Posts about Spirituality and Church written by Bailey Steger. We want Christian women to know they are persons with unique callings and stories, that they share more in common with men as humans than they do differences as male and female, and that their femininity reflects God’s nature too.
Just a thought I’m noodling on, from Marcus J. Borg’s book, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally:
Fundamentalism has created so much cognitive dissonance between my faith and the things that I see with my own two eyes. So much so, that all I know about faith is that it’s about believing in impossible things. Isn’t that how people describe it? Faith is believing the impossible?
I’m fine with believing in unproveable things. That sort of belief accepts humanity’s intellectual limitations and the universe’s mysteries. Nobody can prove that there is or isn’t a God, for example. I sympathize with all the reasonable arguments for or against those claims. But the point is, there are reasonable, if not conclusive, arguments for the existence of God. Our understanding of God helps explain the things we don’t or can’t know.
My problem is with an understanding of faith that requires me to believe things I know are most likely not true, or are demonstrably untrue, a faith that pits reason against spirituality.
As Borg says,
Christianity in the modern period became preoccupied with the dynamic of believing or not believing. For many people, believing “iffy” claims to be true became the central meaning of Christian faith. It is an odd notion — as if what God most wants from us is believing highly problematic statements to be factually true. And if one can’t believe them, then one doesn’t have faith and isn’t a Christian (p. 16).
This was my exact crisis of faith during college: I wanted to believe — I did believe — in the transcendent truths of Christianity, but I simply could not believe the things I knew to be demonstrably problematic, illogical, or cruel. I couldn’t pretend that I could believe those problematic “facts,” not without giving up my integrity and intellectual honesty.
I longed to go back to when the problematic facts about Christianity were not problematic, when the world was simpler and more dogmatic, when there wasn’t as much division between what I believed and what I believed probable.
But once you see something, you can’t un-see it. Once I couldn’t believe something, I couldn’t force myself to believe it again.
Guess that meant excommunication for me. People acted like I’d abandoned the faith because I couldn’t find illogical, destructive statements about God, reality, and the Bible reasonable and good. Honestly, I thought I’d abandoned the faith.
But Borg makes a simple, brilliant point: This sort of faith — believing the impossible and the illogical — is completely irrelevant to the kind of faith practiced in the earlier Christian period. Few, if any, people had doubts about the factuality of the how the Bible presented science and history. They weren’t as aware of the rest of the world’s culture and religions. They didn’t know what we know now in all kinds of intellectual categories. Most Christians couldn’t even read the Bible, much less base their faith off untenable claims like “the Bible makes perfect sense and never contradicts itself” or confusing theological platitudes like “God ordains suffering, but he doesn’t cause it.”
Yet they had faith. They valued faith — a faith that absolutely nothing to do with choosing to believe “Biblical facts” over scientific, historical, psychological, medical, and sociological facts.
Their faith was in devotion to Christ and his message, a message that made sense to them, that made sense of reality around them, even if it allowed room for the things they couldn’t know — not an alternative set of facts that they found difficult to believe.
Like I said, I’m noodling on that for a while longer.
The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.
I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.
But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?
Enter adult braces.
Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.
Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.
P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.
And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.
It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.
I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.
That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.
It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.
It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.
I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.
That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.
And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.
Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.
Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.
The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.
Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.
For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.
One of the things I love about J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is the presence of all kinds of humans, magical creatures, and different mixes and sub-categories of the two. There are quite literally different kinds of beings — house elves, centaurs, giants, blast-ended skrewts. They all operate under their own laws, in their own communities, in their own ways. And a good many sub-plots deal with the inter-mingling of these different kinds of creatures — particularly, how to treat them as equals without necessarily treating them as human (as if humanness were the ultimate standard of being, as the centaurs scoff in The Order of the Phoenix).
It’s a big but sometimes subtle theme running through the series: peace between different worlds, communities, and kinds of creatures requires an appreciation of individuals and kinds for who they are. Hagrid admires and cares for the worst of the magical creatures, finding joy in dangerous and ugly things that aren’t tamed or meant for human companionship or service. Mr. Weasley, despite being a pure-blood wizard, is fascinated with the Muggles and their way of life, not only protecting Muggles from regurgitating toilets and biting doorknobs but allowing Muggle influence into his own life (like trying out medical stitches as an alternative treatment). And in Hogwarts itself, Dumbledore shelters, employs, and trusts a whole host of characters who are incompetent, useless, and sometimes evil — the emotionally abusive Snape, all the Slytherins with Death Eater ties, phony Professor Trelawney, crotchety Filch whose idea of justice is stringing up students who track mud through his halls, and the mischievous Peeves who exists solely to wreak havoc in the castle.
We learn throughout the series of these characters’ hurts, back stories, and vulnerabilities. While Dumbledore is aware of these shortcomings and their effects on pupils, he extends patience, respect, and understanding to them, and expects students to do the same. They are inconvenient, annoying, and even harmful, but that, it seems, isn’t the litmus test for acceptance in the Hogwarts community.
