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From Empathy to Chaos: Considerations for the Church in a Postmodern Age

Below is an essay I wrote in Feb 2018 for my entrance application for school. I’ve noticed a recent interest in this topic as an article by Joe Rigney has caused a stir. It’s an excellent piece. It made me think that this might be a good time to add these thoughts to the mix. I’ve been mulling over empathy and its inherent problems for a number of years, mainly because it’s reeked some havoc in my heart and it had to be dealt with. My view is similar to Joe’s, but I think it’s important to recognize the peculiarly feminine nature of empathy and to understand that there seems to be good and intentional design features in that. It’s not that all empathy is bad––it can be very good in regard to mothering an infant, but it was never meant to subvert reality.

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I first encountered Shusaku Endo’s book Silence as a freshman at Bethel University in 2000. Widely regarded as a thoughtful, albeit torturous, examination of the tensions of Christian faith, it was just the sort of book to put in the hands of green, hopeful English majors. Written in 1966, Silence tells the fictional tale of a Jesuit priest sent as a missionary to Japan in the 17th century amid horrific persecution of Christians. While in Japan, Rodrigues, the protagonist, seeks his mentor, Ferreira, who was said to have apostatized. The book details Rodrigues’s inner turmoil, both that his mentor could have done such a thing, and also that he himself is being drawn closer and closer to doing the same. In the end, Rodrigues must either refuse to deny Christ and be the cause of torture and death for others or deny Christ by trampling on an image of him and save others from a terrible fate. Faced with an untenable situation, he imitates his mentor. In his mind, he hears Christ giving him permission to apostatize to save the innocent. Yet, the cock crows when the deed is done.

Lately, Silence has received renewed attention as the book has made its way into film. Patricia Snow’s insightful article, “Empathy Is Not Charity” opens with an examination of the real story that the fiction book is based on. The historical account is quite straightforward and lacks the unique diabolical tensions of the book in favor of more familiar horrors. The Catholic missionaries are themselves tortured and they apostatize (Snow, 2017). There is no threat of harming others if the missionaries resist apostasy. She says, “What this means is that the deeply disturbing, polarizing drama at the heart of Silence is an anachronism. It is a projection of the modern mind, a hallucination of an anxious, confused, and codependent imagination” (Snow, 2017).

In Endo’s made-up world, “Mercy is pitted against truth, love of neighbor against allegiance to God,” and when caught within its confines it is difficult to grope through the fog and grasp hold of anything solid (Snow, 2017). Arguably, that’s the point: how do we cope, how do we love, when love contradicts itself? In Silence, empathy¹ is the only real means of love. The postmodern age that was superimposed on 17th c. Japan likewise presents us with untenable versions of contradicting love: either affirm same-sex marriage and transgenderism or hate people; either dismantle the “patriarchy” and male authority or oppress women; either view people solely as a consequence of their race or be a racist. In a world where postmodernism² has pulled up the anchor of reality and truth and empathy rules as the primary virtue, societal chaos that mimics the storm of each individual’s emotions follows; therefore, the church must grapple with the virtue and vice of empathy and make itself impervious to an entitled, chaotic empathy without jettisoning love.

An entire age is being shaped by the idea that our feelings are ultimate reality and that to love someone is to believe, value, affirm, and feel their feelings—in other words, loving someone means empathizing with them to the point of agreement or at least non- disagreement. If we drill down to the root of this species of empathy there seems to be a demand: you should stop being you, stop thinking like you, stop seeing the world through your eyes and become me; see the world as I see it and adopt my point of view. It is postmodern, entitled empathy.

But empathy isn’t all bad—there are elements of love in it. Bible stories and passages spring to mind like: Jesus’s compassion on the crowds (Matthew 15:32), or Jesus being moved in his spirit over the death of Lazarus (John 11:33), or the good Samaritan’s help of the assaulted man (Luke 10:33), or the golden rule (Matthew 7:12). All of these examples have empathy in them—a willingness to use our feelings to relate to another with compassion. But when we look closely, we see a clear demarcation between a sympathetic feeling and maintaining one’s own judgement. Empathy in the Scriptures never divorces from a proper and true assessment of the facts. Our cultural moment is one that hasn’t just divorced objectivity from compassion, but pronounced an annulment on objectivity’s existence. What we have left is a reckless, short-sighted compassion that’s very likely to send people to hell in bubble-wrap and band-aids.

Even the Golden Rule: “So whatever you wish others would do to you, do also to them, for this fulfills the Law and the Prophets,” while embracing an imaginative sympathy, still protects individual judgment (Matthew 7:12 ESV). If we pass the Golden Rule through the sieve of empathy-as-the-ruling-virtue, it would come out saying, “Whatever others wish you would do to them, do it.” This makes nonsense of the rule, because the Bible doesn’t ask us to substitute our own Christian judgement for another person’s. Rather, when we do to others as we would have them do to us, we are the arbiter of what would actually be for our good, and therefore, what would be for another’s good. We value others as much as we value ourselves by being objectively kind and loving toward them.

Every parent knows that implementing the Golden Rule toward our children requires us to maintain a proper understanding of what is good and what isn’t. If our child wants to play ten hours of video games or eat ten pounds of candy, we must do to them what we would want a good parent to do to us—not what our foolish eight-year-old self would want, but what our mature, wise, Christian, grown-up self knows to be best. Similarly, if our son wants us to treat him like he’s our daughter, we lovingly refuse because of the Golden Rule, not in spite of it.

