This country loves Mother’s Day. We love to honor moms and get flowers. We love to take her out for dinner and make her stand up in church. Americans are the people of motherhood and apple pie.

But what makes a mom a mom?

Happy Mother’s Day. Or Parent’s Day. Or Gender Neutral Guardians. Or Whatever.

We know who mom is, but do we know what a mom is? Are the two persons (or three? or thirty?) in a marriage interchangeable? Is there anything beyond biology (and affirming biology is a start!) that makes a mom a mom? When your little girl asks, “What does it mean to be a mommy?” what will you say to her?

One answer is found in 1 Thessalonians 2. Look at how Paul uses parenting as an analogy for his pastoral work.

1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 “But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also of our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”

1 Thessalonians 2:11-12 “For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.”

Within the span of a few verses Paul likens his pastoral approach to both mothering and fathering. And the approaches are not the same. For the Apostle, mothering implies gentleness, affection, and sacrifice. Fathering, on the other hand, implies exhortation, encouragement, and a spiritual charge. This is not to suggest that one set of virtues are exclusively feminine and the other exclusively masculine. After all, Paul says he was gentle among the Thessalonians like a nursing mother. Men can be tender and women can exhort. But still, there is a method behind the metaphors. For Paul, the picture of divinely aided gentleness is a mother and the picture of divinely guided exhortation is a father. A mom is a mom and not a dad, and a dad is a dad and not a mom.

I recognize that mothers have different personalities. Some are quiet and some are loud. Some prefer the background and some enjoy the spotlight. God doesn’t expect moms to be shy and retiring. And yet, there is something particularly maternal and feminine and biblical about a woman marked by gentleness (1 Peter 3:4). It’s part of what makes a mother a mother.

Which is saying something, because if there is any vocation that mitigates against gentleness it is taking care of rowdy, unruly, ungrateful children. So take time this weekend to thank your mom, or your kids’ mom, for all the times she was affectionately desirous of you and eagerly gave of her own life because you were so dear to her. Be glad your mom was a mom.