This is what fascinates me about Dumbledore’s accepting community: He includes people we in the Muggle world are busy trying to oust from our communities. Only when people arise with the true power to harm students through taking away their agency (Professor Umbrage, ahem) or destroying who they are altogether (Voldemort) does he oppose and remove them from Hogwarts. The racist Slytherins remain at Hogwarts, but the racist Umbrage is removed from control of the community. The authoritarian Filch remains, but Dumbledore never allows him to act out his authoritarian wishes. Flawed — even horrible — people remain in the community as long as they cooperate with or are able to be kept in check by Dumbledore’s restrictions.
Otherwise, the message is clear: Since you’ve got the freedom to be who you are, stand up for yourself, switch classes, and appeal to sympathetic authorities, you’re expected to live at peace with everyone.
(This, I think, is where the Christian message of love and grace breaks down: too often Christians teach a radical personal love without trying to set up a community or a concept of self that protects everyone. All churches, countries, families, marriages, and other relationships must ensure the above freedoms and agencies, or people will not be safe enough or empowered enough to love their enemies or their obnoxious neighbors.)
Everybody in the series has their own struggles with this expectation. For instance, Hagrid’s love and respect of all creatures leads him to try to capture, tame, or interact with dangerous creatures best left at a distance. (See the disastrous blast-ended skrewt lesson pictured above.) Hermione tries to figure out how to respect the house elves’ dignity on their own terms while challenging their unfair treatment. And then there’s the obvious problem of racist pure-blood wizards who harm or look down upon Squibs, Muggles, and Muggle-born wizards — or otherwise good-hearted people with prejudice, like Sirius, who treats Snape and Kreacher in horrible ways for understandable, if close-minded, reasons.
I’ve been thinking about how badly we in the Muggle world need to understand these things: There are truly different kinds of people and different kinds of communities who thrive best when allowed to live according to their own internal standards. Often when we do see different kinds of humans, we categorize them wrongly — either along the wrong differences (race, ethnicity, sex) or in the wrong way (through power hierarchies or through division, separation, and restriction). We judge and value different kinds of people by how similar or how innocuous or how useful they are to our ways of being human.
In my marriage, in my raising of kids, and in my interactions with other people, I’ve become aware of just how different my husband and my son and other individuals are. They are interested in different things. They prioritize different things. They struggle with different things. And it’s tempting to try to shape them into ways of being that minimize all annoyance, inconvenience, and hurt for me.
Of course, where people have true power to harm others or to restrict their being in Umbrage-like fashion, they must be opposed, and they must change. Where people aren’t growing well in the ways of their own kind, or in ways that aren’t conducive to peace, I must support them in changing and growing (if they’re willing) and/or set appropriate boundaries (if they’re unwilling). But where there are simply inter-species, inter-house, inter-kind differences, it’s my job to love them, appreciate them, and encourage them to be as they are — just as I want them to love, appreciate, and encourage me to be as I am.
This doesn’t mean ignoring my limitations and weaknesses or their potential to harm me. In fact, it’s imperative that I understand my vulnerabilities, their triggers (which are often their own vulnerabilities too), and what happens when you mix the two. We instinctively understand this when we humans interact with animals (or magical creatures). We keep our distance, or wear protective gear, or move more slowly, or interact in ways the animal recognizes as peaceable — bowing to the hippogriff, as it were, instead of looking it in the eye and basically asking for it to strike. We understand that hippogriffs aren’t dangerous unless blatantly provoked, that peaceable encounters between kinds rely a lot on education and respect.
I’m learning to do the same with the people I love…and the people who annoy me to no end, or even harm me in some ways. The Gottman Institute reports that 69% of marital conflicts are unsolvable — resolutely and immovably rooted in fundamental differences. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is not fewer differences or more compatibility in a sameness sort of way; it’s the ability to reframe, respect, and work around those issues.
It’s the same sort of situation (if not more so) with our children, or with our co-workers or with our fellow parishioners and countrymen or our enemies — with people we didn’t choose to spend a good amount of time and energy on.
It all comes back to this basic understanding of others’ inherent dignity and our duty by them: People exist to be respected and appreciated and living the lives God created them to live — not bent to my will, convenience, or way of life. They are important not because of what they can do for me or to me but simply because they are.
The world may not need all kinds in a way that makes sense to us, but the world involves all kinds — squibs and wizards, centaurs and humans, Slytherins and Gryffindors, and yes, even blast-ended skrewts, obnoxious ghosts, vindictive caretakers, children of Death Eaters and real world people with problems and prejudice. And since they exist, and they exist differently from us, and we’ve got to get along under a roof or a church or a school or a country, we must love, respect, and understand them as we want to be loved, respected, and understood.
