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The Myth of the Submissive Christian Woman
ContentsAcknowledgments.....................................................xi Introduction........................................................xiii PART 1: Exposing the Myths 1. Have You Lost Yourself?..........................................3 2. Do Your Choices Reflect Your Commitment?.........................21 3. Is Your Success Formula Failing?.................................37 4. Are You Crawling onto the Cross?.................................51 PART 2: Exchanging Myths for the Truth 5. The Truth Will Set You Free......................................69 6. Truth and Consequences...........................................87 7. The Power of Letting Go..........................................107 8. Embracing Your Humanness.........................................123 PART 3: Dying to Self and Becoming Alive to God 9. The Joy of True Submission.......................................137 10. The Freedom of Self-Giving......................................151 11. Dying to Self in Community......................................165 Guidelines for Small Group Discussion...............................185 Notes...............................................................187 About the Author....................................................191
ChapterOneHave You Lost Yourself?
I did not lose myself all at once. I rubbed out my face over the years washing away my pain, the same way carvings on stone are worn down by water. -Amy Tan
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THE MYTH: Biblical submission requires that I give up being "me."
When I first saw Nicki, she was at least fifteen pounds underweight. Her face was drawn and pale, etched with lines of pain, worry, and regret. She reminded me of a wounded sparrow in search of a sheltering limb during a storm.
On her background information she had written simply: "I need help."
"What kind of help do you think you need?" I asked.
After a long pause, Nicki shrugged and said, "I'm not sure. I just know that my life is not working."
As we began to talk, I learned that Nicki had taken disability leave from her job in an insurance company, where stress had been mounting for several years. Throughout the ten years she had worked at the company, she had received regular promotions, but recently the need to cope with her teenage son's rebellion, her husband's lack of emotional involvement in their family life and his frequent business trips, and her own responsibilities at home and work had driven her to the edge of an emotional cliff.
"I feel so guilty," Nicki said. "I've been a Christian most of my life, yet I've become incompetent in my job, and I'm failing as a wife and mother. I hate myself!" At that point the intensity of Nicki's emotions reached a peak, and she began to cry softly. Over the next few weeks, Nicki gradually gave me a glimpse of her world and, more important, the empty state of her inner self, from which she viewed it. Like a shell-shocked Christian soldier peeking out from a foxhole to view the surrounding devastation, Nicki was beginning to suspect that she may have misread her marching orders.
Nicki's lifelong tendency to avoid conflict with her coworkers, her husband, and her friends had become stronger over the years as she tried to consider others more important than herself and develop "a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight" (1 Peter 3:4). As Nicki grew increasingly concerned that she might appear selfish, she often repressed her honest emotions and denied her own needs and limitations. When her boss became anxious about the company's future and demanded extra hours of her expertise so that the business could remain solvent, Nicki frequently worked overtime. In the meantime her husband was out of town traveling at least two days each week, which left their son with unmet needs for supervision and companionship. When her husband was at home, he was often uptight or depressed. Hoping to add a little excitement to the humdrum rhythm of their lives, he persuaded Nicki that they could rekindle their waning love life by watching triple-X-rated films together. Having a desire to please her husband-and thereby please God-Nicki agreed to do this. Later, even when she felt used and betrayed, she tried to think only good and pure and right things about her husband. She kept quiet about her emotional pain because she mistakenly believed the Scriptures taught that a married woman had no control over her own body.
Because Nicki was living according to a patchwork of Scripture verses that she had pieced together over the years, her behavior looked so Christian, so right-at least from her perspective. She had always wanted to be a woman who was generous, kind, and self-sacrificing-all good traits. But she was confused and frustrated about what that would really mean for her and how to go about becoming that kind of woman. With sincere intentions of "dying to self," Nicki subtly veered off course, and her miscalculation eventually led down a dark path to self-abandonment. In the process she became a weakened, milquetoast Christian who ignored her legitimate needs for respect, accountability, and mutuality in her relationships and made it easy for unhealthy behaviors to prevail. In her well-intentioned efforts to obey what she mistakenly believed the Scriptures teach, she rejected herself and abandoned the gifts God had given her.
