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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A 4-year-old’s List for Her Future Husband

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4-year-old and I hanging out in the kitchen:

Nora: “So Mommy, what should we talk about? I know, let’s talk about husbands!”

Me: “Sure, what about them?”

N: “I wanna talk about how I’m going to get one. You know, in some more years.”

Me: “What do you think he’ll be like?”

N: “WELL. He’s going to be kind, funny…grateful. Tall like Daddy but more hairs. Not sprinkles like Daddy’s hairs. He’ll build things, like houses. And sometimes he’ll give me rings when I DON’T even ASK for them! And I’m going to get HIM presents on Amazon. As long as he doesn’t look at them first. He’ll hug me ALL the time and he’ll be strong, and caring, and…delicate. [Pause]…Hm, is delicate the right word?”

Me: “Delicate means kind of, fragile.”

N: “No. That’s not right. My husband will be sturdy. …Are you writing all of these down?”

Me: “Um, no. Would you like me to?”

N: “Yes. Write them on a list, please. Then when I find the man who will be my husband, I’ll send him over to your house and you can give him my list.”

I can’t handle this.

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Sweatpants Anniversaries

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What anniversaries look like when you accidentally have too many kids, and leaving the house just feels hard…

Plan B= Putting your myriad of children to bed at 6pm, and dining on Thai food takeout while we reminisce about the last 11 years and pretend we’re not wearing sweatpants. And loving it.

Because this guy has my heart. Whether we’re honeymooning in Costa Rica, unpacking moving boxes for the 7th time, listening to our babies’ first heartbeats, remodeling our 12th bathroom, watching the sun rise over the Chesapeake, scrubbing little boy pee off the side of infinity toilets, sharing a bottle of wine over The Office re-runs, navigating IKEA, or daydreaming about traveling the world together… He’s just it.

The graciously strong and kind guy, God graciously and kindly gave me because he knew I’d need pushed forward, pulled back, and held up. And he knew I’d need someone as hilarious as Kevin who could somehow make all that incredibly fun.

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10 Years Ago

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Ten years ago, right before my Dad walked me down the aisle, he pulled Kevin aside and vehemently whispered that he had a “NO Return Policy.” Thankfully, Kevin must have listened because for some reason he’s kept me around all these years.

We were pretty young and stupid.

Thankfully though, God knew me and He knew who I needed.

He knew I needed a husband who loved me a lot and made sure I knew that. Someone who was always the first to say he was wrong (even when he probably wasn’t), and graciously made it okay for me to be wrong (which was monumental for a stubborn, argumentative girl like me).

He knew that two people with strong personalities apparently make babies with even stronger personalities (I know, totally not fair). And He knew I’d need a strong husband who’d really love those energetic, strong-willed babies and who could teach them to live fully and to love fully, because they could see their Daddy do that. But for as much as he’d love them he’d make sure they knew they weren’t the MOST important thing in his life, and that we were a family before we were blessed with them. Plus, when they’re really bad God knew I’d need an ally whose got my back and who could make me laugh.

God knew I’d need a husband who really loved Him. And I realize that’s not everyone’s thing, but trust me when I say it makes them able to love you so much better. And while God knew what kind of husband I needed, He knew I’d still try to fix him anyways. And that it wouldn’t work. And then I’d have to learn that when you can’t fix things yourself you should work on fixing yourself (which usually doesn’t work either, but thankfully God likes fixer-uppers).

…And before you know it, 10 years have flown by and you’ve had good times and bad times, and are maybe a little depressed that you’re 10 years older, but at the end of the day it’s all good because you get to go through it together. And you’re married and really in love. Which is sweet. And like Kevin always tells me it’s like having a sleepover with your BFF every single night of the week. Can’t wait to start our eleventh year, Kevin McKernan.

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