We Christians are in quite a pickle with this speaking-truth-in-love business.
We care deeply about the truth, and we care deeply about love, and since God’s truth leads to life, we thus conclude that the most loving thing we can do is to share it. Everybody else, even our fellow Christians, has reported that they don’t find our truth-telling loving. People track their insecurity, anger, depression, anxiety, and suicide attempts back to the truth we so lovingly shared.
We think they’re just angry and bitter, lost in their sins, until someone lovingly drops a “truth” bomb on us — and then we see the shattering effects of speaking the truth in love.
How do we move on from there with the knowledge that no matter our intentions, our word choice, or our tone, our truth-telling offends more than it reconciles? We’re stuck: Silence seems like tacit agreement, which compromises truth. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be holy and set apart. Speaking up rarely comes across as loving, which, obviously, compromises our call to love. We can’t do that; we’re supposed to be known by our love.
What’s an others-loving, righteousness-pursuing Christian to do?
I’m finding that the problem isn’t necessarily with believing in absolute truths or making judgment calls according to a God-given standard. We all have our beliefs. (Of course, some beliefs are antithetical to love, and many more beliefs make it difficult to love fully.) And the solution isn’t changing our minds, because, again, some beliefs aren’t truthful or good or beneficial and they need to be called out. Nor is the solution merely changing our motives to a more tactful tone. Poison with a spoonful of sugar is still poison.
I think we need to abandon the legalistic idea that (nicely) presenting people with the law is an effective, life-giving thing.
I grew up hearing people talk about God’s Word as life-giving and powerful in and of itself. That’s why people post combative Bible verses on billboards or leave Bibles in hotel drawers or shout about hell on the sidewalk. God’s Word is magical and always applicable in whatever form a person encounters.
This isn’t true. In fact, Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees’ strict adherence to the law set a stumblingblock to them and others. Paul talks about how the law brings death. Even though it’s perfect, even though it’s good, even though it’s right and true, the law brings death.
Why? Because nobody is perfect. The Pharisees, the people waving signs, the church paying for the confrontational billboard, and all the people they want to toe the line — nobody is perfect. It’s not motivational to see how badly we fall short. It’s devastating. It makes us want to rebel or give up. The law cannot bring life, no matter how nicely it’s phrased.
The only reason many Christians see the law as life-giving is because (1) many Christians don’t realize how badly they transgress the law, not with the planks blinding their eyes; and (2), more charitably, the law comes to them at a time of receptiveness and growth.
If someone were to scream at you on the street that you’re going to hell, you’d be offended. If you already believe you’re worthy of hellfire and that’s why you’re in a Southern Baptist Church this morning, the spittle-flecked rant against sin is meeting you where you’re at.
The thing is, Christianity isn’t about keeping the law. It’s about development and life. It’s about bearing with the weaker Christians and holding back condemnation from stronger ones. It’s about judging rightly. It’s about wisdom. Because Christianity understands that nobody can keep the law. That’s why there’s Jesus and grace and forgiveness.
It’s exactly like childhood development.
When a baby is born, he is utterly incapable of walking. It doesn’t matter how nicely or persuasively you explain how mature people must walk. He can’t do it. There’s a whole process of development before he can walk. And for some infants, disability prevents them from walking at all, ever. Reasonable parents support their infant in his development, knowing that working on holding up his head and rolling over all develop into the skills that allow him to walk later on. They don’t even mention walking. It’s pointless, and if their unrealistic expectations start coming out in anger or disappointment, children can even regress in development. Holding up walking as the standard a child must meet even when he’s unable to do so is shaming and damaging.
But there is still a standard. While reasonable parents aren’t even discussing that standard with their crawling baby, it’s important that they know there’s a general developmental milestone children should be meeting within a certain time frame. Without knowing those benchmarks, they could miss warning signs that set their child up for struggles later on. It’d be insane for a parent to ignore the fact that their three-year-old child isn’t walking yet, insisting that it’s fine, that there’s nothing wrong, that it’s just the way she is.
Those developmental milestones are in place not to shame kids unable to reach them but to alert parents to something else that’s wrong.
That’s what the law does for us. It alerts us to what’s wrong. And grace allows us to be wrong, weak, and imperfect, trusting that God will complete the good work he started in us. Grace acknowledges that we start from a place of helplessness and sickness, even death. It allows for a process of salvation. It allows for the celebration of who we are in Christ — competent, wonderful, beloved creations — knowing that we’re going through the natural bumps and setbacks and limitations of immature people growing up.
Just as I delight in my son’s crawling, unfazed that he’s not walking (even though I of course want him to be walking eventually), God delights in who we are now, even if we fall short of the perfect and the mature. (And we do.)
We ought to take God’s perspective — the loving parental perspective — when approaching the weaknesses and imperfections in ourselves and others. This is the way of love: viewing everybody not in terms of how badly they fall short of the law but in terms of which stage of development they’re in. This is the way of grace: celebrating the progress, meeting the needs, and strengthening the capabilities people currently have as a way of paving the way to more growth.