Nicki had unwittingly bought into the myth that in order to submit to God, she must give up being herself. Other misconceptions had also skewed her interpretation of the Scriptures, and woven together, they perpetuated a myth about the Christian life-that "dying to self" means that a woman must be weak-willed and compliant at all costs, that she must ultimately reject who she is or somehow die on the inside in order to please God. This mistakenly "Christianized" justification for devaluing what God has created may appear biblical at a surface glance. But when we take a deeper look, we discover that it is not at all what the Scriptures really say or what Christ intended for us as Christians: to live in freedom and truth. It is quite the opposite of the biblical submission we see in the life of the apostle Paul. Paul was strong-willed for the sake of Christ and "weak" only in that he did not get his own way in the world.
Although culture has changed over time, the truth principle we see in Paul's life has remained the same for both men and women: Following hard after Christ makes us stronger internally and defines our purpose in life, but it will not always win us accolades with others. It was this kind of submission-a fierce yieldedness to God-that prompted Mary, the young virgin who became Jesus' mother, to reply, "I am the Lord's servant, and I am willing to accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said come true," when the angel told her that she would give birth to the Son of God (Luke 1:38, NLT). She would have to do some serious explaining to Joseph, her betrothed, and she would face disapproval and judgment from her peers. Accepting and submitting to God's will for her would take strength-not weakness.
Yet Mary submitted to God's will first and then found the courage to give an answer to people around her. This is the freedom the apostle Paul expresses in Galatians 2:20: "My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me" (The Message).
Like many women, Nicki missed the truth of that passage. Her ego was still central. She was still preoccupied with impressing God and "appearing righteous" to other people. If we are honest, I suspect that many of us struggle with that same preoccupation, at least to some extent. The great Christian theologian A. W. Tozer recognized this. In The Pursuit of God he writes of a veil in the hearts of Christians, woven of "the fine threads of the self-life, the hyphenated sins of the human spirit. They are not something we do, they are something we are, and therein lies both their subtlety and their power."
Nicki lacked this discernment. Her naive efforts to "die to self" did not lead to self-denial as described in the Bible. Instead, they led to an underdeveloped, fragile sense of self that was sheltered and weakened by choices to avoid conflict or confrontation. Her efforts to die to self created other stubborn problems that left her feeling empty, with a shallow identity built exclusively on her roles, not on who she was as a person, despite her attempts to spiritualize that emptiness away.
I have been in Nicki's shoes. When I became a Christian in my midtwenties, after five years of marriage and the births of two sons, I felt clean and pure, as if I was getting a fresh start. I wanted to serve Christ with all my heart. I began reading the Bible, going to church, and praying every day. The Bible taught different kinds of lessons, lessons I hadn't known about, such as in giving you receive, in dying you find life, and to lead others, you serve them.
My husband must have wondered where I had disappeared to on the inside once I became a Christian. He must have wondered what had happened to my spunk and individuality as I began to abandon the characteristics of my personality in the name of biblical submission. It must have puzzled him when I stopped holding up my end of our argumentative tugs-of-war as I had done in the past. These were my fledgling attempts to "die to self."
With a sincere desire to do what I thought the Bible taught, I started trying to turn away my husband's wrath with a gentle answer, to win him without a word. But then I didn't know what to do with my anger, so I just pushed it down inside me. Once in a while it spewed out unexpectedly, which confused me and made me feel guilty. Sometimes my safety instincts clamored loudly, as if to tell me that something was not right, but I told them to quiet down. Soon I became resentful, but I didn't want to talk about any of this because I thought good Christians shouldn't feel angry, confused, or resentful. Now my husband and I didn't know how to talk about our conflicts at all because they were hidden, just like my feelings.
Although my husband and I no longer shared the same lifestyle goals after I came to know Christ, I still thought that my becoming a Christian would strengthen our marriage. I believe we loved each other as best we knew how at the time. But we didn't know how to honestly face and talk about our problems, work out our differences, or accept each other. Later I found out that my husband had looked elsewhere for an intimate companion he could feel close to, and eventually he left home and filed for divorce. I was heartbroken because although I knew I had made mistakes, my deepest desire had always been to be a good Christian wife and mother.
I had tried really hard to learn and obey the Scriptures, to practice them in my marriage, to teach them to my two sons, and to serve the Lord in my church and community. The descriptions of godly relationships I read about in the Bible appeared to work for some couples I knew-the men looked like strong Christian leaders, and their wives appeared to feel secure and protected. The churches I had attended taught women to rely on their husbands for making decisions, especially final ones. I overgeneralized this teaching and assumed it meant that women should also look to their husbands for safety and protection when they needed it. I had tried to be obedient, but I needed to mature in my understanding of the Scriptures.