The cardinal sin in a society that has inverted the Golden Rule is to make a distinction between felt needs and actual ones—which is just another way of saying we’re making distinctions about what is right and wrong or good and bad. If a teenaged boy says he feels like a girl, then to love him is to now call him a girl, because that’s how he wants you to treat him. If a woman feels she’s oppressed by “the patriarchy” then to love her is to start calling it out (whatever it is) and using the hashtags she promotes and supporting her decisions, whatever they may be. The facts of either situation aren’t relevant and trying to uncover them will result in a further confirmation of the oppression they perceive themselves to be experiencing. But what does become obvious when interacting with the feelings-are-reality crowd is that they really do have one hard truth that won’t let go of: their feelings are unassailable, not yours. This can lead to infighting among the ranks of people who all use the same inverted golden rule.

Michelle Goldberg catalogues this problem with the genuine question, “What Is a Woman?” where she explores the rift between radical feminism and transgenderism (Goldberg, 2014). Radical feminists convinced a generation of women that because they felt marginalized by the differences between men and women that there actually weren’t any significant differences between men and women. Transgender activists have convinced a new generation of young people that if they feel like the opposite sex, then that’s what they are. These are incompatible views, but fundamentally predicated on the same reason-eschewing value: you help and care for me by feeling what I feel about something—thinking is largely unhelpful, even detrimental, to this task. Only now feminists have changed lanes with nary a turn signal. The same objections those opposed to feminism used to use like, “Women and men are different,” are now being used by the feminists who oppose having a man (called a transgender woman) win a woman of the year award (Goldberg, 2014). Who could be surprised that their late-in-the-game appeals to biological facts over feelings are falling on deaf ears? 

It’s important to note that women tend to be more empathic than men (Simon-Thomas, 2007). The reasons for this are likely many—but what seems obvious is that women have been designed to grow and nurture life. Infants and young children require constant care and give little in return, from a utilitarian standpoint. Empathy may very well be how women are made by God to thrive and endure such circumstances. Babies can’t communicate their needs rationally, but do so with small, almost imperceptible indicators of facial expression, noise, and body movement. A woman’s attentiveness to needs that are not communicated rationally, but hinted at or communicated at a primal level means she exercises a part of her brain that isn’t tapping into objectivity, but intuition and empathy.

Many mothers know their baby’s needs, seedling thoughts, and feelings before any of them can be articulated. This is an amazing design feature in women—the ability to mirror the feelings and emotions of others (Simon-Thomas, 2007). Women bring this empathic nature to every relationship, not just babies. This may be why women are particularly adept at forging communal bonds and are the heart of families. They put themselves in other people’s shoes and are attentive to their needs, their likes and dislikes, their more visceral nonverbal communication. They actually experience the feelings of others as if they were their own to a greater extent than men do.

By and large, in a Christian setting, a woman’s tendency toward empathy should be viewed positively, as necessary design feature that enriches the lives of the whole community, especially men, and grows them in compassion and charity. But, in our postmodern mindset, empathy is in dire need of truth and simple facts. Understanding the direction of the current sway of the world can help us evaluate our churches. The elevation of empathy in the culture, to the exclusion of truth, has made for a perverse ruling feminization, where offended-ness is the primary currency. The local church will likely experience the push in that same direction, even if all their leadership is male.

But, each local church must evaluate carefully its own tendencies and culture, willingly aligning them with the one perfect example of compassion and truth: Jesus. As Jesus interacted with the Samaritan woman, he gives us a template for relating to those who are different than we are with integrity, truth, and love: 1) Don’t ignore them, approach them (John 4:7–9); 2) Point them to what is for their ultimate good (John 4:10–15); 3) Don’t play games or ignore the hard facts (John 4:16–22); 4) Tell them what is loving and true (John 4:23–26). If the church is a bicycle, it must ride on the wheels of truth and love, objectivity and empathy, reality and compassion. In our fallen nature, individuals will tend to pump up one tire at the expense of the other and local churches will do the same.

Robust complementarianism³ is the way forward for the church. Churches must have women who are empathic and wise, who avoid reactionary responses and folly, who have been deeply shaped by the truth of the God’s word, and who are aware of the power and influence they have over the men in their lives. These women must be willing to be helpers, helping the men around them see the marginalized and perceive other’s perspectives without resorting to manipulation or skewing toward subjectivity. And churches must have men who are leading with objectivity, avoiding favoritism, growing in compassion, eager for counsel from wise women, who can gently, and with understanding, steer people (including women) away from reactionary responses or entitled empathy when needed.

It’s worth mentioning that truth and love are not actually two tires holding up a bicycle. They are not two separate tires at all. God is love, and that love includes his truthfulness and justice (1 John 4:16). God is a consuming fire, and that judgment includes his mercy and compassion (Heb. 12:28). God is who he is (Ex. 3:14). So, a church that is heavy on truth, low on compassion, should also evaluate what errors exist in their “truth.” Because if you get truth right, you will get love right. And the church who is high with love, bereft of truth, should evaluate what is in their “love” that is tending toward hate. Because when we love as we ought, we will tell the truth. But the bicycle analogy can be practically helpful to get a church thinking in these categories when they aren’t sure how to address a clear discrepancy in the ratio of truth to love or vice versa.

The church, despite having the perfect word of the Lord and the perfect example of Christ, is not immune to the chaos of entitled empathy. It pops up all over the place, most notably in myself: a longing to protect others from the loving discipline of God, sympathizing with sin, a willful, strident need to be understood and––here’s where it gets dicey––be validated. When empathy takes the bit in mouth, perception is the only reality and there is no way to course correct with external reality. This leads to chaos, divisions, and disorder in the church, as people are left to figure out which narrative resonates most with them, rather than bringing everything under the authority of God’s word. It’s the ingredient list for James 4:1, “What causes quarrels and fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?”