I absolutely do not believe that salvation is a one and done deal that unlocks instant, attainable perfection. That is, I don’t think that making an initial profession of faith enables you to perfectly keep the law just like that.
No, faith rescues us from a legal, accusatory way of perfectionism that holds weak, hurting, broken people accountable to an impossible standard. Faith changes the dynamic between us and God — now we understand that he is not our accuser, but our defender, our lover, our parent, the one who knows us best, celebrates us as we are, and loves us no matter what.
Faith also changes the dynamic between us and the law. Under Christ, it is a beneficial schoolteacher rather than the revelation of our doom. We look to it like a child glancing up to the alphabet chart to remember which way lowercase b goes. We strive toward the goal, we might get frustrated that our handwriting still isn’t where we want, but our eternal salvation isn’t bound up on getting it right then or tomorrow or even several grades later. We’re still learning and growing. We’re still immature. Maturity comes after a long process of development involving lots of failure and imperfection.
How does all of this apply to speaking the truth in love?
Now that the law is more like an elementary spelling book or a developmental guideline than federal law, we need to approach our application of it with wisdom.
My precocious teenage self once theorized that knowledge is knowing things, understanding is knowing how to apply things, and wisdom is knowing when to apply things. I still stand by those distinctions.
We need to speak the truth with wisdom as well as love. Wisdom involves three steps: knowing what’s right and wrong; knowing how to communicate that knowledge of right and wrong in a helpful, loving way; and knowing whether that particular moment is the time to share that knowledge.
Whether it’s beneficial or not to the other person depends not only on the truthful content of your beliefs or your kindhearted motives; it depends on whether it’s what the person needs to hear at that time. Are you, metaphorically, suggesting that they walk when they’re just learning to crawl? Are you asking a pig to fly? Are you throwing pearls before swine or answering a fool according to his folly?
We can all look back on a time when someone said something that stuck with us and changed us for the better. It hurt like heck at the time, but it was true, and it was needed — not only in the sense that we were wrong, but in the sense that we were ready to hear it even if we didn’t want to hear it. We were capable of understanding and processing what was said in a way that was helpful, just like a parent encouraging her one-year-old to take her first steps. It was fifth-grade material given to a fifth-grade student, not a death sentence. It was frustrating and hard, but we could handle it.
That’s why Paul emphasizes showing patience with the weaker brothers and understanding with the stronger. That’s why there’s no condemnation in Christ: we can struggle and flail at our own pace. We can go through the grieving process and recover from trauma and be ignorant and mess up all the time. We can rejoice with those who rejoice instead of reminding them that kids in Africa are starving. We can weep with those who weep without cautioning them to give thanks always. We can meet people where they’re at without worrying that our love will enable them to live sinful lives.
If that all seems complicated, it is. If it seems like we all need to take classes on human psychology, it’s true. If you feel like maybe you’ve said a lot more than you should, you’re probably right.
Tellingly, when we approach truth-telling with wisdom, we likely won’t speak much at all: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).
I’ve been thinking a lot about how much of Christian spirituality overvalues the distinctly spiritual and undervalues the physical. There are plenty of reasons why this is, but one of them, I’m convinced, is because we’ve silenced or tuned out the voices of people who live an embodied spirituality — women.
Think about it. When you think of great historic Christians who influenced your understanding of spirituality, who comes to mind? Lots of men, who, even if married or fathers, dedicated themselves to full-time ministry or contemplation. Maybe some women, most likely single and dedicated to a life of celibacy and contemplation. People whose days revolve around thinking, reading, praying, silence, solitude. These are the people in our pulpits and seminaries and historical narratives.
The only spiritual experiences we hear are of those whose vocation sets them apart from the physical world as much as possible. Is it any wonder that when we want a closer walk with God, we think that quiet, solitude, contemplation, and Scriptural study are not merely critical components of devotion but THE THINGS that comprise a relationship with God?
Take the ubiquitous quiet time. We’re told that’s God’s time. That’s the place we meet God. If you don’t have that in your life as the TOP PRIORITY, are you even a Christian?
Jamie Wright, in The Very Worst Missionary, recounts her visceral reaction to a Christian mom’s group that encouraged young mothers to give up even more sleep to find quiet time with Jesus. The group was shocked at Jamie’s treasonous insistence that for these moms, sleep was more important than quiet time. But Jamie wanted to know why quiet time had to be quiet.
[W]hen the group leader made that little quip about quiet time needing to be quiet, an unexpected volcano of molten outrage burst forth from the depths of my soul. …
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, then call it ‘loud time’! Call it ‘chaos time.’ Call it what it’s supposed to be, which is ‘intentional time’! … I will not be getting up any earlier. Nope. I’m gonna honor God intentionally in my sleep, because I’m pretty sure God wants me to be the very best mother I can possibly be to my boys. I will listen for God’s voice in the wilderness, and at the water park, and under McDonald’s indoor play structure, because that is my daily loud time and God is faithful to meet me in the chaos” (pages 83-85).
