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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J.R.R. Tolkien as an Artist

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I love art. So in honor of J.R.R. Tolkien’s birthday (January 3,1892), what better day to highlight some. Did you know that he was a gifted and prolific artist??

In October of 1936, Tolkien delivered the manuscript of The Hobbit to his publisher which included his personal illustrations. When HarperCollins began preparing for a book on the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, they discovered more than 100 of Tolkien’s illustrations, which had been buried in his archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (and had only recently been digitized).

These manuscript drawings were released in The Art of the Hobbit (which I bought over Christmas), and it’s a magnificent volume celebrating the 75th anniversary of The Hobbit, including 110 beautiful, many never-before-seen illustrations by Tolkien, ranging from pencil sketches to ink line drawings to watercolors.

I’m in love with the art deco vibe. Here are some of my favorites…

More of his artwork can be seen here.

December 1956: British writer J R R Tolkien (1892 – 1973), enjoying a pipe in his study at Merton College, Oxford, where he is a Fellow. Original Publication: Picture Post – 8464 – Professor J R R Tolkien – unpub. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Getty Images)
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Let’s Teach Our Kids ‘Beautiful’

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Originally published HERE on www.desiringgod.com

On a recent vacation, I sat on the beach enjoying a sliver of one of those exquisitely designed days: clear sunny sky, warm breeze, the Atlantic Ocean that stunning mix of clear and steel blue.

My four kids were content and un-requiring (for once), so I sunk into my chair to take it all in. Almost immediately, a child walked into the expanse of sand between me and the sea. I watched as he aimlessly wandered up and down the beach, cell phone in hand, eyes squinting at his little screen, completely oblivious to everything around him.

It made me think about parenting — not this particular kid or his particular parents — but my own parenting.

Oblivious to Beauty

Vacations tend to provoke all kinds of ideas about life, work, balance, and everything you want to do differently when you get back. The quietness and loveliness contrasts real life so much it begs for some recalibration. You realize, at some point along the way, you may have started heading the wrong direction.

It hit me as I watched this wandering, distracted kid, mesmerized by a tiny handheld device, oblivious to the glorious beauty stretching in every direction. Are the things I am consistently putting in front of my children helping them see and enjoy God, or are they blocking the view of him? It’s easy to simply focus on what not to put before them, but forget to show them beauty, or forget to teach them about beauty when they’re exposed to it.

Children Learn to See

My one-year-old was new to the beach this year. It wasn’t enough for me to plop her down in the hot sand, and tell her to have fun. I had to teach her how to experience and enjoy the beach — carry her to the water and help her begin to dip her toes in the waves. I had to point out the shells, and show her how to rinse the scratchy sand off her hands.

My five-year-old is a bit further along. She knows how to dig for sand crabs, and points out how the ocean changes shades of blue from day to day. My older boys can now swim out to the sand bar and catch waves. The oldest notices cloud formations, warning me there will likely be an evening storm. They’re each learning to see and savor the beach. Just like I am.

Five Ways to Teach Them Beauty

As I watched this all unfold, I realized how badly I want them to be able to experience and enjoy God. I want them to see him in ways I was oblivious to for such a huge portion of my life. My eyes were glued to lesser things that seemed so big and wonderful at the time, until I finally exchanged the poor shadows and reflections for the true and full source of all beauty.

And yet so easily with my parenting, I slip into rules and lecturing that (in the words of my 10-year-old) “make God sound like a grumpy old man.” I hide the beauty and the wonder.

How do I avoid this? Here are some resolutions I’m working through as a mother.

1. Put before my children what is true and lovely and excellent.

Saturate their lives with God’s word and God’s creation. What I put before them is often more important than what I am not. It’s so easy to surround them with what’s mediocre, flashy, and dumbed-down, and then wonder why they don’t respond to excellence when finally confronted with it.

2. Parent them like God parents me.

Am I parenting from God’s strength and grace, or from my emotions? My ultimate goal should be that my children desire to do what is good and right and excellent because that’s who God is, not just because I say so. Yes, children need to learn obedience and boundaries before they can enjoy freedom, but they are never too young to learn beauty.

3. Teach them and show them how everything points to God.

Teach them about beauty that makes our soul soar, and about ugliness that makes our soul ache. It could be the sunset, or an artistic masterpiece, or Greek mythology with its capricious and temperamental gods, or a musician singing about sorrow or longing, or a movie that make us laugh, or well-written literature about the triumph of good over evil. It all points to God.

And don’t waste the ugliness that ends up before them, because it can make the beauty that much clearer. Point it out if needed, and talk about it with them. The goal isn’t developing cynicism, but identifying truth and valuing beauty. If we’re regularly showing them beauty and excellence, it quickly becomes easier to identify a counterfeit.

We might talk about why an overheard word is wrong, or why acts of violence in our world are so contrary to God’s character, or what that TV commercial is trying to sell us and how. The light shines through far brighter in the darkness. Use discretion, but make sure they understand that it’s the gates of hell that shall not prevail against Christ and his church — not the other way around.

4. Stop relying on someone else to do the majority of this for me.

God has not given this particular job first to teachers, or Christian radio, or even our church. God entrusted these sons and daughters to my husband and me. Teaching them should be a constant, intentional, organic process in our home and outside of it — at times, requiring surprisingly few words.

Point out God’s handiwork in how plants grow and in the beauty of nature. Pray together and often, and about lots of things. Read God’s word, and memorize it together. Lead them to the source. Resist the urge to lecture or package it up into entertaining little child-friendly snippets, while underestimating the power that simply God’s word and his creation can have on a child over time. Let the Holy Spirit work. Allow them to experience the wonder and joy of God as he wants them to see it, not the weariness that can so easily come when I hit them over the head with God’s truth as I want them to see it.

5. Enjoy God in my own life and allow them to witness it.

Don’t focus so much on my children’s souls that I neglect my own. How can I point out beauty to them if I can’t see it myself? Why would they yearn for the joy of knowing God if that joy is not evident in me? My life needs to revolve around Christ, not my children. I can parent far better when my heart is set on him first.

I’m slowly learning this in my own life. I’m learning how to see and savor God in the peaceful moments, as well as in the chaos. But knowing God isn’t a journey we begin once we’ve hit adulthood; it’s one we embark on the second we can see, and hear, and smell, and taste, and touch.

My children belong to God, not to me, and they were created to know and enjoy their Maker in the same way I do. We are on that journey together. My job as their parent is to point them to their Father, teach them to truly see him, and help them grasp their need for a Savior. That is why we teach them “beautiful” — because there is nothing more beautiful than the cross and the One it purchased for us — the One whom every other beautiful thing reflects.

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The Finer Things Club

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Every day at 2:30pm, the 10-year-old, and I drop whatever we’re doing and he makes us each a cup of tea. I clear off the kitchen counter and we sit. Usually we flip through art books, listen to music, or talk about books we’re reading. And we chat.

Today it was about The Wind in the Willows, Manet, and our NCAA brackets.
Hands down, the nerdiest thing we do. I love it.

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