and to turn to it for spiritual knowledge and strength. She taught him the good news of the gospel, that salvation is by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. She displayed a sweet submission to God’s will and a deep piety, treasuring and obeying God’s every word.”(Tim Challies, “The Hidden Strength of a Weak Mother,” challies.com, March 25, 2017)
I think too of Hannah in the Bible. Hannah knew what it was to be humbled and broken and weak. In a culture where childbearing meant everything to a woman—and a barren womb was the ultimate disgrace—Hannah “wept with many tears” and referred to herself as “a woman with a broken heart” who cried out to God “from the depth of [her] anguish and resentment” through her long years of infertility. It would have been so easy, so maternally instinctual, for her to cling even more tightly to her little miracle, her long-awaited son, Samuel, once he was born. Instead, she said:
“I prayed for this boy, and since the Lord gave me what I asked him for, I now give the boy to the Lord. For as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.”
She went on to pray:
“My heart rejoices in the Lord . . .(1 Samuel 2:1-2, 4, 8, 9 emphasis mine)
There is no one holy like the Lord.
There is no one besides you!
The bows of the warriors are broken,
But the feeble are clothed with strength. . .
He raises the poor from the dust
And lifts the needy from the trash heap. . .
He guards the steps
of his faithful ones,
but the wicked perish in darkness,
for a person does not prevail by
his own strength.“
I was 35 years old when my son was born. At times I’ve grieved the fact that I waited so long for motherhood—only to discover that my motherhood will be cut short by terminal cancer. Why couldn’t I have had several kids in my twenties like my friends did—kids who would now be in college? Why won’t God allow me to see my son grow up?
But when I consider moms like Elizabeth and Hannah, I remember that it is not the strong mom who prevails, but the one who understands her desperate weakness and leans hard into Christ’s strength.
I’m reminded that Jesus often works miracles in and through our hardest, most impossible circumstances. In the absence of their mothers, John Newton became a faithful pastor and the author of a hymn that would encourage the hearts of millions of believers—and Samuel “grew in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people,” serving God’s chosen people as their judge and prophet for many years.
Both these men’s stories grew in the soil of their mother’s prayers and faith.
God didn’t spare John and Samuel from the unspeakable grief of being separated from their mothers, but he took those brief years of influence and multiplied them eternally. Not only were John and Samuel profoundly shaped by Elizabeth and Hannah, but the kingdom of God was advanced—till I too have been impacted by their faith, all these centuries later. That is the kind of motherhood I pray for. That is the kind of motherhood I wish upon you.
This kind of Jesus-empowered motherhood doesn’t require a terminal diagnosis. Weakness may come differently for you.
Maybe you have an unbelieving husband whose fatherhood is Godless, a financial upheaval that requires you to work outside the home when you long to be a stay-at-home mom, or an ongoing chronic illness that makes you feel like a “less-than” mother.
Your weakness is the soil where God wants to plant and cultivate a beautiful harvest that will last into eternity.
Your have-nots and can-nots are where he loves to show up and work his wonders. By his power we can be faithful in the rhythmic, daily, uncelebrated things (like teaching our children Scripture, laughing with them and enjoying them, speaking loving truth into their lives, modeling faith for them, helping them understand their sin and their need for a Savior, celebrating the ways we see God at work in their lives)—and we can unreservedly trust God with the big things that are far outside our control.
This morning as I lay exhausted in bed, I got to pray for my son and tell him I love him before he left for school—two very small but precious things that God can use in ways “above and beyond all that [I] ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). I can quiet my heart knowing that Jeremy is safely kept in the hands of the God who has always been infinitely good to me, who has saved me from condemnation and loved me and outgiven me in every way.
And it’s because I know these things about God that I can trust him with my son. We moms who are weak (that’s all of us!) must press into knowing God more so that we can trust him more—so that our motherhood will matter for eternity. In that spirit, I end with this prayer:
“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.”(Ephesians 1:17-19)