As that mom group demonstrates, the female spiritual life is mostly about how to fit the vocation of the celibate, the contemplative, and the clergy into the insanely busy, physical, exhausting vocations of mom, wife, and housekeeper. Our spiritual reflections are on how to carve out a quiet time or wade through a busy season of life until you can get to another season with more quiet time. Hang in there!
There’s often a sense that our work is meaningful and eternal and spiritual, but only because of its future implications. We’re the cradle-rocking hand that rocks the world — that is, all our work matters because it raises kids who will change the world. We’re the great women behind the great men — our work matters because it enables men to do great spiritual things.
And that’s true. Behind every man who “dedicates his life to God” (as if laypeople don’t), there’s another person — most likely a woman — keeping him fed and cleaning his toilet.
What we women need to realize is that this work matters and is spiritual and eternally significant not just because it enables “greater” spiritual work. This is spiritual work. It is intrinsically meaningful because the human body and the everyday good life are intrinsically meaningful.
Redemption involves saving human souls and also tidying up the living room, bringing order to chaos, bringing balance and beauty to every aspect of life. Traditional women’s work is not lesser, merely a stepping stone to greater spiritual things. It is as great and as meaningful and as dedicated to God as joining a convent or taking priestly vows or shipping off to China as a missionary.
One of the church’s strengths is drawing from the experience of people with different vocations. I’m certainly not advocating that women shouldn’t listen to those with time and energy to contemplate, pray, and study, or that they shouldn’t try to incorporate these practices and insights into their own lives. I’m saying it should go both ways.
The everyday, physical, mundane spiritual practices women have faithfully lived for millennia are critical for a relationship with God. Women’s spiritual lives give unique insight into what it means to live an embodied spirituality. Our experience as mothers provides transformative information about the nature of God as love and about a sacrificial life. What other normal Christian experiences physical, emotional, and mental sacrifices than pregnant, nursing, and primary caretaking mothers? Getting up to a day full of exciting things like scrubbing the bathtub and wiping snotty noses forms the soul in unique ways. Dutifully doing things that must be done again the next day (or five minutes later) teaches us how to live with hope of the resurrection and restoration of all things, in defiance of the fallen world’s decay. There’s no better way of understanding sin and grace and salvation than raising children with love and patience.
The holy practices of cleaning, waiting for a slow toddler, budgeting, driving to a chorus of “are we there yet?” — these things are not only a meaningful, transformative spiritual experience for the women who live them, they are meaningful, transformative spiritual practices for everyone. Even the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy.
It is patently false that the contemplatives, the celibate, and the clergy have the edge on spirituality. That is not how an embodied, incarnational Christian spirituality works. All of us need the spiritual experience of women who are too busy and tired from motherhood and homemaking to preach sermons or write blog posts. Not just to hear how on earth they find quiet time for Jesus every morning at the crack of dawn, but how they practice loud time and how we can practice it too.
The thing that pushed me away from Christianity was actually the least Christian of Christian-y things: an ultra-cerebral, hyper-emotional, over-spiritualized spirituality that suppressed or demonized my human embodiment.
The Christian Savior took on flesh and lived thirty years of ordinary everyday life before doing anything remotely heroic. The Christian hope involves the resurrection of our bodies, even the weird, embarrassing, gross parts. The Christian liturgy involved all five senses — kneeling, signs of the cross, incense, weekly edible sacraments, music. The Christian spiritual life looked like loving the guy next door, even if you hated him, and taking care of your family, and living your life, minding your own business, and doing daily, mundane practices like prayer and drinking a little wine for your stomach problems. The most distinctly Christian things about Christianity — the incarnate life and death of Christ, the resurrection, our daily unspectacular worship — require the physical.
What passes as Christian spirituality today looks like none of that.
Long sermons catering to knowing the right things and long periods of worship meant to inspire strong emotions dominate churches. The church’s most common ministries, like Sunday school, involve teaching the right stuff about the Bible.
The evangelical Christianity of my youth saw our relationship with God as something separate than and primary over everyday life. Truly dedicated Christians spent as much time in relationship with God as they could, with daily quiet times (preferably right at the beginning of the day, since Jesus is more important than sleep). How often you consciously thought about Jesus was a sign of how mature you were in your faith, I was told. Moms and secular workers and kids in school got a pass, a pat on the head, an encouragement that “there are seasons when you don’t have as much time for Jesus, and God understands that; just spend as much time as you can with him; there’s grace; don’t worry.”
