Friday, June 22, 2012

Mothering, Excellence, and the Problem of Comparison

Evangelical blogger Tim Challies recently tackled what he dubbed "competitive mothering."  Undoubtedly, there is such an animal.  We've all heard about and likely seen new moms trading barbs about how soon their baby rolled over, or at what point they weaned, how early their little one potty trained, etc.  And certainly that same level of competition can translate into each stage of parenting thereafter.

Unfortunately, in this particular article, Challies in my opinion used Scripture in an unbalanced way to try to snipe attack women on the internet who share from a place of strength or wisdom.  While his article "sounded" right, the underlying message was wrong.

ARE EXCELLENCE AND HUMILITY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE?
One thrust of his article was right-- certainly we want to be realistic and transparent about our humanity, that we are made of dust.  We want to always be aware of our own weakness, and boast in Christ.

But as a Christian woman, or as a Christ-follower in general, does being realistic and humble as a sinner in need of Christ negate or exclude the sharing of excellence and wisdom?  It seems clear to me that Paul would say "no":

But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine... Older women are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.  They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husband and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.
This is a serious exhortation to women, with serious implications-- "that the word of God may not be reviled."

TEACHING (& LEARNING) WHAT IS GOOD
We have to be careful, particularly in this age of perfect-pictures-on-the-blog and Pinterest, to separate the pursuit of external perfectionism from the pursuit of excellence in our service to Christ and others (including our own families).  I personally have been far more encouraged and infused with vision and passion by godly women who are farther down the road, who humbly but honestly share the wisdom they've gleaned, than I have from hearing about failure.  Honestly, I would not visit and do not want to sit around and read articles by women highlighting all of their failures and areas of weakness.

What Challies is communicating is flawed: that, in order to make sure everyone knows that we are sinful and in need of Christ, Christian moms on the internet who share from their strength are wrong to do so.

I am certainly not advocating perfection in our decor, or that we seek or force robotic, externally "perfect" children, but that we strain and discipline ourselves toward greater and greater godliness.  As children of God, in our housekeeping, in our marriages, and in our mothering, like Proverbs says, we can shine brighter and brighter, like the sun as it reaches full day.  Paul told older women to teach us about purity, love, self-control, etc., because we need to be reminded of the upward call.  I love to see and hear godly women share from their wisdom, and I really don't appreciate how Challies paired the idea of a perfectly posed pinterest picture with the pursuit of being a godly mom and wife.  One is unattainable and ultimately fleeting, but the other is worthwhile, eternal, and spoken highly of in Scripture.

IS THE WOMAN WHO SHARES HER SUCCESSES NECESSARILY "BOASTING"?
The problem with Challies' article is that he leapt from perfect home decorating to the pursuit of excellence by his "fictional" homeschool mom.  Why the assumption that this woman, sharing from an area of strength, is "boasting"?

SHOULD WE FOCUS ON OUR FAILURES?  
SHOULD WE ONLY SHARE OUR WEAKNESSES?  
IS THAT WHAT CHALLIES HIMSELF DOES?

The implication that we should all sit around and focus on our failures truly irks me.  And it is wrong to label regular, thoughtful sharing of wisdom and insight as "boasting". Challies puts it this way:
Instead of boasting in your strengths as a mother, or wanting to be able to boast in your strengths as a mother, why not boast in your weakness? Only when you accept your weakness, your insufficiency, will that competition and guilt begin to melt away. 
Why is a mother sharing what is positive or excellent in her life automatically labeled as "boasting"?  It is an unnecessary and unhelpful leap.  In fact, I see a scriptural injunction for older women to "teach what is good", which implies not only that they have authority, but that they have something excellent to share from the overflow of what God has taught them.  And I don't believe Challies would listen for one second if another blogger accused him of being 'haughty' or "boasting" by hosting regular read-throughs of puritan classics, as he does on his blog.  His pursuit of excellence as a believer in Christ does not mean that he is boasting, however, his article seems to laud mediocrity and borderline ridicule the woman pursuing and sharing wisdom and excellence.  

At a time when I have repetitively heard many younger women (myself included) crying out for Titus 2 women in their real lives, Challies' criticism is aimed directly at the (admittedly imperfect- I mean, they are human after all) women who try to share their lives online, so that others can be encouraged.

WHAT IF THEY WERE ELECTRICAL ENGINEERS?
We would never expect Christian electrical engineers to sit around all day telling everyone how much they stink at being electrical engineers.  We expect them to work with all their might, to God's glory, at being a great electrical engineer.

This is the way I see motherhood- as an important role that younger women are to learn about from older women, and that we should be growing in excellence and skill.  In an age where less and less women are taking on this role of motherhood to begin with, and less and less women are truly pursuing and living out excellence in this role, I am delighted to hear wisdom from godly women, wherever I can find it!

