When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference by Carolyn Custis James (Zondervan, 2001)
As I mentioned before, I first read When Life and Beliefs Collide in personal circumstances that led to a great reluctance to tackle any of the author’s excellent subsequent books. Only a few years previously, we had left the church which remains to this day both our best and our worst church experience. Because James’ husband was in the leadership of what had become (or revealed itself to be; I’m still not certain which) an oppressive, even abusive situation, I had assumed that he and his family were in agreement with and partially responsible for the oppression. This was confirmed in my mind when I read glowing, positive comments about “our church” in When Life and Beliefs Collide. Re-reading it now, I’m amazed at how effectively that blinded me to the strengths of the book, how bold it was, and indeed how much of a risk James took in writing it.
This is a “women’s book,” written as it was in a situation where women, no matter how qualified, did not teach men, but as theologian J. I. Packer said, “[This] book seems to me to be a must-read for Christian women and a you'd-better-read for Christian men, for it gets right so much that others have simply missed.” The heart and soul of James’ work is the importance of theology in the lives of everyone: male and female, young and old. Don’t let the word scare you into thinking this is a dry, academic subject: as James says on the masthead of her website, the moment the word “why” crosses your lips, you are doing theology.
James makes many excellent points, every single one of which I missed the first time because of the prejudice I brought to my reading. Mighty scary, that.
As usual in my reviews, the following quotations are not meant to be a summary of the book as a whole, but are instead ones that struck me for one reason or another and which I want to remember.
Many Christian men seek wives who know far less than they do or who have little interest in theology. The assumption is that a woman who knows less will make a better wife. Her ignorance will be an asset to the relationship, or as another woman put it, “The less a woman has in her head, the lighter she is for carrying.” This assumption leads women to conclude that the godly thing to do is hold back for his sake. And so the age-old game carries on—a woman keeps herself in check to make a man look good. It happens all the time.
How differently the Bible portrays women. There they are admired for their depth of theological wisdom and their strong convictions. Women in the Bible did not need anyone to carry them. Their theology strengthened them to get under the burden at hand. Contrary to current fears, these wise women did not demean, weaken, or overthrow the men. They empowered, strengthened, and urged them on to greater faithfulness and were better equipped to do so because of their grasp of God’s character and ways.
Far from diminishing her appeal, a woman’s interest in theology ought to be the first thing to catch a man’s eye. A wife’s theology should be what a husband prizes most about her. He may always enjoy her cooking and cherish her gentle ways, but in the intensity of battle, when adversity flattens him or he faces an insurmountable challenge, she is the soldier nearest him, and it is her theology that he will hear.
Glory is the uncovering of God’s character—the disclosure of who God is.
I love that last quote. I haven't thought much about it yet, but if it's a reasonable description of what is meant when the Bible talks about God's glory, many Biblical passages suddenly make a lot more sense, particularly the ones that appear to show God as a petty tyrant, concerned most of all with making himself look good at others' expense.
[T]he Father’s glory—his reputation—is on the line in our race. God’s glory cannot be separated from what he does, from his plan for you and for me. God cannot be glorified if his goodness breaks down along the way. If he fails to be good for a split second, or if even one runner crosses the finish line with a negative report of his faithfulness, then shame will displace glory. The promise of God’s glory is the guarantee that no story will put God to shame; they all will only add to the mounting evidence of his great goodness.
The night Mary [of Bethany] went public with her theology [anointing Jesus for his burial], my search to find a great woman theologian ended. In Mary’s ministry to Jesus, I found what I had been looking for and more. She was, as I have argued, not simply a great woman theologian. She was the first great New Testament theologian. On the dark side of the cross, she was the first to understand the gospel. She listened and believed, and so she was the only one who ministered to Jesus.
[W]e would do well to ponder some important issues raised by Mary’s actions that night. Her actions poke all sorts of holes in the notion that it is ungodly, unfeminine, insubordinate, and pushy for a woman to take the initiative. Here we see Mary taking the initiative in public, on a theological matter, and in a gathering of male leaders. What is more, she did it right in front of Jesus. And to everyone’s astonishment, Jesus praised her for her actions. Jesus taught a brand of theology that was living and active. It did not lead Mary to withdraw into passivity or wait for a man to do the job; it led her to accept responsibility, step out, and take action where she saw a need.
This is not to suggest, however, that Mary’s actions leave room for women to be offensive, insensitive, or cavalier toward others. Mary didn’t elbow her way into the room or behave disrespectfully toward the disciples, although they were in fact offended by her actions. Her conduct was above reproach, filled with grace and graciousness. The fruit of the Spirit must always govern how Christians interact with one another. This underscores the importance of fixing our eyes on Jesus to know him and his ways, so we will reflect him when we step out. Mary was not putting herself forward, fighting for herself, her rights, or her sex. She was fighting for her Lord.
The point of Mary’s story is not … that women will do a better job of things than men but that in the body of Christ, men and women need each other.
When Mary sat at Jesus’ feet for the first time, the door to learning theology opened wide to women. But when she knelt at his feet this last time, the door to ministry swung open for women too. The need Mary sensed in Jesus wouldn’t have been answered by the sumptuous plate of food on the table before him. Nor would it have been good enough for her to wait passively on the fringes, praying for one of the male disciples to notice what was needed and do something. The Holy Spirit had opened her eyes to the need. Jesus had trained her to be active and to contribute … and so she stepped out to anoint Jesus, not to shame anyone else or because there wasn’t a man who was willing to do it but because this job belonged to her. Mary offered pastoral ministry to Jesus, which he warmly and publicly accepted. Jesus’ response to Mary’s critics gives women permission to think in wider categories for how we can minister to others. On this momentous night, Mary set a precedent for us to follow. A woman’s theology opens new spheres of spiritual ministry in which she can readily engage—spiritual ministry to other women, to children, and also to men.
