Women under grace.

Eve, the first woman. A set of curves and sighs, created lovingly of tender flesh. She was created as an answer, but after the fall she crumbled into an infinity of questions that every single one of her daughters would inherit. A wild-hearted paradox, who always sees herself as something more or something less. Woman.

What does it mean to bear God’s image in this way?

I grew up with four very “girly” sisters and no brothers, which meant that I grew up with Barbie and her hundreds of pink accessories, tea parties with my stuffed animals, the dress-up bin with Mom’s high heels, fairy-tale pretend games, boxes of cheap lipstick and gaudy eye shadow, the horse-obsessed phase, the delight taken in secret diaries, playing with each other’s hair, and dozens of Disney princess movies. I never played or watched sports, never enjoyed math or science (though I was good at them), and I never got into video games. No–I was a stereotypical “girly-girl,” through and through. And if you had asked me, even a short while ago, what it meant to be feminine, I would have said just that–being “girly.” Liking to cook. Sewing. Clothes and shopping. Wearing dresses, loving romantic movies, playing with babies, talking for hours on the phone, having sleepovers, eating ice cream. Meaning that femininity was defined by a certain set of interests, skills, and hobbies. But this definition is largely missing the core of what it means to be a woman. Because what about the women in the world who love watching football, and camping, and exploring, and driving race cars, and economics and chemistry, and playing basketball, and rocket ships, and bugs, and running outside, and running corporations–things that are usually (and often to a fault) associated with masculinity? Are these women anomalies or failures in God’s plan for femininity? I don’t think so.  There are plenty of godly women who enjoy many of those things, myself included. Yes, I believe God had very different and very beautiful designs for femininity and masculinity, and that those differences are important to recognize, to celebrate! I am proud that God made me a woman. I am not ashamed that I enjoy fashion and rom-coms and girl talk and makeup. But that stuff isn’t what defines me as feminine. Because if it’s true that God does not base one’s identity as a Christian on the things that one does or is good at, doesn’t it also follow that He would not base our identity as women based on the things that we do or are good at?  I fully believe that God designed femininity as something so much more wild and beautiful than a legalistic set of approved activities and interests.

Nor is our femininity based on the world’s model of womanhood. We live in a world that simultaneously envies and disparages women with a “thigh gap,” where your sexuality is the core of our identity. A womanhood where gossip and comparison and self-loathing not only run rampant but are encouraged among women. We live in a world where everything screams that our true worth lies in our looks and our ability to attract men. Doing anything “like a girl” is seen as weakness, something to overcome. Women are airbrushed until they do not look like themselves anymore, but some false image of beauty.  We are seen as less, sold into sexual slavery to be used as objects, and killed. We are told we are not logical, too emotional–to “act like a lady, think like a man.” Then we are told men are the problem. The modesty rhetoric has become far more about insulting men’s capacity for self control and shaming women for their bodies than it has about honoring the Lord and honoring yourself as a daughter of God. Women feed each other the self-esteem gospel, insisting that it’s all about us and what we want, that we’re beautiful and perfect goddesses and nobody else matters, that we deserve this and that. We are shamed by men and women for wanting marriage and children, and we are shamed by other men and women for wanting to work outside the home. We are blamed for the physical and sexual abuses we suffer at the hands of others–mostly men. We tell each other that our beauty and sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of–that “if you got it, flaunt it”–but we despise when we are portrayed as beings who use our beauty and sexuality to get what we want.  We desperately want to be beautiful, turning to men, to other women, and even to ourselves to find the affirmation we seek. But we come away wanting. Yes, the womanhood of the world is broken and muddled by a million confusing contradictions, but its one consistent message to us is that being a woman, if nothing else, means being too much and not enough.

So, we can’t look to a set of interests, skills, or hobbies to define femininity, because it’s more than that. We can’t we look to the world, which only serves to confuse and hurt us further. Nor can we turn to ourselves, for the mirrors of our own hearts are cloudy and cracked, thwarting our search for the truth of what it means to be a woman.

To where, to whom do we turn?

Sisters–the only viable option is Christ. Christ’s definition of femininity is the only one that allows for us to live as women under grace and freedom–to flourish instead of finding ourselves crushed. So, I’ll ask again–what does it mean to bear God’s image as a woman? To be His daughter?

To be a godly woman…is to be responsive. For a woman to be responsive means that a stimulus must cause her to respond. First and foremost, this stimulus is God. To be a woman means to be responsive to God’s voice in her career, her relationships, and in her ministry. It means to be responsive to His commands and His leading in her life through the prompting of the Holy Spirit. It means to  be responsive to the needs of the people around her and the needs of her church. As well, married women are called by God to be responsive to the leadership of their husbands in the marriage–what the Bible calls submission. I know some women reading this just shuddered–but believe me, submission as God designed it is a beautiful thing. I think Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one of the best examples of a responsive woman in history. When the Lord told her that she was going to be carrying the Son of God, she responded with God-given humility and grace to bear the burden that came with being an unwed teen mother (which carried more stigma back then than even today). She willingly accepted God’s enormous call on her life—to raise up the Man who would eventually become the Savior of the World. (Luke 1:26-38)

To be a godly woman…is to be hard-working. A true woman of God is not afraid to diligently work for Christ. True femininity as God plans it means doing all we can for the glory of God, not for men or for worldly success, even when it gets hard or tiring or exhausting sometimes. We should delight in using the gifts God gave us, whether at home, at work, in our communities, or at church. American women are excellent at work–many Christian women have full time jobs as doctors and engineers and professors and nurses and teachers and musicians and any number of things, not to mention the immense load of work that comes with taking care of kids and managing one’s home. It’s a tough, heavy load. But God is honored by hard work, and when it gets hard, we know that, instead of complaining or being lazy, we as godly women can find our rest in Him and know that He will reward our efforts. Ruth exemplified this in the Bible–instead of sitting around and waiting for Boaz to make his move, she gleaned wheat from the harvest field all day long, working diligently for the Lord while waiting for Him to provide for her and her family (Ruth 2).

To be a godly woman…is to be tender. So often I belittle myself for being sensitive and emotional. Stop acting like such a girl. Toughen up. I’m not the only girl who has done this to herself, and I know other women have done it to me, and probably to you, too, sisters. There is something so desperately wrong with this message. Since when did hardening ourselves and repressing emotion become a good thing? To be tender means to be empathetic, compassionate. To be vulnerable, and soft. It was one of the most noticeable and defining traits of Christ. Tenderness is not weakness or deficiency. It is a gift. It is a blessing. It requires trusting God enough to be willing to open yourself up to deep pain and deep joy. Mary Magdalene was one of these tender women. Not only did she stand by Jesus’ side as he was tortured at the cross, but she also showed her sensitive heart and love for Jesus in the empty tomb: “And as [Mary] wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white… They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned and said to him in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher)” (John 20:11-16). What a beautiful picture of tenderness.

To be a godly woman…is to be wise. It’s so awesome to see God characterize wisdom as a woman in the Bible–how empowering, right? Lady Wisdom is “more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed” (Proverbs 3:15-18). A woman must be wise in all things–in matters of her heart, her time, her money, her energy. To be a feminine image bearer of the Lord means that we seek after Him in all our affairs, to humbly ask for His counsel before anyone else’s. After seeking the Lord, we should quick to ask others for guidance and discernment, but also develop trustworthy judgment. To be wise means to use the knowledge we have and make choices with it that honor God.  A wise woman trusts God even when she doesn’t understand, and immerses herself in His Word. She knows that His ways are higher than her ways. Always.

To be a godly woman…is to be inviting. To me, this means drawing people in, not only into your home, but into your life. A godly woman creates an environment of restfulness in her heart and in her surroundings. A truly godly woman is not hard or indifferent, but welcoming and warm, open-armed to others.  And yes, ladies–we can be inviting with our appearances as well. This is where my two cents on modesty comes in. A woman of God should dress herself as a response to who she is in Christ–not out of paralyzing fear of causing a man to lust, nor out of a desire to hide her body or beauty, nor out of a desire to meet the world’s standards of beauty, nor out of a desire to fit in with her friends, nor out of a desire to attract men. Besides, modesty is about so much more than how much skin we do (or don’t) show. The way we dress–everything we do–is to be for the glory of God. We are to be clothed in “strength and dignity” (Proverbs 31:25). That’s modesty–living our lives and dressing ourselves in such a way that exemplifies and invites others to Christ. Lydia, the first female convert to Christianity, was a woman who did this well, opening up her home to disciples of Jesus who were out spreading the gospel: “And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us” (Acts 16:15).

To be a godly woman…is to be a helper. When God made Eve at the dawn of the world, he called her an ezer kenegdo, a Hebrew word that is most often translated to something like  “helper.” But quite literally, the word ezer means something more like “rescuer” or “strength” and the word kenegdo means “as in front of him” or “corresponding to him.” Throughout Scripture, God uses it to refer to Himself, especially in dire situations–He is our Rescuer, our Helper without whom we would be lost. So when God says to be a woman is be a “helper,” He doesn’t mean that she is to be an accessory, of lesser importance than men, or without her own goals and ambitions. No–to be a woman of God is to be absolutely indispensable, whether that be in helping with and sharing in  her husband’s ministry, in helping and serving people who are desperately in need, or helping to fulfill the needs of her church. Martha was a woman who did a really great job of helping others, and both the Gospels of Luke and John mention her service—“Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house…But Martha was distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:38-40). Of course, like Martha, we must make sure we’re not putting serving others over spending time with the Lord.

To be a godly woman…is to be encouraging. To be feminine is to be encouraging, inspiring the people around you to move toward the Lord, motivating them, being their cheerleaders, giving them a kind word or a compliment, dreaming with them! So often, in our brokenness, women twist this capacity to encourage into something really ugly–gossip, nagging, manipulation. In contrast, encouragement is life-giving. It propagates itself. Elizabeth encouraged her sister, Mary, the mother of Jesus: “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord’” (Luke 1:41-45). Elizabeth’s encouragement to Mary moved her to sing her own song of praise to the Lord, a song known as the Magnificat. See how encouragement begets itself? And sisters, this is not just a job for married women, nor is encouragement something wives give only to husbands. Every woman–single or married–should encourage both brothers and sisters toward the Lord, with Scripture, prayers, and kind words. Women with more life experience–please, please encourage the younger women in your life. I cannot tell you how much the encouragement of women in my church (shout-out to Tammy Shull) has meant to me. Women who encourage do a beautiful, godly, feminine thing.

To be a godly woman…is to be nurturing.  I love this word, especially when it’s used in the context of relationships. So often we women think that our role as women is to just sit around and wait for a man to sweep us off our feet while doing absolutely nothing in the mean time. That’s frustrating. And disempowering. It’s not what God meant for single women–instead, He created us to be nurturers. To nurture means to grow, to develop, to cultivate. Single women who desire marriage need to be nurturing themselves as women of the Lord, growing in grace, developing discipline, and cultivating the character traits of the godly wife and mother they aspire to be.  And yes–that also means nurturing (not initiating) relationships with their brothers in Christ. Nurturing is also especially important to the feminine role of being a mother and raising children, which is arguably one of the most sacred callings God can give a woman. For all my sisters without children (or those cringing at the thought of sticky toddler hands), we are called to be nurturers through our relationships with other women in our lives, especially the ones we disciple, growing them in truth and grace. Moses’s mother, Jochebed, was a great example of this. Not only did she protect her son by sending him away down the river in a time of mortal danger, but once she realized that he had been taken in by the Pharaoh’s daughter, she continued to care for him by securing her position as his nursemaid under the daughter of the Pharaoh. She nurtured and cared for her son, even in dire circumstances (Exodus 2:1-10).

To be a godly woman…is to be strong. In a spiritual sense, this means not to rely on her own strength, but to rely on God’s strength at all costs. To be fiercely confident in God’s ability to provide for and protect her. To be strong when facing temptation, and not giving in. In the physical sense, it means she values her health and her body, not for the way it looks, but for what it can do–run, jump, turn cartwheels through a field. To have arms strong from carrying her children to bed, to or to have legs strong from running marathons. And strength means endurance and perseverance through adversity. To be a woman means to endure hardship with grace and faith and integrity, and to protect those who depend on her. Queen Esther is an amazing example of feminine strength–her Uncle Mordecai told her that it was up to her to stop Haman’s plot to commit genocide against the Jews, her people, by going to her husband’s court. But women were forbidden to enter the king’s court by penalty of death, and more than that, the king had no idea his wife was secretly Jewish. Nevertheless, she replied, “‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish'” (Esther 4:16). Her fearlessness, her confidence in God marked just how strong of a woman she was.

To be a godly woman…is to be beautiful and cultivate beauty.  Beauty is such an essential aspect of femininity. Every woman desires in her heart of hearts to have her beauty discovered and delighted in–not just external beauty, but inner beauty as well. Is this search for beauty shallow or something to be ashamed of? I don’t think so. You only need to look at the colors of a sunrise or listen to an opera or read the poetry of Song of Solomon to know how deeply God values beauty. The Shulammite woman sings, “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills…My beloved speaks and says to me, ‘Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come'” (Song of Solomon 2:8-11). So often, women turn to men or the world for this kind of affirmation and as a result, we only end up believing lies or getting deeply hurt. We put up walls, we resent beautiful women, we tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, and we cry ourselves to sleep. Why? Why do we want it so badly? I think it’s because, deep inside, we know that we as women were originally created to reflect that aspect of God, inwardly and outwardly–God, who is Beauty Himself. But then Eve took the apple. And all of creation suffered. Despite the ugly world we live in, to be feminine means to find the beauty under all the ashes, to cultivate beauty within and without (but primarily within), to see reflections of His beauty in yourself and others and the world around you. And ultimately, it means to rest in the fact that God finds us beautiful because of Christ, and that through Christ, we become more beautiful. “Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” (1 Peter 3:3-4)

I think these qualities exemplify what it means to be a daughter of God–what it means to bear His image as a woman. Godly femininity is such a precious gift that so many women misunderstand–including me. I don’t claim to have every one of these traits down perfectly. But I think if I was trying to do all of these perfectly, I’d be missing the point. Because more than anything…to be a godly woman is to be defined by Christ’s grace alone. It means that we do not define ourselves by the world, or by what we do, or by our own standards of being a woman. When we define ourselves by who we are in Him–accepted, beloved, redeemed, righteous, beautiful– we not only become more like Him, but we become more like the women we were meant to be–women under grace. We become more like our true selves.

–Erin

P.S. Here are some awesome videos for women, by Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign. And the last one is just too dang hilarious not to share.

(Painting: The Ballet Class by Edgar Degas)
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