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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The Post-Election Calling of the Church

post-election church

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I’m just going to say it, this election has been horrible. And the anger and division and conflict did not magically disappear on Wednesday morning—in a lot of ways it got worse. It has stretched the church in ways I have not seen before. We had the chance to show the world a people with a single alliance and a single purpose to demonstrate our utter need for that alliance, and if we couldn’t figure out how to do that leading up to Tuesday we must figure out how to do that now. In fact, we have one of the biggest opportunities the church has ever had to be the healer and the helper it was designed to be. So many are in need of healing and help at this moment. There haven’t been a whole lot of winners here.

For once we actually have common ground with much of the world on something. They’ve seen in leaders the blatant sin and character flaws that are utterly opposed to the character of God. Don’t waste that. Don’t try to minimize it and shove it under the rug merely because it might weaken some political agenda or give more validity to political alliances we may hold. How many opportunities have we had to rally alongside the world and tell them, “You are right, this is disheartening! This is not the way this world should be and we are sorrowful with you.”

Let’s not throw phrases at them like “God is on his throne!” and “Let’s all pray for our new president!” as a way to illegitimize their fears and shut down conversation. Yes, those things are completely true and bring comfort to God’s children as they rightly should, but not the world—especially when our words are saying that God is all-powerful while our actions are saying that political positions are. Storms are scary and dangerous when you have no anchor of hope; let’s not ignore their cries for help.

Who we’ve been

I fear the church is forsaking their ability to be an influential voice of truth to our culture. There is a great opportunity before us that is lost when our political allegiances are stronger than our heavenly one. We say they’re not but actions and internet comment sections speak louder than words. After shouting at them (and each other) about politics what makes us think they’ll want to stick around to hear our far quieter message of salvation? The church was designed to be the representation of Christ when he left, and our purpose is to carry on his work not to get more votes for our personal political party regardless of what truths they do or do not stand for. While not mutually exclusive, we cannot forget our highest calling or in any way impede the former with the latter.

The danger of the church being entangled in politics is we become complacent and distant which does not lend itself to being a voice of truth. Relying on politics and ballots to fight our battles just makes our functional deism more palatable, as our opinions and Facebook posts far outnumber our prayers. It makes us feel as if we have more control than we do while fooling us into thinking that change requires little cost or effort.

Who God is

As Christians our battle cry should never be to “Make America Great,” as if we’ve learned nothing from Babel: “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name” (Genesis 11:4). We all remember how that ended.

It is God who raises up kings and nations and people like Daniel and Esther and Moses, but never us. It is God who tells his people: “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2). As participants in this world who are blessed enough to be able to be involved in our country’s political process, God can use us for his purposes and impact politics, but let’s not pretend like he cannot do it without us. Let’s not pretend we know who will be a Nebuchadnezzar or a Daniel. Let’s not assume America is Israel when we could be Babylon.

Who we could be

As the hands and feet of Christ in this hurting, messed up, politically-charged world we have an enormous opportunity right now to be the salt and the light. We must be both. We can’t be the salt that preserves a decaying world without being the light that leads them to it—anymore than we can be their warmth and comfort while choosing not to provide them with the true solution to their dying. We can be really good at throwing salt because that’s the easiest thing to do from a distance and it costs us little, but the last thing the church should be doing right now is rubbing salt on the open wounds of the world. It is beyond me why we would rather be part of some moral majority that shouts our righteousness and others’ sins from the rooftops, than a loving minority that understands our own depravity apart from Christ and seeks healing for us both. Jesus offended the “established church” far more than he offended sinners.

There is a trend within the church of sacrificing truth for love and this travesty cannot be ignored, but church listen—the worst possible response we could have to this is to forfeit compassion and love. We need to seek the Spirit in this and pray for a real and effective outpouring of love that’s built on a foundation of truth, but we can’t remain at a distance and expect to impact others for eternity. It is not easy or without cost or comfort, but our light could shine so brightly right about now.

Thanks to this tumultuous election season we literally have a list of issues and areas where the world is hurting and in need of help:

  • There are people feeling cheated and lied to—we must display truth and transparency because Jesus is truth (John 8:32; John14:6).
  • There are youth feeling disenfranchised and hopeless—we must find ways to encourage and give them a reason to hope because Jesus is hope (I Peter 1:3; I Thes. 2:19).
  • There are women feeling devalued and victimized—we must figure out how to protect and value them because Jesus valued women in a culture that didn’t (Luke 7:36-50; Luke 13:16; Mark 8:48).
  • There are minorities carrying the weight of prejudice and discrimination who feel that their lives aren’t valued as much as another’s—we must understand how and what we can do to stop this because Jesus sought out the discriminated and fought for their equal worth (Gal. 3:28; James 2:8-9).
  • The LGBT community is feeling ostracized and hurt—we must figure out how to love them so much better in order for there to be healing because Jesus was a friend to the marginalized. Jesus was a healer (Mark 12:31; John 8:7; Rev. 21:4).
  • There are immigrants and refugees feeling oppressed and invisible—we must figure out how to protect them, and help them, and clothe them, and feed them because Jesus was a protector. He cared for the aliens and fed the poor  (James 1:27; Gal. 2:10; Matt. 25:40).
  • There are mothers facing abortion and women fearful of a reality without that option—we must figure out what is creating an environment so broken that a choice like that would be made and how we can improve it as well as care for these mothers because Jesus cares for the weakest—whether an unborn baby or a hurting mama. He is the reason we have nothing to fear (Matt. 18:10; John 14:27; Matt. 11:28).

This is not the first time the church has had to navigate being a light to a dark culture in need. The Christians in fourth century Rome set out to so love and care for those around them—the poor, the refugee, the sexually deviant, the murderers of babies and the disabled, the victimized women—that the pagan emperor, Julian the Apostate, had to brainstorm ways to create government programs—not out of need, but out of embarrassment that his people relied on the Christians rather than their government. He complained that their benevolence to strangers, their compassion, and their holiness were causing his people to turn from their pagan Roman gods. He goes on saying:

“These impious Galileans not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes… For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. …Then let us not, by allowing others to outdo us in good works…Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity… See their love-feasts, and their tables spread for the indigent. Such practice is common among them, and causes a contempt for our gods.”

Salt and light. Their light of true love and compassion for all drew the world in like hot cakes, while their salt of truth and personal holiness eventually led to the salvation of many.

It wasn’t a voted in leader, or a ballot, or a governmental program, or a new or repealed law that led to change (while all potentially very good things)—they didn’t wait for the government to do what the church was made for. We were made for so much more and our impact should be far greater. Let this nasty, loud, depressing election of 2016 be a turning point for the church. In our love, may we point ourselves and our hurting world to the only source of truth and hope and change.

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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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