But I did worry, because when my relationship with God is something separate from the rest of my life, everything that I do ultimately becomes a distraction. Marriage, kids, brushing my teeth — all good but distracting things. And even though I knew there was God’s grace for stuff like that, I felt that everyday life — both its requirements and its pleasures — were guilty little sins that God turned a blind eye to. What did it say about me that I would rather read a novel that didn’t even mention God to shutting my door and praying?
Since my devotion to God was measured by how much I consciously thought about him, spoke to him, and set aside time to him, every time I chose to do something else with my time, I felt like I was betraying him.
Then there was the fundamentalist influence, that required a total separation from and/or spiritualizing of everyday life. Certain enjoyable things were off-limits (like drinking or watching R-rated movies), and enjoying those things revealed a crooked heart more interested in the things of the flesh than the things of the Spirit. It was confusing to get a hang of the exact rules, but I eventually figured them out: intellectual and artistic stuff was okay if it came to the right moral and theological conclusions; caring for your personal appearance was okay if it involved looking good for your husband, making sure men didn’t stumble, celebrating “femininity,” and showing respect to God on Sundays (otherwise it was vanity); hanging out with people was okay if you called it “fellowshipping.” Everything needed to have an explicitly Biblical stamp of approval to call it good or Christian.
Then there was the river of asceticism and dualism from which these evangelical and fundamentalist tributaries flowed: the life of the saints, who gave up everything to go to foreign countries or “do ministry,” or hole themselves away for a life devoted to quiet time. These were the super-Christians, the ones who took Jesus seriously and literally. Again, we lesser peons who drove to work and raised kids and lived in the suburbs got understanding pats on the head that our lives could kind of be like Jesus’s too — but the really serious Christians weren’t afraid to give up everything and go anywhere and dedicate themselves to Official Christian Ministry. That was the ultimate Christian life we needed to work up to.
In other words, our relationship with God was something separate from our everyday life. Our ministry was something separate from our everyday life (unless you were a super-Christian who gave up everyday life for an extraordinary, ministerial life). Our spirituality relied on the cognitive (researching, assenting to, and nicely strong-arming others into believing the right things; consciously thinking about, talking to, or hearing from God), the emotional (feeling the joy, happiness, connection to, and presence of God), and the supernaturally miraculous and huge (obvious ministry, inexplicable miracles).
Yes, yes, there was sometimes room for the everyday life, but it wasn’t the best use of your redeemed life. Maybe self-care was okay if it made you better able to do your ministry, or maybe reading that secular novel was okay if you made you think about God in a different way. Conscious thought about and interaction with God was the definition of Christian spirituality. Explicit serving of others was the definition of the sanctified Christian life.
All of that sounds awesome — but I just wasn’t cut out for that. Quiet times felt destructive to my faith, a place where I begged for God to show up and got silence. The constant giving and going of this always-happy, always-exciting, always-huge, always-others-centered spirituality exhausted me. The duality of wanting so badly to love and serve and worship God by putting him first but needing to brush my teeth or wanting to read a secular novel ate me up.
I felt God’s presence in relationship with people. I wanted my body and my daily needs and my desires and my humanity to be significant to God instead of distractions to my relationship with him. I wanted to unite the spiritual and the physical, the everyday and the supernatural.
Having tentatively lived this spirituality for a couple years, I’m confident in saying that this embodied spiritual life is transformative and healing and 110% Christian. It’s not that conscious theological thought or prayer or quiet times are un-Christian. We are spiritual creatures too, and God is Spirit. Those are Christian acts. They’re just not inherently “more Christian” than physical things.
I don’t hear God speaking into my soul. But I have gained lots of wisdom from the world and people around me, and that is the voice of God. I don’t do Official Christian Ministry. But with every relational interaction, I try to think about how to respect the other person and make peace with them. I don’t have a designated time for Jesus, because I have the opportunity to meet God in every moment and every person. I don’t consciously think about God every second of my life, because he is in all things, and all good things come from him. I don’t verbally pray without ceasing, because my “prayers,” my response to God’s goodness, come in the form of deep-belly laughter and tears and silence. I don’t experience God in a supernatural way, because he entered into the natural and made it holy.
I take care of my body as an act of defiance against death and decay, because I trust that my body will experience the resurrection. I enjoy sex and baby snuggles and stupidly insignificant conversations with my sisters, because God created me to need and find joy in people. He too lives within an eternally Triune relationship. I wash the dishes and make the bed and vacuum the crumbs off the floor, because I reflect God’s image in taming the chaos. I read secular novels and study art by crazy atheists and think about interesting things that non-Christians have said, because the image of God as creator resides in all of us. I take time to care for just me, because God loves me — not primarily as an instrument to serve him or others, but as a beloved child of God.
And I go to church every week, and say the same prayers I said last week, and have some awkward and not eternally significant conversations with fellow churchgoers, because the Christian life is not about the exotic and the emotional and the supernatural, but about the everyday and the repetitive and the incarnational. Sometimes the sermon is really inspiring, or the Eucharist makes me cry, and sometimes I just sit in the pews, unmoved, knowing that in this mundane act, I’m following in the steps of our Lord, who lived a totally ordinary life too.