Searching for Answers
After my divorce I tried to discuss my confusion and spiritual disillusionment with Christian friends. Some of them stared blankly at me and said things like, "Just trust in the Lord, Brenda; everything is going to turn out fine." I got the impression that since I was a Christian, there shouldn't be a problem. But there was a problem. Have you ever experienced this kind of confusion, when your life may have looked like others' lives on the outside and yet you knew something different must be going on inside you? I remember wishing I could somehow peer underneath the skin and bones of other women to see if any of their souls were being plowed-as mine was-with doubts, fears, and questions about what it means to be submissive as a Christian woman.
I searched for answers, but when I didn't find any, I thought something must be wrong with me since there seemed to be such a gap between my faith and what I felt inside. I had always thought that this reality would change if I prayed hard enough and had strong enough faith, but that hadn't worked for me. No matter how much I prayed, although my life had the appearance of godliness-teaching a children's class at church, attending Bible study, praying regularly, and tithing faithfully-inside, I felt hollow and empty, as if nobody was at home anymore.
I was aware that God had given me specific gifts-being a good listener, writing poems, making crafts, and caring deeply for people, especially those who are hurting. I wanted to offer my gifts to God, my husband, the church, and the people around me.
I naively thought everyone would be glad when I used my gifts, the way God delights in seeing his children use gifts he has given to them. But when others didn't respond well to my use of my gifts, I didn't know what to do. I had not yet developed discernment about whether they were mistaken or I was. Since I didn't know what else to do, I pushed my feelings away and hoped my friends were right, that somehow everything would turn out fine.
A few years passed, and I met a man at church named Frank Waggoner, who was a solid Christian and a kindhearted, outdoorsy man. We started doing things together with our kids, and before long, we fell in love. After a year of having lots of fun together and seeking God's will for our lives, we came to believe it was his plan for us to marry. So we did. And from that point on, we lived happily ever after, right?
Well, it's true that Frank and I grew very close in heart, but after about seven years of the good life together (we've now been married twenty years), the trials started up again. This was a Christian marriage, yet it was still facing challenges. The tension between the two of us peaked while we were attending a small, legalistic church and I got into a dicey situation as the pastor's secretary. I will talk more about this slice of my life in chapter 4, but for now I'll just say that I needed to say some hard things, both to Frank and to the pastor, and I didn't know how. I lacked maturity, but even more than that, I was so afraid of rejection that I refused to confront issues that needed to be confronted. Instead, I remained bound by the same misunderstanding that Nicki was entangled in-that in order to submit biblically, I would have to give up being "me."
I was unaware that I had begun living as a devalued, diminished version of the person God created me to be. I failed to measure up, not only to my own perception of what a Christian woman should be, but also to what I perceived the Christian community believed I should be. I was confused because even though I was a Christian, I didn't know how to make wise choices or face hard realities or set appropriate limits-or speak the truth-especially with Christian friends. I don't mean that I spoke dishonestly or told lies. Rather, because I didn't know what to do when people questioned my use of my gifts or had a personal agenda for the use of my gifts, I failed to speak at all. I was devastated to find out that there was mean-spiritedness not only out in the world but also among the people in my church and in me.
Later, when I went to graduate school, I found it ironic that the ones who would talk honestly with me about life's complexities were people at a secular university. Along the way I also met some Christians who would let me talk out my confusion and ask questions. They knew that we may not have answers but it is okay to ask the questions. I began to realize that through all these trials, God was trying to teach me the same lesson I'd been stuck on for a long time: the need to live authentically and speak truthfully.
He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers ... that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, ... but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-Christ. Ephesians 4:14-15, NKJV
Learning to Live with Integrity
Many years later, when I began working as a counselor, I discovered that I had not been alone in this dilemma-that other Christian women had also lost the innate awareness all of us have as children of how to live with integrity, to be who we are. This loss of integrity-living our lives as a truthful reflection of who we are-affects our relationships with friends, coworkers, people in our churches, and in our communities and our marriages. More important, it affects our relationship with God. