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Motherhood: This is war

“I would rather learn that you perished at sea than that you dishonored the missionary society you are going to serve.”

William Knibb’s mother shouted these words from the window as the twenty-one-year-old left his home in Kettering, England, and headed toward the port to board a ship for Jamaica. The words of his mother instilled in him a courage to fiercely preach the gospel and fight the slave trade during his tenure in Jamaica as a missionary.

Knibb said of the slave trade, “The cursed blast of slavery has like a pestilence, withered almost every moral bloom. I do not know how any person can feel a union with such a monster, such a child of hell.” 

Of the struggle for the emancipation of slaves Knibb said, “I was forced from the den of infamy and from a gloomy prison, with my congregation scattered, many of the members of my church murdered, and multitudes of the faithful lashed.” 

After emancipation, Knibb was back in Kettering to preach and asked his friend Stovall to go with him to visit his mother’s grave during the short time he was there. Knibb pointed, “See that window?” and explained that that was where his mother had yelled out to him. “I never forgot those words—they were written on my heart,” he said. Stovall would later write, “[In his] great and daring actions the main spring lies in the sensibility of his heart, kindled by domestic piety.”

In other words, his faithful Christian mother had kindled the flame of Knibb’s fierce bravery and gospel courage.

Self-sacrificial courage, not self-focused safety

Some today will cringe at Knibb’s mother’s parting words. But it was not uncommon to hear maternal calls for a child’s courage in Knibb’s day nor has it been in Christian history. Faithfulness to Christ and service to those in need were characteristics of Christian character valued more than self-referential safety and comfort. But we live in a different day. In our context, we hear more talk of self-focused safety than of courage.

In fact, Christian courage is often portrayed as foolish in our context. Who can forget Ann Coulter’s vitriolic description of Dr. Kent Brantly’s mission trip to Liberia as idiotic. She pointed out that the first risk factor for Ebola listed by the Mayo Clinic is a trip to Africa. Then Coulter mockingly asks, “Can't anyone serve Christ in America anymore?” Sadly, many American Christians resonate with Coulter’s logic. After all, would not anyone with good sense stay where it is safe and urge their children to do the same? Is that not what a good mom would do? I have had leaders of Christian mission organizations tell me that Christian parents and grandparents are often the primary obstacles in getting young missionaries to the field in dangerous and difficult places.

Gospel moms, not good moms

In 2 Timothy, Paul addresses the problem of fearfulness and apprehension in young Timothy’s life. He urges Timothy, whom he calls “my beloved child” (2 Tim. 1:2), toward courage: “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). One of the primary ways Paul addresses this struggle in Timothy’s life is by urging Timothy to remember the faith of his mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois (2 Tim. 1:5).

Let that sink in. Paul believes that reminding Timothy of his mother and grandmother will cause him to recall the gospel courage they longed for him to possess as a faithful servant of Christ—no matter the cost. Paul did not believe that Timothy’s Christian mother and grandmother had taught him that nothing was more important than his comfort and safety.

“I just want to be a good mom,” is a common refrain in our culture today. But what exactly is a good mom in our culture? Typically, a good mother is one who raises well-mannered children and whose children who attend good schools, get good grades, and have all their needs and desires met. And most importantly, a good mom tells her children that nothing is more important than their safety, comfort, and happiness.

What is the problem with this approach? Simply put, if the gospel is true, it is a lie. Paul tells Timothy, “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Tim. 1:8) and, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).

A world where nothing is worth suffering and dying for is a world in which it is difficult to discern what is worth living for. We do not need more good moms; we need an army of gospel moms. Understanding the difference is key. Gospel moms know that the values of the kingdom of Christ will always be out of sorts with the values of this world. A gospel mom will provide her children a framework for understanding the world, which helps make the gospel intelligible. Such an approach will inevitably include teaching her children self-sacrificial courage.

Raising soldiers, not civilians

Life is hard. It’s a battle. A gospel mother knows she is raising soldiers and not civilians. Spiritual warfare is not a specialized ministry of a select few. Rather, simply living in the world as a Christian is spiritual warfare. As Martin Luther observed, the truth that “God is for us” implies “the devil is against us.” After calling Timothy to remember his mother and grandmother, Paul urged him to face the battle ahead as a faithful soldier: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:3-4).

What would you think of a military officer tasked with training soldiers for war who coddled them and permissively let them do as they pleased? What if the officer simply wanted his troops to think he was a nice guy, so he instilled little discipline, required nothing difficult of his troops, and just appeased in the moment. Is he a faithful officer? When the war comes and the soldiers are dropped into the heat of the battle, will they praise their commanding officer or curse him? In preparing for battle, permissiveness is not love; it is its opposite, and its concern is not the troops but the emotional neediness of the officer. It is selfish, shortsighted, and dangerous in a non-noble way.

The root of many of our problems can be traced back to this reality. We live with a comfortable peacetime ethic and parent that way in spite of what the Bible says. Too often, we train our children as if they will be civilians, not soldiers. But the biblical reality is that moms have a vital and unique role in training good soldiers—not good civilians. Life is a battle, and no one is exempt from the fight. Moms are on the front lines of training spiritual soldiers for the kingdom of Christ.


Missionary Triumph Over Slavery: William Knibb and Jamaican Emancipation

Mothers of the Wise and Good

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil

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