Parenting a Full Quiver with a Barren Heart

[Originally published HERE at www.DesiringGod.com]

After years of running from God and doing the opposite of everything I should have been doing, I fell in love with a guy and we decided we were going to be Christians — really good ones. So we married young, celebrated our first pregnancy test about 180 days later, and I exchanged a career for  my new role as a Christian housewife and stay-at-home Mom.

I’d always assumed I’d be a great mom. I liked kids, came from a large family, was in high demand during my babysitting heyday, and thought of myself as a decently patient individual.

Then I had children.

Desperately turning to the books and the blogs, I put together my game plan for how I was supposed to be navigating these hard and holy trenches of Christian mothering: delighting in my children, sacrificing for my family, “choosing joy,” being appropriately content with dishes and diapers, and reminding everyone how much “children are a blessing” — because my heart was supposed to be full.

In reality though, my hands were full and my heart was weary.

Parenting was really hard for me in ways I just hadn’t expected. I had faced hard things my whole life as obstacles to conquer and overcome, but parenting was different. No powering through by sheer will, no knocking it out and moving on to the next thing, no easy means of measuring my successes. Was I joyful enough? Was I sacrificial enough? Was I content enough? Was I delighting in everyone enough?

Idol Swap

God was using parenting to sanctify my stubbornly independent, self-sufficient soul. But quietly, unexpectedly, I simply exchanged one idol for another. I had traded in the American Dream of pursuing a successful career for a more religious version of pursuing perfect parenting. While this idol seemed far more holy and sacrificial, in reality it pointed to myself just as much, and was equally as heavy to carry.

I don’t remember exactly when it hit me. Somewhere around the time we started struggling with secondary infertility, and miscarriage, and parenting really difficult and high-energy toddlers, I realized that while I seemed to be checking all the right boxes, my soul felt as parched and lifeless as it had all those years prior when I’d been running from God.

We can hear so much about how worthwhile and valuable being a mom is in an attempt to fight against a world that might be suggesting otherwise, that it becomes dangerously easy to feel as if motherhood is where we attain our worth and value. But what about when you can’t have kids? Or enough of them? What about when you feel like you’re failing at parenting, while desperately trying to do everything right? What about when depression surpasses delight?  That’s the danger of making good things, ultimate things. Satan is just as interested in convincing us that motherhood or parenting is our highest calling as he is in convincing us that a successful career or self-fulfillment is.

How Beautiful Becomes Barren

When these become our focus rather than the fruit of a soul that seeks Christ above all else, we are exchanging truth for lies and carrying burdens we were not designed to carry. As if being a parent wasn’t already hard enough. Idol-carrying always makes barren that which was meant to be beautiful. And as I walk this path of parenting God has placed before me, I’ve noticed some of the idolatrous lies I’m particularly prone to clinging to.

  1. Family First

We often hear far more about delighting in our children than delighting in the Lord, easily directing our focus away from what should be our source of delight (Psalm 37:4). Our lives must revolve around Christ, not our family, for we cannot nourish their souls if we neglect our own. Be filled first with the joyful, sacrificial, delightful love of Christ and let it overflow into the lives of those around us. We will be significantly better parents and spouses when we do this. Relying on anything else to fill our family is putting our faith and hope for transformation in something other than him.

Whether it’s trying to be a great parent or spouse, being hospitable, making healthy meals, being content in our domestic duties, desiring good behavior from our kids, providing them with a good education — or thousands of other great and godly things — let us count them all as loss compared to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8).

  1. Self-centered Sacrifice.

You don’t have to be a Christian to give up your wants for those you love. However, as children of God, our serving should draw attention from ourselves to our Father. Not shouting from the rooftops that parenting is the world’s most important job, attacking anyone who suggests a stay-at-home mom isn’t the hardest job on the planet, or always reminding our children and spouse how much we do for them.

It’s something we should do quietly, humbly, and willingly in an effort not to make the job of parenting seem great, but to make God look great. Sacrifice can be just as intoxicating as pleasure and both are wasted when they’re self-centered rather than God-exalting. Let’s not create Pharisees, who sacrificed to garner attention and respect, touting their way as the *most* holy way as they focused on the sacrifice itself rather than the altar it was placed on. Jesus called them fools for thinking their sacrifice itself was somehow intrinsically holy without the desperate act of placing it upon the altar of a holy God who gives it its worth and value (Matthew 23:1–28).

Only when we humbly devote our sacrifice of parenthood to sacred use, willingly bringing it before the Lord and laying it upon his altar for God’s glory does it become holy.  Not because of us or our gift but because of the hands we give it to. Hands that will never let our sacrifice be wasted.

  1. Perfection rather than purpose.

We naturally want to exhibit good things. The problem with trying to look like we have it all together lays not necessarily in perfection itself, but in trying to attain it in our own strength, for our own praise. On the flip side, we often sacrifice excellence in the name of “authenticity,” as we proudly continue in our self-centered mediocrity, just as ignorant of the strength of the Lord who longs to use and transform our broken and exhausted selves for his glory.

It’s neither highlighting our successes, nor hiding our failures, but being be like fruitful, bountiful vines wherever we’ve been planted — watered by the Spirit, made strong by that which we cling to, and producing fruit that blesses and refreshes many (Psalms 128:3).

  1. Self instead of the Spirit.

One of the heaviest idols we often carry as parents is the burden of self — the idea that it’s all up to us. That our choices dictate who our children become or what kind of parents we will be. Those choices do matter, but ultimately our trust and reliance on God and the work of his Spirit will shape our children more than anything else we could ever say or do. Commit your parenting to the Lord, trust in him, and watch him act (Psalm 37:5).

Drink from the fountain of God’s free, refreshing peace. And do it in the eyes of your children, praying that the Spirit would lead them to do the same (Isaiah 58:11).

Full Quiver, Barren Heart

Parenthood is not some intrinsic means to becoming more holy (in my case, I’m not sure anything has exposed my deeply-rooted sins so quickly and repeatedly), but it is merely one means God chooses to slowly, often painfully, chip away parts of us that aren’t him. We must not focus so much on the chisel that we forget about the Sculptor. Parenting changes us all, but the true and eternal beauty of it comes from the One whose loving hands are using it to patiently shape us into his image.

We can have a quiver-full of children (Psalm 127:4–5) and yet a heart that is barren and sterile, if we are more consumed by God’s gifts than by him. Our children can (and should) be life-changing blessings, but they will never save our soul. Only in a fertile soul, nourished by the Spirit, can the life-giving seeds of truth bud and flourish allowing us to bless and feed our children and those around us in the ways they really need. Our transformation is not dependent on any particular season or circumstance, but by tasting and seeing that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), and knowing his words and truth will not return void.

Isaiah 55:10-11: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,  so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

It may be a driving rain when we were expecting spring showers, a blizzard when we planned for a flurry, or a drought when we anticipated a drenching, but we should work far more at preparing the soil of our souls for whatever may come — allowing it to soak in deep and transform us when it does — than we do at trying to predict, change, or dictate the weather.

My highest calling is not marriage or motherhood, but to glorify God and enjoy him forever. My value and my worth come from him; whether I’m single or married, young or old, have no kids or a dozen.

After many years of parenting, I still find it incredibly hard, and exhausting, and totally worth it — not because it’s some rite of passage, or children are blessings to be dispensed to me, or because of what I’m accomplishing or sacrificing as a parent, but because it’s what God has happened to put before me, right here right now, and he’s using it to change me in deep and good ways.

It doesn’t make all of the weariness of parenting magically disappear, but it should remind us that the source of our strength and worth is not something we could ever fail or lose. It reminds us not to waste the blessings or to despise the weariness, but to give it all back to Christ so he can break it, multiply it, and hand back to us something far greater.

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The Art of Womanliness

[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.

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, 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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