Some of you are shocked, and maybe a little offended, that I would ask this question because your instinctive response is, Of course God values strong women.
Confession: Sometimes my own view of women hamstrings me.
I can think, for example, that as a married woman, my primary “calling” from God is first and foremost to stay at home. I might think God distributes spiritual gifting according to gender, or that submission is not truly a necessary quality for both genders (Ephesians 5:21). Perhaps I wrongly intuit that being a person who submits to others means dumbing down or silencing my voice; or maybe I think that when women lead, things get dangerous.
I might also think that God likes women who appear “gentle and quiet” (based on verses like 1 Peter 3:4), which then translates in my head to mean that God might look suspiciously on bubbly, assertive women like me who have gifts useful in “louder” contexts. I forget that Jesus Himself had a gentle and lowly heart (Matthew 11:29), or that gentleness is a fruit of His Spirit in all of us. It’s not just women who are called to be “gentle”.
Sometimes church culture and the resulting misinterpretation of Scripture can get me thinking of God as wanting women to be strong, but not too strong.
The many facets of womanhood
But I remember one day reading to both my daughter and son the story of Deborah, Barak, and Jael, from Judges 4. I read it to my daughter because I wanted her to see some strong biblical women. I read it to my son because it’s gross in that cool way boys love (see also the story of Eglon in Judges 3:12-30); I especially like reading my sons stories of strong women; I want them to love the fierce adventures of God-followers in the Bible.
The story of Deborah fascinates me, because Deborah is so stinkin’ strong and unapologetic. She’s commanding this army general (Barak) to do what God’s telling him and herd up 10,000 warriors to go against the enemy general, Sisera.
But Barak’s too freaked out to do it without Deborah, so Deborah says she’ll go with him—but God will give the glory to a woman, not to him (Judges 4:8-9).
She’s right. The army is routed; General Sisera takes off and tries to hide out in Jael’s tent. After schmoozing him with a meal and a blanket, Jael plants a tent peg through his temple.
If you read the song of Deborah and Barak in Judges 5 afterward, this is what I like: I, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel… (Judges 5:7, ESV)
Here are some adjectives I scrawled down, based on how Judges 4-5 portrayed this “mother”:
- “charging the hill”
- unshaken trust
As I picked out these traits, I couldn’t help but ask myself: do these describe my motherhood? My womanhood?
I definitely “charge the hill” when it comes to laundry. I am certainly bold when my child leaves a peach pit on the coffee table. I’m decisive when I want kids to do their chores.
But both motherhood and womanhood require I wage war with so much more than a slow cooker and a vacuum cleaner. The paths God has laid out for me have required me to “charge the hill”—forge ahead boldly—in areas of social justice. My kids’ learning disorders. Teaching in articles, books, and national radio. Moving my family to Africa for missions and poverty relief. Warring against my own depression and anxiety.
And honestly, sometimes fear is much more alluring, more persuasive.
I forget the business-entrepreneur, real-estate purchasing, arms-are-strong-for-her-tasks Proverbs 31 woman. I lose sight of women like Priscilla, who taught and corrected Apollos and served alongside Paul in ministry, along with other women in positions of leadership in the churches Paul had left in their care (Romans 16). I fail to acknowledge women like Abigail, whose forward, shrewd thinking prevented perhaps hundreds of lives lost, despite the foolishness of her husband (1 Samuel 25:32-33).
Looking at these women, I’ve realised how God’s created all types of women, armed with different strengths for their unique times and roles. We can’t let evangelical stereotypes water down God’s rich, complex definition of womanhood.
At the end of the day, to be a woman of God comes down to obedience and faithfulness to Him. When a woman said to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” he responded with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28).
In that culture that defined women by their relational roles, Jesus challenged it by saying that more valuable than being a mother—than whoever you raise, or whatever your role–is to hear God and obey Him, whether that entails being bold and decisive and taking charge or stepping into a supporting role. It’s doing whatever would honour God the most.
I should say here that I still choose to arrange my life in what I believe to be God’s order, placing myself beneath my husband’s authority (Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18, 1 Peter 3:1). And I actually prefer to have him bear the primary weight of responsibility for our home. But I frequently take the lead in parenting, home management, management of our renters, parts of our ministry as a couple or in my own parts in the Body of Christ, and other areas my husband and I agree I should handle.
I also remember that the Hebrew word for “helper”—which was what Eve was named in the Garden of Eden—ezer, is also used to describe God, God’s Spirit, and military allies in the rest of the Old Testament. This “helper” is a military ally. She’s not particularly dainty nor designed to hide in passivity, to avoid confrontation or conflict.
What strength is really for
I think sometimes I get strength wrong. Women get strength wrong.
I like that Deborah and Jael’s strength was for God and His purposes. It wasn’t so they could achieve purposes of selfish ambition or conceit (Philippians 2:3-4). It wasn’t because they needed to prove something or that they were above someone else. It wasn’t so they could say, You’re not the boss of me.
I’m also reminded that my roles as a woman—whether in career or ministry or relationships (adding rightful, inestimable value to my life)—are not intended to be my sole source of satisfaction and value. Only God can and should be.
I told my oldest son who, at 15, had shoulders expanding by inches, that God has given him power in order to protect and care for others. It’s not so he can use his power to better get what he wants. The ethos of the kingdom of God is one where the greatest among you is your servant.
And so in the same way, women don’t pursue leadership or strength or power to dominate, any more than men should. Courage, from Joan of Arc to Mother Teresa, is for a chance to wash someone’s feet (John 13:14). To do what is gross and exhausting yet loving and beautiful.
This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.