Without the tether of truth and reality, without men of steely spines holding fast and guarding that sacred deposit, empathy will tear the church to shreds making special interest groups out of everyone, with all competing to be the lowliest victim and as worthy of sympathy as possible, as the world has foretold in intersectionality, critical studies, and endless protests. But married and made one with truth, empathy will beatify the church, making it not just right, but good. Empathy, rightly deployed by the people of God, is the cushion round the steel, so that truth can be both pillar and pillow.

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1 Empathy: the psychological identification with or vicarious
experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another (dictionary.com)
2 Postmodernism: of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language (merriam-webster.com)
3 Complementarianism is the theological view that men and women are created by God in his image, equal in their personhood, but with different, complementary roles in life and church.
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Works Cited

Goldberg, M. (2014, August 04). New Yorker. Retrieved February 11, 2018, from The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/woman-2

Simon-Thomas, E. R. (2007, June 07). Greater Good Berkeley. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from Greater Good Magazine: Science-Based Insights For a Meaningful Life: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/women_more_empathic_than_men

Snow, P. (2017, October 01). The Institute on Religion and Public Life. Retrieved January 2018, from First Things: https://www.firstthings.com/article/2017/10/empathy-is-not- charity?platform=hootsuite

Thompson, A. (2018, February 10). The New York Times. Retrieved February 12, 2018, from nytimes.com: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/opinion/sunday/black-with-some- white- privilege.html?mtrref=t.co&gwh=E8429CC39F49C3FDFE496B6AD1A3F179&gwt=pay&as setType=opinion

A Manifesto for Christian Women on Instagram

When I first got an account on Instagram, I didn’t think about it. I had a friend pressure me into it, telling me it was way better than Facebook. I said, OK, and signed up. And like most things in life, I was slow to the trend. I missed the first wave of blogging, I was a latecomer on Facebook, then poky to Instagram, too.

Most of us who are on social media didn’t put a lot of thought into it before joining–especially if we’re under 40. I jumped on because I wanted to connect with people, plain and simple. I thought it would be fun to share pics of my kids with people I love that live far away. Because none of us can see into the future, we didn’t really know what we were signing up for. We didn’t know how social media could rewire our brains and change the way we interact with the world. We didn’t know it would turn every experience into a spectacle to be consumed by our “followers” and ourselves, as Tony Reinke points out in his fantastic new book. We also didn’t know that Insta would become a place for words and massive influence. Micro-blogging, not merely pictures.

But now that the dangers are apparent and now that the potential influence is also made plain, I have a proposal for us:

Let’s go on the offensive for Christ.

Let’s stop letting the tail wag the dog. We are Christians after all! We have the Spirit of the Living God inside of us––the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. And, we have Good News to share! Do you believe that the Gospel is meant to illuminate every corner of the world? Do you think the light of Christ is able to penetrate even the shiny veneer of curated perfection and curated imperfection of Insta? I surely do.

Many of us sense the pull toward sin in places like Insta so we think the only option is to quit. And don’t get me wrong, fleeing temptation is right and essential. But, in the same way we don’t sever a friendship simply because we struggle with envy toward a sister-in-Christ, so too, severing Insta may not be the best approach for dealing with our sin.

Consider: if you were the devil, how would you shut Christians down from proclaiming Christ in a place where millions of women have gathered? Perhaps by making them think that they’re too sinful to do so. That what they really need to do is run away from the battle. If Christian women won’t engage on Insta, I guarantee you plenty of pseudo-Christian women will. Not only will they, they already are. And, if we’re being honest, they’re winning. They’re luring many Christian women into twisted and perverse ways of thinking about themselves and the world around them. They are glorifying sin and rejecting God’s word.

Friends, would you commit to join me in shining the light of Christ on Instagram? I know many women are already doing this. Many are intentionally speaking the truth in love about Christ. But what if we invited more and more regular, non-famous Christian women to join this mission? What if we strategized and planned, not how to grow our own platform, but how to make him known far and wide and build up his people?

I’ve taken the liberty of writing up a manifesto for us:

  1. We commit to make Christ known on Instagram, sharing the Good News of the gospel as it applies to our own lives and the lives of our readers, trusting that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom 1:16).
  2. We commit to loving people by being truthful about sin, defining it the way God defines it, not sugar-coating or ignoring certain sins or giving ourselves or anyone a pat on the head in response to sin which could endanger our own or their soul (Mark 8:35-36).
  3. We commit to loving people by always pointing them to the Way, the Truth, and the Life found in Christ (John 14:6). We will not condemn people in their sins, but will warn them, holding out the hope of the gospel for those who will receive it, inviting them to receive the same grace that we ourselves have received (John 3:17; Col 1:28; 2 Cor 6:1).
  4. We openly acknowledge that we are not our own. We were bought at a great price and we belong to Christ (Col 1:15-20; 1 Cor 7:23; 2 Pet 2:1). Therefore, our words and our pictures and everything we do is under his authority and must be brought under submission to his Book, the Bible.
  5. We commit to gracious speech, seasoned with salt, so that we may know how to answer those with questions (Col 4:6). We will not be needlessly inflammatory and bring reproach upon Christ by our careless words or smugness (Matt 12:36).
  6. We commit NOT to fear anything that is frightening, especially the disapproval of the women (and men) on Insta (1 Pet 3:6; Gal 1:10). We fear God alone, which makes us unshakeable and untouchable in regard to the opinions of others (1 Pet 2:17; Rev 14:7).
  7. We commit to being accountable to our local church authority and the admonitions and counsel of Christian women in our lives (Heb 13:17). We invite those who know us in real life to observe and critique our use of Instagram (Heb 3:13).
  8. We understand that we will fail in these endeavors. We will be fearful when we should be courageous. We will be harsh when we should be gentle. We will glorify ourselves when we should be glorifying Christ (1 John 1:8-10). When this happens, we commit to pray, “Whatever it takes, Lord, keep me yours forever.” We commit to walking a life of daily repentance and forgiveness, of turning from our sins and once again walking in obedience with Christ (Rom 6:1; Rom 16:26; 1 Pet 1:14).