Many of these thoughts stem from Tish Harrison Warren’s book, Liturgy of the Ordinary.
In my formative days, I read lots of articles calling “me time” selfish. The job of a wife and mother was to give and give and give, these women insisted. Any unhappiness, resentment, or exhaustion about this endless giving was a sign of her pride and selfishness. She didn’t need a break. She needed to give more. The blessing of giving and giving and giving was the only satisfaction she needed in life, and the only respite she was allowed was one quiet time with Jesus — at the crack of dawn, of course.
This is spirituality at its falsest. This is the corpse-stinking spirituality that Jesus railed against when he called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. On the outside, this spirituality sounds so good: how selfless, putting everybody’s needs ahead of oneself! How pious, having all the needs you can’t ignore met by Jesus alone! How can anyone argue with a spirituality like that? But on the inside, it’s just death and decay: frazzled, resentful, tired, cranky, unfulfilled women, always striving and never satisfied.
The only reason they continue like this is because they think their sinful nature brings this dissatisfaction on themselves and that someday God will reward their selflessness.
They’re right that they bring most of this on themselves, what with their refusal to acknowledge their human limits. They’re wrong that God is passing out participation prizes for Most Burnt-Out Woman in the hereafter.
A False Humility
Christians get selflessness and humility wrong. Even C. S. Lewis’s famous correction misses the heart of humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Christian spirituality’s ultimate goal is not selflessness — that is, it’s not a negation or repudiation of self. It’s redemption, reunification, restoration: all things come together in shalom through Christ. Shalom means more than peace or the absence of chaos. It means wholeness. As one rabbi explains it, “In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. … [T]hat is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole.”
When Christ says he has come to give us life to the fullest, he is referring to this shalom. It’s a reordering. It’s a balancing. And in the context of shalom, humility is a reckoning of how my life affects others’ lives and how that in turn affects the shalom of the whole world.
A selflessness defined as unending giving is self-centered and proud. It ignores two important realities: you have limits, and you are not the driving force in other people’s lives.
A truly humble person recognizes and accepts her limits. She knows she is human. Just as she needs restorative sleep and good food, she needs meaningful self-care. While the anti-me-time articles bemoan the self-centeredness of today’s culture, frankly, I haven’t met a single person who practices intentional and meaningful self-care. We all seem to operate at half-power, eating junk, skipping sleep, burning the candle at both ends. We act like we can go forever, like illness and exhaustion and hunger and burn-out are just unfortunate little accidents instead of warning signs that we’re overextending ourselves.
From a purely utilitarian perspective, this is wasting our potential to serve others. We’ve all been there, pouring ourselves out as living sacrifices to one group of people, and then coming home to yell at our husbands and kids before crying ourselves to sleep.
From a perspective of shalom, this is about as unbalanced as we can get. We refuse to accept our mortality. We refuse to accept our bodies and minds as good things in need of love and stewardship, rather than annoying extremities getting in the way of real spirituality.
Besides, if we’re truly interested in other people’s well-being, constant giving is not everybody else’s default need.
There is a self-centeredness that says, “I am the center of the universe. Everyone must serve me.” But there’s also a self-centeredness that passes as humility: “I make the universe go round. I must serve everyone.”
Both share an inflated sense of importance in other people’s lives, while ignoring the actual impact we have on those around us. Giving indiscriminately often devalues others. It teaches us to see them as fundamentally helpless, in need of our particular help. It enables them to depend on us in areas they need to depend upon themselves. It takes away chances for them to develop skills and virtues. It’s critical for children and husbands to respect their mom and wife’s space and time: it teaches them generosity, patience, empathy, and, yes, selflessness.
A False Contentment
This is a really weird thing about humans: it’s sometimes harder for us to say no than to say yes. Again, while our culture may applaud self-care, few people practice it. Our understanding of love is codependent and conflict-averse. We’d rather give in to our kids’ and husbands’ demands than stick to our principles. It’s far easier to limp along with everybody else superficially happy than face their displeasure — or the reasons why it’s so hard for us to say no.
When women tell other women to give more as a solution to their burn-out, they’re peddling a false contentment. “It’s just the way it is,” they say. “This is just the season you’re in. Get over yourself and stop looking at other women’s green pastures.”
There’s a grain of truth in this. The world is broken, and life is hard and unfair, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.
But as Christians, our work is one of redemption. We must see our restlessness and groaning and “ill content” as signs that the status quo is not God’s best. We must be prepared to do the hard work of redeeming and re-balancing that everyday brokenness around us. This starts with our own imbalanced lives.
