Spiritual Formation for Moms

By Kathy Tuan-MacLean

"He gently leads those who have young." (Isaiah 40:11)

Photo courtesy of J. Star via C. C. License at FlickrIn the BK (before kids) era of my life, I was notoriously bad at quiet times. I lacked discipline. And, in the rare periods when I disciplined myself to have a daily quiet time, I quickly found my prayers felt inauthentic. Too often it was more about checking the time-with-God box than actually meeting God. So I dreaded to think what would happen to my already-spotty spiritual disciplines when I had kids!

Thankfully, forming me into Christ's image is not my responsibility. It is God's. God is the potter; I am the clay. Motherhood, with all of its chaos and demands, can be a time when we're particularly malleable to Jesus.

Having kids certainly changes everything! It changes how God forms us, how we best meet with God, and which spiritual disciplines do and do not work. When your baby needs to nurse every 1-3 hours, and sleeps for only ninety-minute stretches throughout the night, the spiritual disciplines you enjoyed in the BK era may not suffice anymore. Disciplines such as daily quiet times, long meditative prayer, days spent alone on silent retreat, deep meaningful conversations with an accountability partner, uninterrupted immersion in manuscript study -- all of these may be shattered by the wailing of the baby, or may be simply impossible to undertake in the first place. Even when we carve out the time and space to practice these disciplines, we usually can't stay awake!

Often mothers experience tremendous guilt around these changes. They think they've become unspiritual, godless, prayerless, and faithless. As a Chinese-American performance junkie and a campus minister, in the BK era my sense of myself as a Christian often revolved around an activist faith, where I pursued God and encouraged students and faculty to pursue God with me. But when my life became subsumed with spurting milk ducts, exploding diapers, and hormonal swings so violent they could give you whiplash, there wasn't much I could "do" for God. When our perception of why we matter centers on our spiritual or ministerial "performance," we can quickly sink into discouragement when we lose our ability to perform.

The good news is that the chaos, exhaustion, and transition of motherhood gives us the opportunity to step into a better theology -- one where it is God who pursues us, and where we matter solely because we are God's beloved. New motherhood gives us an unparalleled opportunity to learn and experience God's grace as we embrace a new season of life. The good news for those of us who juggle many roles is that learning these deep truths about God and ourselves will only deepen and mature our character, our work, and our relationships.

Here are some lessons and hints I've learned along the journey:

The Lesson of Receiving

Spending time with God is not about hitting some standard to make God happy; instead it's about receiving my identity as His beloved, receiving His blessing, nurture, and resources.

The former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Steve Hayner, once wrote in a letter to staff that kids are the only ones who get it right at Christmas. Obsessed with presents, they embody the spiritual truth that when it comes to our relationship with Jesus, all we can do is receive. Ironically, motherhood is a time when we can feel like a walking Pez dispenser -- everyone wants a part of us. In our often-frantic quest to meet others' needs, isn't it refreshing to know that God demands nothing, that God just wants us to receive from Him?

The chaos of motherhood these past thirteen years has taught me to spend time with God, not because I have anything to give Him, but because He has everything to give me.

The Lesson of Love, Sin, and Forgiveness

There's a reason the metaphor of God as a parent is so important in the Bible! Parenthood brings a new experience of:

  • God's Love. I am a slow bonder with my kids -- in fact, I don't bond until they smile. But when my oldest child first smiled, I felt overwhelmed by the swoosh of love that filled me, the love of a lioness that would do anything and everything to protect and nurture that child. I loved her so much that just thinking about that love made me cry. And that gave me multiple opportunities throughout the day to reflect on God's love for me. I didn't have time to pray much more than, "God, if you love me anything like I love this baby, you must love me a lot!!" And through the fog of hunger and hormones and sleep deprivation, I sensed God's joy and affirmation: "Yes, I do, yes I do."
  • Our sin and frailty. If you're one of those women who has limitless patience and pours yourself into acts of service with nary a complaint, you can skip this part. If you're like the rest of us who get harried, whiny, and angry, you have probably found that motherhood has shown you sins you thought you'd conquered long ago, or revealed new sins and fears that had never existed before! In the ten years between leaving my family of origin and creating my own family, I somehow thought I'd dealt with most of my character flaws. Then I got married. And then I had kids.
    As I've found myself sinning against my children, often multiple times a day, it's easy to become overwhelmed with guilt and shame. Some days I wonder whether Jesus' death on the cross really could atone for my behavior. The still-alive performance junkie within me rejects how often I actually need to go back to Jesus for forgiveness -- shouldn't I have licked my anger problem by now? Although painful, the wonderful thing about recognizing our own sin (over and over again) is that we can receive more of. . .
  • Jesus' forgiveness! Jesus told us that just as only those who are sick need a doctor, only those who are sinners need him. Being a mom means we are given opportunities to receive his forgiveness multiple times throughout the day, a process that deepens our love relationship with him, our need for the practical power and transformation of the Holy Spirit, and our sense of gratitude to God the Father.