If this resonates with you, I encourage you to share it with others. Strategize with your fellow sisters in Christ. And above all pray! Pray that Christ would be seen and known and loved! Pray that God would use the weird place of Instagram to shine the light of Christ, so that people are truly transformed and set free from the bondage of sin and the worship of self! Pray that no one would be enslaved to Insta, but that it would be a tool in the hands of our sovereign, loving God to spread the good news about Jesus far and wide.

Let’s take #InstagramForChrist.

On Being an Older Sister in the Lord

One role in life I didn’t anticipate or spend much time preparing myself for is that of older sister.

I’m the youngest in my family, so I naturally gravitate toward going with the flow, doing what people tell me to do, and listening to what those older than me have to say. It’s not that I don’t have (and express!) lots of opinions, I surely do. I’m just fairly used to those opinions carrying the weight that a youngest’s opinions carry––which is to say, significantly less than if I were an older sibling. I’m often scrappy and forceful with my words, sometimes when I don’t need to be, to make sure I get heard––another mark of being the youngest.

But none of us stay “youngest” forever––even if we’re the youngest in our family, we certainly are not the youngest in the family of God, which means we have to learn how to be older––an older sister, older brother, older family member. Paul writes to Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). Jesus says that anyone who does the will of the Father is his brother and sister and mother. And Paul commends various women as “our sister.” These familiar roles help us grasp our place in God’s family.

Being an older sister in the Lord means that you have more experience with the Lord and often greater knowledge of his Word than some of the spiritual siblings around you, and you have to use that experience and knowledge very carefully. Which is because being an older sister isn’t quite the same thing as being a spiritual mother––although Paul doesn’t mention older sister to Timothy, he simply says to treat older women as mothers. I still think he’d approve of the distinction. A spiritual mother has quite a bit more leeway to speak freely and with a measure of certitude. An older sister isn’t there yet, but she does have resources, knowledge, and wisdom to steward. She must be humble and teachable, yet must also be willing to share the truth with meekness and care.

One of the unforeseen blessings and challenges of my life has been the gift of being an older sister in the Lord to other women. I’ve had to learn to be quiet and ask good questions and help others come to the right answer on their own. I’ve also had to learn to speak and give my opinion with humility and appropriate fear, knowing that it will be taken seriously. Having younger sisters in the Lord is one of the sweetest, most joyful gifts I never saw coming.

But being an older sister in the Lord can be tricky and a bit harder when it comes to younger brothers. Recently, a woman came to me for advice, having been on the receiving end of some immaturity and carelessness from her younger brothers in the Lord. She loved these men and was confused that they would act the way they were acting. So, what is a woman to do in that situation? It’s quite straightforward––she should be a spiritual older sister to them, gently and graciously helping them see how to do better––but I find that we often complex-ify it because we are uncomfortable with the role of spiritual older sister to younger men. Often this leads to us forsaking our Christian duty to God’s family––we simply refuse to take on the role of spiritual older sister or mother when it comes to younger brothers–-seems too hard and too easy to get wrong.

It has dawned on me as I’m in classes learning alongside men much younger than me that, as time rolls along, the likelihood that I’ll have a pastor who is younger than I am increases with each passing year. Which means it’s also likely that I will be under the authority of a man or men who are spiritually younger than I am, less familiar with God’s word, and perhaps spiritually less mature. And, for those of us getting to the age where that is more likely to be a reality, I don’t think it should bother or concern us in the least, if we’re thinking rightly about the family of God. In the family of God, it is understood that everyone is growing up into the Lord. It is understood that there are young Timothy’s and older Lois’s and Priscilla’s and Titus’s and Apollos’s and Mary’s. There are younger men and older men, younger women and older women.

But, if we’ve determined that the men in leadership are in some sort of super-spiritual class of their own, and that they ought to have no need for older sisters or mothers or older brothers or fathers in the church to help them along and give wisdom and guidance as is fitting to their maturity and experience, then it will bother us to have younger brothers shepherd us, because we’ll be expecting something from them that they can’t be. We’ll be disgruntled that they aren’t farther along. We’ll be trying to force them to be older brothers when God has made us older sisters or mothers.

The thing is, being an older sister doesn’t mean you know better than everyone younger than you, although the temptation to think that is a particularly bad one for older sisters. Rather, a godly older sister can learn from those who are younger than her and she can fittingly encourage, exhort, and admonish those same younger siblings.

I’m asking God to make me the kind of older sister who can freely give away to others the good things God has given to me and to do so without strings or expectations attached. I want to be the kind of older sister who can offer helpful counsel when sought, yet never waver one second from submitting to the authority God has given to those placed over me. This is not an easy thing. We need God’s help to be good older sisters, but thankfully we have an eldest brother, Christ, who has paved the way for us in every respect. In Christ, we can walk by faith as older sisters, and trust that he will supply everything we need.

Launch Day for (A)Typical Woman: What’s the Purpose of the Book?

Today’s the day (A)Typical Woman is officially released.