Yes, my sin is ever before me, and I am so aware of my failure (as I trust that Christ-following blogging woman also does), but I press on and am greatly encouraged by women who share their godly, righteous wisdom, and by others who share their practical, daily, how-to wisdom.  It is wrong for me or Challies to believe that every woman who shares good things also has to list out all of her flaws in order to be "real" and not boasting.

Let's take it a step further and say that there was a biblical instruction that older electrical engineers should teach younger electrical engineers how to be excellent and honor God in that position.  Wouldn't it be all the more incumbent upon Christian electrical engineers to examine their lives and find the "excellent" so that they could share the wisdom that God had put in their life, and the way He had multiplied their skills over the years?

If there was a website where Phil the electrical engineer shared his success, or a website where engineers got together to share their best ideas (like Pinterest), it would be foolish and absurd for anyone to think that just because Phil had some great ideas and possessed an unusual combination of talent, that he never failed or never also had crappy ideas.  Of course everyone knows that success comes through trial and error, hard work, and a continual seeking and gaining of wisdom.

HER STRENGTHS DON'T HAVE TO REFLECT BACK ON ME
My point is that if that fictional homeschooling mom actually happens to make it work, teaching her children to read and understand John Owen, and also decorate a great home and take pictures of it, well, here's one additional thing I can know about her: I can absolutely, 100%, definitively rely on the fact that she is not perfect.  No one is.  I don't have to feel guilty or ashamed because I don't, or don't yet, possess her same skill set.

So what do we do with the woman who is naturally crafty?  Good for her if she can turn a barn into a ballroom with balloons, burlap, and twine!  It doesn't reflect poorly on me if I can't, don't, or don't want to do that.  But it does reflect poorly on me if I choose to see that woman's natural, God-given talents & express dissatisfaction in God's sovereign dispensing of abilities by choosing to see myself poorly because she can do things that I can't.

For my part, when reading a blog, or looking at pinterest or Facebook, I feel free to partake or not partake, to read and glean, or to click the little red "x" and never return to that blog again.  But I would not ever come to the conclusion that the woman with strengths shouldn't be blogging or sharing just because some woman sits behind her computer screen feeling inferior.

I can choose not to look at that woman's blog, and not "repin" her ideas on Pinterest, but I really dislike and disagree with the idea that she has to always and only highlight her failures in order to be godly, or that by sharing her strengths, she is "boasting".  On this issue, I'm convinced that Challies has it wrong.  Do we really expect her to not share what she's good at?  Does Challies hold himself to this same standard?  Or, as I think is accurate, does he believe his gifts are a natural place for the outflow of his sharing?

WHAT IF IT WAS CHRISTIAN MEN?
I can't imagine a bunch of men sitting around and complaining because Tim Challies sets such a high example of studying the works of Puritans, reading books like a mad man, being an excellent writer, and having connections with the evangelical high-and-mighty, that they feel intellectually puny and worthless in comparison.  And if Christian men did say that, they would be in the wrong.  Challies is who he is because it flows out of the natural gifts and inclinations God has given him, as well as the hard work and dedication he puts in day in, day out.

And, in my mind, it's the same thing for that John Owen reading, photograph-taking homeschool mom. She's sharing and exhorting others to grow from the area of her strength.  She might BE boasting, just as Challies could have a boastful heart as he writes about Puritan authors, but we cannot conclude that because she shares her strengths, she is boasting.

GLEANING IS WISE; COMPARISONS KILL
As women, we can (A) see success and glean from it what to do and what not to do, (B) choose to click away from a blog or website that does not personally encourage us, or (C) we can give in to comparing and nurturing a sense of discontentedness and guilt from a woman who does certain things well.  I think A and B are biblical options for us as believers.  But as Christian women on the internet, we need to buck up.  C is not an option- comparison is actually and ultimately a dissatisfaction with God's sovereignty in making each individual as He has.

Christian woman,
If you look at Pinterest and find yourself discouraged, QUIT LOOKING AT PINTEREST!  Or better yet, go to the Word and see what your priorities should be, and then feel free to go back with a new set of eyes that values godliness, and can glean and learn useful things without comparing.  If there is a blog that leaves you feeling tired and like you'll never measure up, it is possible to just click that red "x" and take those thoughts captive and move on.  Or, you can ask God to give you a set of eyes that can rejoice in the gifts and talents of others (without envying), and can also choose to be grateful and delighted in the gifts and talents that He has given you.

Women teaching other women is wise and biblical.  To learn and glean from the wisdom and righteousness of others is wise and biblical.  Comparisons kill and ultimately disdain what God has given and ordained.  As Christian women, I believe we can and should grow in grace to be able to see others without automatically reflecting it back on ourselves, for good, or for ill.  

Let us pursue excellence, together.  Let us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Let us offer grace to one another as we read and learn online together.  Let us believe the best about one another, not leaping to the conclusion that someone else is boasting, but recognizing that all Christ followers are sinners saved by grace.  



All images used by permission: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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