The Art of Womanliness

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[Originally published HERE at www.desiringgod.org]

What does it mean to be a woman?

Few things evoke such emotion as someone questioning, or attempting to define, what it means to be a woman — especially, in my case, a Christian woman. The overarching concept of womanhood trickles down into so many of our roles and relationships that it can easily become the currency by which we measure our worth. We vehemently resist anything that might threaten the foundation of womanliness we’ve defined for ourselves.

What Matters Today?

Lately, I’ve devoted a lot of bandwidth to thinking about and studying the complexities of biblical womanhood, submission, and other gender controversies. One evening, I sat down and began furiously organizing my thoughts and observations into meaningful impactful words and sentences meant to analyze and “solve” the issues. . . .

And then I stopped. I looked at my passionately penned words and hesitated. Not so much over the words themselves, but the why behind them.

How will grasping these profound theological ideas before I climb into bed impact who I am when I climb back out in the morning? Will my day look different? Will I be a different wife, or mother, or friend? My current struggles and sins would still be there to greet me with the sunrise. I’ve never wanted to be another vague and distant voice adding to the noise.

So I put away my notes and went to bed wrestling with God. What do I need to know about womanhood right now? The next morning, as I woke up to the sun and its colors and God’s beautiful new mercies, I stepped out of bed with the question pressing on my soul, “How will I be an excellent woman and reflect God’s beauty today?”

The Always-Pressing Question

How do I reflect God’s beauty today? This is the question that should be at the forefront of our mind, longing for an answer every hour. It’s what lies beneath all our labels and arguments and definitions — whether you’re a young wife or a grandmother, single or married, eight-years-old or eighty.

It’s the question that mattered when I waved goodbye to the bus carrying my children off to public school, and it mattered when I sat for hours schooling them at home. It mattered when I was waitressing twelve-hour shifts, when I was in D.C. editing military plans to combat weapons of mass destruction, and when I was changing diapers and mediating temper tantrums as a stay-at-home mom.

“We put so much energy and effort into defining and promoting what we think real womanhood is, believing that the “right” definitions or labels will magically make us the real woman — strong, godly, compassionate, productive, respected, prized. But real women are willing to pay the steep cost of living out God’s vision for women in the details of our particular life.”

We put so much energy and effort into defining and promoting what we think real womanhood is, believing our “right” definitions or labels will magically make us more obedient and holy or a crusader who cares more about social justice or oppression — without the cost of actually living it out.

Like a carefully chosen tattoo on the forearm, we imagine the perfectly defined self-identification will mark us so powerfully as to change how we are perceived in the world. We believe our ideologies or labels will magically make us more obedient and holy or a crusader who cares more about social justice or oppression — without the cost of actually living it out. Too often, the vortex of discourse surrounding biblical womanhood blinds us to what it means to live excellently and reflect the beautiful image of God in this very moment, in the next thing we do, or type, or say.

Tell the Story of the Beautiful God

As women, our strengths, our beauty, our value, and the essence of who we are, all come from our Creator — the one whose image we bear —long before the gender debates of the twentieth century. My Maker defined me when he selectively impressed his fingerprints upon me as I was formed. He defines all women when he intentionally creates us to reflect unique facets of his beauty.

What does it mean to be an excellent woman, today? It is to tell that story with strength and passion, to magnify the beauty of Christ and delight ourselves in the joy of God as we reflect him in our own unique ways.

Satan hates beauty because he hates the one it reflects. He does his best to destroy it and abuse it and oppress it and contort it into reflecting the broken world rather than God. If he can’t destroy it, he is content to see us spend our days fighting and writing about it. Satan is happy to see us discuss the beauty of womanhood all we want — so long as it distracts us from living it. There is a way to be so paralyzed by every new “how-to,” and so divided by debate that we will never get around to actually submitting our lives to God with a willingness to be led by him wherever it may take us.

A Partial Picture of an Infinite Artwork

We often work backward, focusing so much on presenting ourselves to the world as image-bearers of our chosen ideologies, forgetting whose image we were made to bear. God’s glory needs to overflow into every single aspect of what we do as women — this is what it means to be conformed to the image of Christ.

But what does this look like?

Since the infinite God is the source of our beauty, we could never paint a complete picture of what an excellent and biblical woman looks like. Knowing the source of our beauty and excellence should give us purpose in the small things and humility in the big things. True beauty is not subjective — there are things which are not beautiful — but it is infinite, in that there are endless ways to truly reflect our Artist.

It’s letting go of what my fists are so tightly clenched onto when I’m fighting with my husband. It’s identifying the places my mind wanders when I’m angry or anxious. It’s seeking God’s kingdom at the expense of my own. It’s treating my body as a temple, but not an idol (1 Corinthians 6:19). It’s being greatly saddened by my sin, but joyful in God’s forgiveness of it. It’s putting aside the lesser things that hold me occupied to hold or read to my child, and it’s allowing someone else to hold or read to that same child when God puts other duties before me.

It might be letting others lead when I feel the most equipped, or leading when I feel most unable, because God’s power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). It might be keeping quiet when I feel like shouting, or loudly proclaiming when I feel too timid to even whisper. It might be serving others when I most want to be served; it might be resting when serving draws people to me rather than Christ.

It’s doing my work with excellence. It’s allowing my womanhood and its beauty and its answers to be the fruit of God’s spirit within me, rather than my focus.

The Art of Womanliness

That’s biblical womanhood — the art of womanliness, if you will. It is actually living so beautifully and excellently that the symphony of our lives draws others to the infinite beauty of our designer, drowning out the provocative siren song of the world, whose fleeting and shallow beauty lures only to ugly brokenness.

Art can reflect but never surpass its artist, and when we climb out of bed with the goal of being a masterpiece whose beauty reflects our creator for his glory in the very next thing we do — only then will the ripples of our faithfulness carry on for eternity.

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