Often our constant giving and our “just accept it and move on” attitude mask the true issues we need to work on. Do we really need to get over our “selfish” desire that our husband cook dinner once a week, or do we instead need some work on our fear of holding our husband accountable? Do we really need to check that attitude that wishes we could go to the bathroom without tiny kids tumbling in after us, or do we need to deal with childhood abandonment issues that make it impossible for us to disappoint our kids?
While ignoring our emotions and pressing on is difficult, it’s often a cop-out to the harder but more rewarding work of redemption.
A False Gratitude
These anti-self-care women are like the Israelites in the desert. They moan for God’s provision (even if they won’t admit it) when they can just walk out of their tents and collect all the manna they want. They want the relief, but they aren’t willing to take responsibility for getting it.
We often don’t acknowledge how desperately we need something until we get it. We ignore our needs and burn ourselves out and don’t realize it until someone comes along and meets that need. That conversation or that day off or that time when hubby washed the dishes for us provide us a relief we didn’t even know we needed. Thank God for a hubby who occasionally washes dishes!
We treat the meeting of our needs as a luxury instead of a responsibility. We wait for met needs as something that falls into our tent instead of something God requires us to go out and gather.
And by “gather,” I don’t mean ignoring the needs and trying harder. I mean acknowledging our needs and adjusting the balance of our lives so that they consistently get met. God’s provision is miraculous, but in a mundane way that involves our everyday work.
I once read an article by a woman who claimed me time didn’t work because it made her want more time alone. It made her more resentful toward her husband because she was the only one putting the kids to bed and making the dinner and doing the dishes. It put her in a fouler mood. Her solution was to stuff her emotions and maybe get some Jesus time.
I can guarantee you that’s not working for her. Needs don’t go away. They resurface as something destructive — like resentment or health failure.
God made provision for those needs: the hard work of learning to say no, to set boundaries, and to require and accept help from her capable husband. It’s easy to pine away in our tent, stuffing our emotions, waiting for a miraculous provision to drop in our laps. It’s much more difficult to take responsibility for doing our part to meet those needs.
A False Understanding of Sin and Grace
Many Christians believe emotional, relational, and mental needs are sins in and of themselves. And because they are sins, they require censure and punishment. Stop being discontent, be grateful. Quit your whining, be kind. God’s grace is sufficient for you, so be happy about it. Give more. Try harder.
But all sin arises from brokenness. We’re grumpy because we’re tired. We’re discontent because we’re not living the way God desires for us. We whine because we don’t know how to convey our needs in an effective way.
Brokenness is not evil. Brokenness does not respond to punishment or censure. And God’s grace is not a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of living life go down. God’s grace often is the nasty-tasting medicine, but it brings the spiritual life and spiritual health we most crave.
We wouldn’t expect a person on crutches to run at her full capacity. We wouldn’t yell at a cancer patient to get off her butt and do the dishes. We understand that broken and ill people operate on lower limits, and the only way they get better is to give them the time and space they need to heal.
This spirituality of stuffing your emotions and giving more is like demanding that a woman run on a broken leg. A spirituality that calls self-care “selfish” is like harassing a cancer patient for being sick.
Healing is not a walk in the park, to be sure. It involves waiting, inconvenience, tears, setbacks, unpleasant medicine, therapy, courage, and grit. It’s not all bubble baths and massages and shopping days at the mall (if any). But all healing takes understanding, time, and a break from serving others.
God’s grace invites us to acknowledge our brokenness in all its unloveliness. It allows us to prioritize our pain as meaningful and our healing as important. It allows us to take sick days, to slow down, and to ask others to help us in embarrassingly intimate ways.
A False Provision
Women who deride self-care as selfish say that the only thing they need is Jesus.
The surprising thing about Christianity is yes, it’s a spirituality of giving, but it’s about God’s giving to us first. We love because He loved us. That order is important. The strong hold up the weak, the wise teach the foolish — and all strength and wisdom comes from God.
He is gentle with the broken. He values the burnt-out. His burden is easy. He prioritizes rest, to the point where he wrote it in stone: ON THE SEVENTH DAY YOU SHALL REST.
And as Jesus said, man was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.
You were not made for spirituality — that is, for endless days of sacrifice. Spirituality was made for you, to heal you, restore you. Out of that healing, you heal others.
If you mix up that order, you get the hypocritical religion of the Pharisees that Jesus decried. The worst part? It’s a false righteousness, because all of us are broken and none of us can be strong without true healing. It sounds good to ignore yourself and prioritize other people’s needs and desires by default, but that isn’t even a real possibility. At the worst, you will die in some capacity. At the best, you won’t experience the fullness of a whole, healed life.
If you ignore your emotional, mental, and relational needs, if you rally to push through without true rest and healing, they will resurface again and again — or live just under the surface, in a pit of anxiety and stress.
Listen to your resentment and burn-out and angry fights with your husband. They are symptoms, God’s invitation to heal. And yes, that will definitely involve some “me time.”