A few years ago, a friend of Brooke's bought her a copy of the highly entertaining and educational Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese. It's a cookbook written by a laid-off suburbanite-turned-food-blogger about her three-year journey to save some money by making all the food she would normally buy (such as cheese, prosciutto, marinara, and corn dogs).
Reese is a fantastic storyteller, but there are two pages where she indirectly muses on female vocation that makes her pause with bemused frustration. She writes:
I opened Laurel's Kitchen recently, for the first time in twenty-five years’¦.I started reading. Was I hallucinating? Had I really once loved this book? Interspersed between the paeans to the glory of homemade bread and recipes for cashew gravy were meditations on the nature of women that struck me as so essentialist and retrograde that they might have come from a fundamentalist religious sect. "I would never go on record as saying 'a woman's place is in the home,'" wrote one of the authors. "But to my mind the most effective front for social change, the critical point where our efforts will count the most, is not in business or profession’¦but in the home and community, where the problems start."
Two hundred pages later, Reese writes the following:
I didn't want to play any games of Candy Land, ever, so we'd have dinner and then I'd pour a glass of wine and Isabel and I would bake cakes or cookies or scones, sometimes all three, while Owen played with his trains at our feet. I'd have another glass of wine, and though I thought I was very unlucky to be stuck at home alone with small children every night, it was actually very merry’¦.I don't remember being particularly contented in those years, but now I look back at those nights standing around the mixer as some of the happiest of my life.
If some of the happiest evenings of her life involved cooking with her children (i.e., being a mom), why disdain the notion that the most valuable and rewarding work that women do is in the home? Or does she find repugnant the notion that the home is the best place a woman can work? We're not sure which’maybe neither. Human nature is not obliged to be consistent, and having conflicting feelings about domestic and vocational roles isn't uncommon these days.
Quite the contrary’living without any tension between duty and desire is what is unusual. In a time when young women have been encouraged to take their places in the university, boardroom, and laboratory before considering marriage and family, it's little wonder that so many of them slightly resent the infringement on time, resources, and energy that families require. Unlike the Greatest Generation (their grandparents) and the Boomers (their parents), Millennials have been raised with the idea that "having it all" is not only possible, but an entirely reasonable expectation. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest (those great engines of image-crafting) have nurtured this ideal, as we see more and more cases of "real people" successfully integrating personal passion and family responsibility.
We're surrounded by "real life" examples of women who have turned disadvantaged upbringings into Rhodes scholarships and estate sale garbage into Restoration Hardware glories. Consequently, it's a bit frustrating when we enter the workplace, log fifty hours a week, and don't get the promotion. Looking at the beautifully arranged and carefully lit photographs on a blog, it's bewildering how a meal/craft/home can look so effortlessly stylish, and yet cost us hours of tears, aggravation, and increasingly limited time.
We're continually encouraged and affirmed by advertisers, bloggers, and celebrities that we can have (and be!) it all; but in the wake of harsh reality checks and overblown expectations, we become disappointed in ourselves and dissatisfied with who we are. In the midst of deflated ideals and unrealized expectations, where do we go? If we're not all called to positions of honor and prestige in society (and most of us aren't), then what are we called to? We know we're not cosmic, biological accidents’the Father himself knitted us together in our mothers' wombs. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, but what for? If we take away the titles of daughter, sister, wife, mother, student, athlete, employee, and executive, how do we define womanhood?
Let Us Make Man
We're told that on the sixth day of creation, God created both men and women in his image (Gen. 1:27 ESV). Although this image has been distorted and perverted by sin, it remains’however we may appear to others or to ourselves’that all of us are ultimately image-bearers. This is a title that cannot be taken away: an identity that has no grounding in our conception of who we are and as such affords us great comfort and joy when we are disappointed with ourselves and degraded by others. The Westminster Shorter Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism point out that the image of God includes knowledge, righteousness, and holiness (WSC 10, HC 6). God commanded Adam and Eve to know what obedience he required and to fulfill it in holy living, the purpose of which was so "that he [man] might rightly know God his Creator, heartily love Him, and live with Him in eternal blessedness to praise and glorify Him." In other words, the point of obedience and holiness was the eternal worship and love of the Creator.
Even though Adam and Eve knew the command of God, they failed to keep to his standard of holiness, marring the image they bore. In the fullness of time, Christ came as the second Adam to keep God's commandments in perfect holiness and to pay the penalty for our sins. For Christians who receive Jesus' righteousness by faith, the fallen image of God is being renewed as we are conformed to the image of Christ.
In a society that elevates personal transformation and self-fulfillment as the ultimate virtues, it's not surprising that this announcement falls flat. Being told that you already have an identity (which you didn't create) and a purpose (which you didn't choose) isn't a message that's going to be greeted with enthusiastic affirmation. This is the age of the selfie: you choose the wardrobe, make-up, hair, setting, mood, lighting, and filter. No one chooses it for you. You are the central focus of the picture; you are the subject and the goal.
In a time when many women reach adulthood frustrated because of unhappy families, disappointing relationships, and a culture that relentlessly lobs everything from fitness regimes to fashion blogs to food promising to help them on their quest for transformation, the desire to improve ourselves is understandable. Who doesn't want to lay down her baggage, exorcise her demons, or simply be something other than the ordinary woman she is?
The problem with this solution is that it's not a solution at all. When we turn from our grief and sin to ourselves, we're asking for more grief and exacerbating our sin. We aren't the answer to our problem; we are the problem. It's not the idea of self-improvement per se that's necessarily bad; it's believing that we have it within us to make ourselves essentially better, thinking that self-improvement will lead to ultimate justification.
This is why our identity as image-bearers is so important and so comforting. We know who we are and, more importantly, who we're for. We are grounded, centered, and secure in the knowledge that we have been fearfully and wonderfully made by loving hands for the glorious purpose of worshipping our creator. We don't have to win accolades or make our lives count’Christ has already won the Father's approval for us; our lives already count because we are beloved of the Father and kept for Jesus Christ. We're not missing God's will for our lives by accepting our identity in Christ over the identity we make for ourselves. On the contrary, we assume the easy burden and light yoke of our Savior and cast off the chains that shackle us to society's approbation and acclaim.
Slow and Steady, Steady and Slow
Our identity as image-bearers is hard to understand and takes all our lives to comprehend; but if we want to rightly understand what it means be a woman, it's the only place to begin. We can clear out our RSS feed and turn off our iPads, but we know our wayward hearts will still look for other "better" ways to establish who we are and be all we can be.
It would be nice if all we had to do was profess faith in Christ and watch our sin dissolve into thin air, but that doesn't seem to be the way it works. While it's definitely encouraging to hear stories of people being granted overnight victory in their war with drugs, profanity, or fornication, most of us continue to struggle long after the shackles are removed. Our sinful inclinations remain, and the truth is that we like the false freedom that satisfies our appetites for earthly joys and the approval of man. In the face of such daunting odds, we forget that the Holy Spirit is stronger than our natural inclinations and that we're no longer enslaved to our sin.
This is why, at the beginning of the week, we stop what we're doing and go to church. It's there’in communion with our fellow pilgrims, under the preaching of the law and the gospel’that we are reminded of who we are and who we are made for. We're convicted by the reading of the law, relieved by the proclamation of the gospel, and assured by the tangible elements of bread and wine that Christ is always with us by his Holy Spirit. We're reminded that neither angels nor demons, principalities nor powers, our own devious hearts nor the sweet, persuasive words of our culture will separate us from the love of the Father. Wherever we are, however we're feeling, God has promised to meet us there, in the preaching of his word and in our participation of the sacrament, to comfort our tired hearts and grant us what we need to live lives pleasing to him as new creations in Christ.
It's also why, on Monday morning, as we answer texts or corral the children, we pray for the grace to remember that whether or not our efforts for our office or our family are recognized, every good work we do is accepted by our Father for Christ's sake. When we go to God in prayer’frustrated, tired, and longing for relief from our daily struggles’it is a comfort to know not only that he is pleased to hear us, but also that our elder brother (who has shared in all our grief and sorrow) is himself actively interceding for us to the Father. We never pray alone; even when we sit in silence at a loss for words, the Holy Spirit himself is there, praying on our behalf. Mindful of our weakness and frailty, the awesome majesty of the Triune God stands ready to help us because of the great love of the Father poured out on us in the Son.
As the week rolls by and our errors stack up, we remember that this is a lifelong process. The Christian life is a journey, not an instantaneous arrival’it's expected that the hike will get tiresome and difficult and the road ahead hard to see. The Heidelberg Catechism tells us that even the holiest of God's children make only a small beginning in their conformity to Christ's image, so we ought to tailor our expectations accordingly, and not think so highly of our holiness that we unconsciously set standards we're unable to meet. When we're oppressed by our sins and discouraged by our failed attempts at godliness, we remember that this is why we "constantly and diligently pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, so that more and more we may be renewed in the image of God, until we attain the goal of full perfection after this life."
Therein lie our hope and joy: full perfection after this life. Amid the dull plodding and frustrations that sometimes characterize our earthly pilgrimage, we rejoice in the certainty that our victory over the sin that so easily weighs us down is absolutely, irrevocably won. The day will surely come when we see the realization of that decided triumph and the fulfillment of all we long for in Christ. We know we shall see him face to face’not as ethereal spirits, but in resurrected and glorified bodies, free from our sin and frailty, the marvelous image of our God made perfect in our once-broken and imperfect forms. We will see with our own eyes the ultimate unity of who we are with what we were made for, no longer as sure revelation but as triumphant fulfillment. "For now we see through a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Cor. 13:12).