Some military organizations ban women from their ranks. But Jesus wants them in his. Furthermore, female recruits, such as Mary, are not in the way or a liability to the troops, as some might fear. Neither are they a disgrace to their sex. In the trenches of the war zone, God’s army is stronger for its female theologians. It is the crown of our womanhood, the essence of true femininity, the highest praise ever accorded a female that it should be said of any of us, she was “a brave and godly soldier in the army of the Lord.”
The war zone is no respecter of gender. The inclusion of women in the ranks of God’s army is not to meet some affirmative action requirement or to ensure women receive the same treatment as the men. The simple yet revolutionary reason for including women is because the army needs them. God never intended for women to sit on the sidelines and await the outcome of the battle the men are fighting. He meant for us to be theologically active and engaged right alongside the men on the front lines of the battle.
The Bible doesn’t teach a theology of women that applies only to a subset of the female population or fits only certain seasons of a woman’s life. God’s calling for women applies to all of us from the cradle to the grave, whether we are single or married, divorced or widowed, childless or moms, infirm or able bodied. Our conclusions (if they are true) should fit any woman’s life, under any circumstance, at any point in history, and at any location on the planet. That is the nature of truth and the reason we need to stick together as we study.
[Adam and Eve’s] “bone of my bones” union meant no one shared a greater interest in his welfare or a deeper concern for his struggles. She was his rib, formed to protect and defend his vital organs. God did not create her to let her husband do the thinking while she flattered, cajoled, complied, and shored up his male ego. Her mission was to build him up in God, to stand with him in truth and to oppose him whenever he veered onto wrong paths.
The greatest asset a woman brings to her marriage is not her beauty, her charm, her feminine wiles, or even her ability to bear a child. It is her theology. Every wife is her husband’s partner, pastor, spiritual counselor, motivational speaker, and his fellow soldier in the war zone. With her eyes fixed on Jesus, she is less inclined to make her husband, herself, or her children the center of the universe. With head and heart filled with the knowledge of God, she will find strength to enter the fray and wrestle with all of life’s problems alongside her husband. As she lives in the light of God’s sovereign goodness, she will radiate hope and courage to him in the darkest hours. With her feet firmly planted on God’s holy character, she will find boldness to stand up to her man when his disobedience is tarnishing God’s glory. And her husband will only be the better for it.
When God raised the problem of Adam’s aloneness, he never said, “I am all you need.” Instead of giving Adam a lecture on contentment or a sermon on God’s sufficiency, God formed a woman—a tangible, flesh and blood human being—to come alongside and, in her own imperfect way, enter into his struggles. He commissioned a person to stand in the gap and be there for the man. But women aren’t somehow better suited to cope with aloneness than the man was. Everyone needs an ezer ("strong helper")—especially women who are living in crisis. The ezer’s ministry is not simply about the role of women in marriage. It is something all Christians are called to do for one another.
There are plenty of times in my life that I look back on and hate to think what would have happened if someone hadn’t been there for me. Often the friend who reached out didn’t have any experience with my particular struggle. But that didn’t seem to stop them from trying or hinder them from getting through. Elderly women were strong for me when I was a teenager and a young adult. When I was single, my greatest support came from three women who had married in their teens. Sometimes, the one who is an ezer for me is my daughter. There’s no minimum age to do his work.
Fitness-conscious Americans should have little trouble grasping the implications of this biblical imagery for the church. Health is a whole body concern that is jeopardized if any organ or limb is weak or not functioning properly. The person who has one strong leg and one that is weak is not viewed as strong because they have a strong leg. To the contrary, they are lame and in need of physical therapy to restore the weak leg to full strength. … When women are encouraged to take a passive role, the church becomes more like a stroke victim shuffling down the road, dragging a limp and lifeless leg along behind.
A woman’s ministry in the church (and the principle holds true for a man too) is defined in concentric circles, beginning with those nearest to her and moving out until the entire church is encompassed. This principle isn’t taken from some book on ministry methods and guidelines but from the Scriptures that establish marriage and family as the primary ministries both for men and for women. During certain phases in a woman’s life, her family may be her only ministry. But who can overstate the importance of investing ourselves in our marriages and in the lives of our children? Ministry to the family is kingdom work that edifies the body of Christ. A mother rocks the next generation of the church in her arms, and one way or another, the church to come will feel the effects of her spiritual influence. Her husband and her children will either draw strength from or be weakened by her efforts as a pastor, teacher, and counselor at home.
Sadly, in the church today, important ministries are overlooked or done poorly because the feminine perspective is missing. Again the point is not that women have superior gifts to offer the church but that men and women need each other in the church and that we harm the church when we minister selectively rather than freely to anyone who needs our help.
Mary may have the privilege of anointing Jesus for his burial. But Martha claims the honor of being the only woman in the Gospels to proclaim his true identity. Martha’s confession ranks her as one of the few individuals who, before the resurrection, affirmed Jesus as the Son of God. “Yes, Lord,” she tells him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
Those who know God find deeper meaning in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of their lives. They know that he is in control and that he is good here and now, no matter what is happening. Strange as it sounds, theology belongs in the kitchen every bit as much as it belongs in the pulpit or the seminary classroom, perhaps even more.