When I first started writing this book, I was zealous for women to understand Christ as the whole of their life as women. I was burning inside to help women see what being a Christian and a woman actually is–with the whole Bible as the foundation–nothing ignored. I was in turmoil over the misconceptions and distorted teaching that had taken hold in many places. I was angsty over the pendulum whose swing was threatening to tip the whole apparatus over.

That was over two years ago. And I find that since that time God has deepened and matured my zeal, rather than cooling it off. The need is greater, not lesser. This is a marathon, not a sprint, but I’m eager to keep running.

Why did I write (A)Typical Woman? Because the world has tried to steal something that belongs to Christ. They’ve tried to steal the words Christian and woman. They’ve tried to redefine them, not merely in a dictionary, but in living color, in real life. This book is meant to claim them as HIS–his words and his reality. The words Christian and woman belong to Christ. They’re by him and for him. And what’s much more surprising––and distressing–– is how the church has often quietly let the words go. We’ve watched the substance of them disintegrate before our eyes with barely a whimper and sometimes with God-defying approval.

This book is meant reorient us to reality. It’s meant to show Christian women what peace with God is like, and therefore, peace with themselves. So many are striving, longing, aching to make themselves into something of value. So many are rebelling, fighting, and running from their Maker and how he’s made them.

Christian women must know who and what they are and Who and what they’re made for. We must stop searching because we’ve been found in him. We must stop hiding from God and be hidden in him instead.

This is a simple book with a simple goal: to grow you (and me) up in Christ as women. To take you from milk to solid food. To free you for fearless obedience so that your joy explodes and your influence deepens to the glory of God.

Get it on Amazon. Find it at a bookstore. Share it with your friends, your sisters, your mom, and anyone else. Lay down your pet ponies and preferences and read with a heart resolved to receive Christ Jesus as Lord. May he make you one of the most astonishing and atypical things the world has ever seen: a Christian woman.

 

The Humility of Blogging for Yourself and How it Serves Readers

Recently Tim Challies started a conversation about the personal blog–its slow decay and his hope for its revival. And since I’ve been on the cutting edge of absolutely nothing since 1981 and counting (including starting a blog–I started mine right when everyone and their mom had one in 2008), I thought I’d throw my johnny-come-lately two cents in the ring.

I appreciate Tim’s keen sense of why personal blogs are important in how, why, and what we communicate as Christians who are part of a larger, sometimes cookie-cutter like online world of articles. As someone who has refused to give up personal blogging even as I now spend considerable time writing for ministry websites and other publications, I get it. I know that this space gives me a different sort of freedom in writing with my own voice and saying precisely what I want to say. It’s not that there’s no filter here (that would be terrible for everyone!), it’s that the filter allows for a personal style and voice that doesn’t suit larger sites. But I also have to say that my gratefulness for Desiring God, their laser focus on glorifying God, their work to spread the Good News of great joy to everyone they possibly can, and their willingness to let me be part of something so much bigger than me is over the moon. Bigly grateful.

You can find good contributions by Kristen Wetherell, Samuel James, and Jen Oshman in response to Challies. I just want to add one fairly narrow thing to the conversation, and I suppose it applies to all writing, but it especially applies to personal blogging.

Tim argues that the problem with many blogs is that they exist mainly for the writer, not the readers–they are self-serving rather than written in service of others. He spells that out here and here. I think he’s right that the main problem with personal blogs is the personal people writing them. We’re altogether human. The greatest strength of personal blogging is also the greatest weakness.

So here’s my small contribution to this topic: One of the best ways I can serve readers is by not being a jerk. It’s by practicing, not just pontificating. And writing a personal blog is one of the ways God pushes the floorboards of his Word and his ways into the corners of my life. I’m not sharing my diary, I’m sharing the things that have gone through the Refiner’s fire, things that absolutely ought to edify, admonish, encourage, and strengthen you, the reader. But what use are they if they haven’t been applied here first, to my personal life? What use am I to readers if my writing doesn’t take the speck out of my own eye before trying to get logs out of everyone else’s? And I believe letting readers in on that process in our personal lives is powerful. It’s our testimony of what God is doing, of his transforming power.

In this sense, I think all writing should be for the writer in the same way I think that spending a large portion of my time in prayer for myself is an unselfish thing to do.  Begging God to make me more like his Son, repenting of my own sins, is actually not just for my good, but serves my husband, my children, and everyone I come in contact with. Of course, pray for others too! Diligently, faithfully, regularly. Serve them in prayer, but remember that it is a true service to others to pray that God would help you treat them as a Christian ought to. I believe it was George Mueller who said, “the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord.” Wouldn’t you want to spend the day with someone like that? Wouldn’t you be edified by being around that sort of person?

Similarly, the first and primary business a writer ought to attend is to receive his or her own words (if they are a faithful re-telling of God’s words), apply them to his or her own life, and humbly turn from thinking our mere pontification is helping people. Then we will begin to serve our readers.

On Being a Christian Woman in the Year of our Lord, 2019

[Below is the full article I wrote last year about the coming year of 2018–here is the interview with Pilgrim Radio about the article. I was gearing up to write something new for 2019 and found that this is still what I want to say, so I’m republishing it. Just like 2018 was the year of our Lord (not the year of the evangelical woman, thank God) so is 2019. Let’s remember that God’s glory is the center, the goal, the foundation, the root, and the fruit of all we do. Let’s remember he does not suffer competitors–whether men or women–he’s too loving and good for that.]

Last month [now last year] I was intrigued to read the prediction that 2018 will be the year of the evangelical woman. I enjoy Karen Swallow Prior, the tweeter of that tweet, but I have no interest whatsoever in living in a world where the year belongs to evangelical women or women in general or evangelical men or any other such group. I am relieved that no matter our proclamations, 2018 will remain the year of our Lord.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve observed a pendulum swing in the more public places of Christendom (i.e. Twitter, blogs, social media, and the like. You know, the important places 😉 ) regarding the voices of “evangelical” women, reflected on a much smaller scale in the more private, local sphere.

To begin with, I hate pendulums. What are they but roller coasters that cause us all a ridiculous amount of motion sickness? The good news is that Scripture is immune to pendulum swings. It’s just as solid and unchanging as it ever was. And more good news: we can stand on the unmovable Word of God and smash the pendulum with that same Book all at the same time. The Bible can multitask.

I’ve tried to put my finger on what seems to be afoot, particularly with conservative Christian women––for whom the sound of the rumbling is different than its liberal counterparts, yet seems to be aimed in the same basic direction. It seems the culprit is a general sense that women have been underutilized and pigeon-holed in Christ’s body and the internet is the main means by which this problem has found its voice.

Here’s my summary: Biblically-conservative Christian women are eager to have visible, biblically-conservative leadership by women in their churches and eager to learn from gifted, female Bible teachers whether locally or nationally. Secondly, women with the gift of teaching in conservative churches have felt underutilized/devalued and are carrying some angst, even as things may change for the better. (The accuracy of these points will vary greatly depending on your local context, but I’m speaking generally).

The underlying lesson is: women are hungry for teaching from women. This is basically right and good (Titus 2:3–4). They would like living examples of wise, Bible-soaked women to follow and imitate. They would like to be fed meat, not just milk. And hungry people get nourishment wherever they can find it––they aren’t picky, they’re starving. If only the worst kind of teachers are available to women, many will go ahead and eat the rot.

So, from the perspective of the hungry Christian woman, this pendulum swing is very much a good thing, if it means more resources available to her that make it possible for her to learn and understand her Bible and her God better. Assuming that gifted conservative female Bible teachers don’t just stay within the boundaries Scripture lays out for women in regard to how they may and may not lead and teach, but have come to LOVE and TEACH the boundaries as good gifts, this is all upside. And I’ve seen lots of this. Loads of helpful Bible resources made accessible for women. Podcasts that go deep in wisdom and the gospel and basic Christian living. It’s awesome––what a time to be alive.

But I’m not so sure this fully describes where we are. There also seems to be an itch, an inkling, an impulse, even in the conservative sphere, that has begun to demand status for women as important and essential humans whose voices must be heard. It’s not that I disagree that women are important and essential, it’s that publicly insisting so is entirely an un-Christian way of trying to get that point across.

In this CT piece, Hannah Anderson (whose book on humility was a great read for me last year) says, “The way forward is for the church to identify and support gifted women, partnering with them via theological training and commissioned ministry positions. If you don’t want women breaking down the doors, simply open them for them.”

This encapsulates it: the mood, the slight angst, the rumbling.

If women are breaking down doors in order to use their gifts in the church, the solution cannot only be to teach men to open the doors. I agree that that is part of it. Let men learn to honor women and notice gifts and facilitate the work of the ministry and open the doors for their counterparts that are helpers by nature. It seems this is vital and basic Christianity and men should be exhorted to act like Christian men.

But there’s another side to it: we must teach the women to act like Christian women, not door busters. We must teach them that the Christian life is not one of getting our way or forcing our plans or barging in––it’s one of dying daily, humble waiting, prayerful dependence, and unseen service where our right hand is ignorant of our left. That breaking the doors down would be the path toward anything but misery seems obvious enough––which doors are enough, when does it end?

Once we’ve broken them down, it’s impossible to open them rightly.

Think of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul tells the young Timothy that he shouldn’t let anyone despise him for his youth. I don’t know about you, but I’m apt to cheer, Yeah! You heard him! Stop despising me! I’m owed a little respect! Is Timothy supposed to demand and insist that no one is allowed to despise him? Is he supposed to say, “You must value me!” No.

Paul tells him how: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). This is the way of Christians. How do we get respect? How do we make people see our God-given value? We go low. We set an example. We don’t insist on our importance.

What if Christian women in 2018 decided that in all things we would set an example in our godly and gracious speech, our exemplary conduct, our loving actions, our bold faith, and our complete purity? What if we stopped trying to exalt our voices and “be heard,” but gloried in exalting Christ (Matt. 23:11–12)? What if we stopped seeking a seat of honor, but resolved to eat even the crumbs from the Lord’s table (Matt. 15:27)? What if we really trusted God––that God sees us, God loves us, Christ came for us, and the Spirit’s working in us, whether others see it or not? What if we really lived like it was the year of our Lord, not the year of the evangelical woman?

This isn’t theoretical for me. I’m as prone to desire recognition and a seat at the table as the next person. I’ve got more opinions, thoughts, and ideas than is safe for any one person to have. I long to have whatever gifts God’s given me recognized, valued, and utilized to their full extent and it can be painful to be constantly weaning myself from those mixed-bag desires. But, in Christ, I know that God is building his church. And I can take the steps of faithfulness available to me, speak and serve when given opportunity, and if not, rest in the knowledge that God doesn’t actually need me to do the jobs I think he might need me to do.

Jen Wilkin says this in her talk to Acts 29 church planters, “The contributions of women in the advancement of the kingdom are essential and indispensable. If we have crafted a vision of the church in which women are extra, in which women are nice but not necessary, we have crafted a vision for the church that is foreign to the Scriptures.”

I couldn’t agree with her more. She’s right. The church advances as the church––made up of all its parts. The stronger are supposed to see that the weaker are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22). They’re supposed to show them extra honor (1 Cor. 12:23–24). And I think in the context she was speaking to––pastors desiring a woman’s perspective on how to better minister to women––it is helpful to give that reminder. I’m thankful for women like Jen who have had doors opened for them and now are using that platform to ask men to open the door for more women.

But there’s another side to being part of God’s people on his vine and that is that none of us are actually essential. God could raise up stones in our place.

In Romans, Paul tells the Gentiles that they aren’t as special as they might like to think––he’s telling us the same thing:

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:17–22)

Did you catch that?

It is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

Do not become proud, but fear.

Neither will he spare you.

Provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.

Is this part of what we’re teaching women? Are we reminding them that being a physically weaker vessel doesn’t make us humble by nature? That we aren’t owed a seat at any table, but Christ has graciously given us one at his? That as awful as it is that many women have been victimized by men, it’s equally awful that women also victimize those smaller than them, in varying ways? That pride is no respecter of gender and infects everyone in Adam, including women? Are we letting them know that they’re Christians too, which means we women have to die to the desire to be important. We have to die to the desire for the year of the woman and replace it with year of the Lord.

That doesn’t mean that we ignore the real needs of women––in no way! We must feed them, honor them, love them, and serve them––but not in an oddly self-serving, self-promoting way, rather as sacrifice. We must disciple women and fit their gifts into the body. But discipling isn’t only plugging in gifts or putting people in the right seats or developing leaders or getting a woman on staff. It’s also teaching everyone that the only path to life is crucifixion–that they aren’t living anymore, but it’s Christ who lives in them. It’s teaching them to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3)

Exalt others. Honor others––men and women and children. That’s how we follow our Savior, who didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but in humility became a servant. Only then can we be exalted, once humility has so lowered us that only God himself can raise us up. And he will, in due time.

I’ll end with two practical concerns I have with the pendulum swing I see in some of the public sphere of conservative Christendom that’s been trickling down locally.

  1. It makes advancement mainly a function of women teaching and (accidentally?) devalues all the other ways women serve as an essential part of the body. It’s like we want all women to be teachers. I understand why the focus is on women teaching, because that’s the area that some are slower to embrace–feels risky, like a woman might overstep the bounds. But, in the same way I think men can be devalued when they aren’t teachers or pastors, I think the same thing is happening with women and we should avoid this silliness at all costs. You don’t have to be an up-front teacher in order to be a spiritual mother. A female on a stage speaking to a group is not essential to thriving spiritual mothering or the fulfillment of a woman’s role in the local body. A woman teacher is no more effective or influential in God’s economy because she’s been given a microphone.
  2. Our swing is in tandem with the current swing of liberal and unorthodox Christians as well as with the world, albeit on a different scale. This doesn’t make it all wrong, but it’s something to note. When the world is swinging into transgenderism and gender queer identity, and the liberal church is swinging into ordination of women and self-identified gay Christians, the conservative swing toward a disproportionate valuing of the stage/platform as the most important place for women to serve may seem minor, but we should pay attention to it. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater––there are important things to learn in this pendulum swing, good and right actions to take. There are many faithful upfront women teachers that I love and have learned a ton from–I want their number to increase! But maybe the most important lesson is that the pendulum needs to be smashed with God’s word.

Christians have a fixed and ancient reference point. Let’s hold fast to it.

Poor and Meek: On Being a Servant Who Expects Better than their Master

There is a book by the Puritan, Matthew Henry, that I think every Christian should read. It’s called, The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit. I first read it many years ago and have returned to it many times since. This is not a book he wrote for women. This is a book he wrote for Christians. Yet as a woman who is always battling my particular bent toward sin, this is a book I that has been deeply needed in my life.

As I’ve been thinking on Jesus coming to earth, the circumstances of his birth, that, “though he was rich, for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor 8:9), that he had no where to lay his head (Luke 9:58), that he was betrayed and denied by those who should have stood by him (Matt 26:75), that he became obedient to death (Phil 2:8), that he was humiliated and scorned and spit on (Mark 15:16-20), I’ve contemplated the many times I’ve thrown my lot in with the Lord, saying, “I’m yours! Tell me what you want me to do!” But I’ve cowered when he has asked me to be meek in the face of humiliation or misunderstanding.

I want the great exchange–I want the justification, the Good News that he did what I couldn’t and became sin for me, so that I could have his righteousness. But so often I want him to be poor in spirit, while I forsake the blessedness of being poor in spirit (Matt 5:3). I want him to be meek, so that I can have justice now. I don’t always want to follow him in meekness and actually turn the other cheek and patiently, with longsuffering, wait on the justice of the Lord. I want him to have no where to lay his head, so that I can have a perfect resting place now. His name was mocked, “King of the Jews,” but I want my name to be respected (Luke 23:37). He was misunderstood, but I want to be understood.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt 10:24).

The great exchange of the Gospel is absolutely glorious. But it isn’t the kind of glory that ends with me getting out of jail free so that I can live a life that is still my own, skipping off into the sunset of comfort and ease and zero heartache. I am a servant––a slave of Christ. I am not above my Master. That’s abundantly clear to everyone reading this, but the old, twisted remnants of sin in my heart still need to hear me say it out loud. Abigail, you are not above the Lord Jesus Christ. If it helps, you can put your name in place of mine. And that reality is for our good. It is a sign of our solidarity with the Lord. It is a sign of our sonship.

The great exchange of the Gospel means we have his righteousness and are now being equipped by it to forgive when forgiveness isn’t deserved, to love when hate seems more fitting, to be patient when we want what we want when we want it, to be meek and quiet when we want to give an answer and score a point, to be poor in spirit and absorb the cost of love when we’d rather pass the cost on to someone else.

Christ has come. Christ will come. The Holy Spirit is our real and powerful Helper now. Christ’s Spirit–the Holy Spirit–is the meekest, gentlest, kindest, purest, mightiest, most courageous, most hopeful, most happy, most groaning, and advocating Spirit in the world. And he lives in us. The Spirit that enabled Christ to say, “Not my will, but yours be done,” and enabled him to endure the cross and scorn the shame, will enable us to walk through our petty and not-so-petty trials. He will give us the grace to wait, with all patience, for the day when Christ will come again.

 

The Old Testament in Eight Weeks

IMG_2877I’m just starting a new class in my M.A. program at Bethlehem Seminary: Old Testament Theology. Our main text for the class is THE OLD TESTAMENT. Novel, I know.

Can I tell you how completely thrilled and excited I am?! So in the spirit of shared learning, linking arms, and strength in numbers, I made a spread sheet of our Bible reading as it appears on our syllabus.

I’m linking to it below in PDF form, hoping that many of you reading this blog post will join me in reading the OT:

OTin8Weeks

Here are few things to note:

Firstly, our prof has encouraged us to read ahead on the lighter weeks. So, it’s not essential that you only read what’s listed on that week. The goal is to get through it all.

Secondly, we are required to read each book in one sitting. If you want to follow along, of course you don’t have to do that, but I think it’s going to be really helpful and I’m excited about it.

Thirdly, some tips: Use audio to listen to the Bible, esp in the car for a chunk of time or on a treadmill or walk or folding clothes. Consider listening at 1.5 speed. Don’t read as you would for inductive study, but also don’t skim. Try and pay attention so that your mind is engaged and “lost” in the story or the text. Read or listen in a translation that is accurate, yet good for reading or listening: NIV, CSB, ESV.

And finally, an encouragement. I realize this is a big thing to throw yourself into at the last minute like this, but just think of it! Eight weeks from now you will have read the entire Old Testament. Think about how valuable that is. Think about how quickly it will be over. Think about how short our time is on earth and all the dumb things we waste our hours and minutes doing. Think about how this could change your life–to really get to know God as he reveals himself in his Word. Let’s do it!

P.S. I’ll have a four week break over Christmas and the New Year, then we’ll be onto the New Testament in eight weeks, so stay tuned!

A Little Compare and Contrast When It Comes to Boaz

I’m currently in a Bible study on the book of Ruth. Have you studied Ruth before?

I think this is my first time. Of course I’ve read it many times, but never studied it. After paying close and careful attention to the characters and the plot, I’ve been completely enthralled.

If you’d like to follow along with our study, you can find the teaching here. I got to teach on Ruth chapter 2 last week (hence the compare and contrast when it comes to Boaz) and will teach again next week on Ruth chapter 4.  Dr. Jason DeRouchie (OT professor) taught our introduction and our women’s minister, Pam Larson, is teaching the rest. She also wrote the study (and did a fabulous job). You can find it all at our podbean site.

I hope you follow along and I hope you grow in love for the God behind this incredible story he tells us.

One Little Big Encouragement for Dads

Being a dad is tough. I’m not one, but I’ve seen it up close. Most dads have to step into a primary role (fatherhood), even though their primary time is spent elsewhere. They have to be good at something (something really important!) that they don’t do all day everyday. Which means they have to take a lot of advice and pointers from the mom or caretakers who do do the parenting all day everyday.

When I help Tom with his business, I have a disorienting sense when I start out, because his work isn’t my primary work. It takes me a while to get oriented to it, to feel competent to actually help him. I think that’s what parenting in the little years is like for a lot of dads. Thankfully, it doesn’t stay that way, and competence grows as the needs demand.

So, my little big encouragement to dads is something I’ve observed in my husband, Tom, and it’s this: the little things are the big things. Here are three little things Tom does that amount to more than I can calculate:

1. He initiates family devotions.

Actually, he doesn’t anymore. He used to initiate family devotions when all the kids were little. Now, the kids initiate family devotions at the tail end of dinner. Every once in a while, we’re both really tired and would likely skip devos, but the kids are in the habit and someone always grabs the Bible off the shelf and hands it to Dad.

2. He initiates family prayer in the car.

Have you noticed how crazy it can be sometimes just to get everyone in the car and going? How sometimes a couple kids are mid-conflict? Or the parents and the kids have gotten out of fellowship with one another in the push to get out the door? The little habit of praying as the seatbelts are being buckled and the car is about to take off can make a world of difference in how we send ourselves and our kids out into the world.

3. He initiates family work.

On Saturdays, it’s most often Tom who gets everyone going on their list of “Saturday jobs.” He tends to expect more out of the kids than I do. His simple routines do a lot to disciple our kids into the faithfulness of God. Because discipleship isn’t just reading the Bible and praying. It’s obeying, it’s contributing to the needs of the people you’re apart of, it’s letting your yes be yes and your no be no. It’s doing our work “as to the Lord.”

So, for any dads out there reading, be encouraged. You don’t have to do exactly what Tom does, but you can do little things that make a big difference in the lives of your kids and wife. Your little initiatives can be like the countless drops of water that make up the ocean of grace and goodness and faithfulness your kids swim in day after day. They likely won’t realize all the goodness they’ve been flooded with, but keep at it.

We appreciate you, Dads. You are doing the Lord’s work. “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

IMG_9504
My dad and the dad of my kids.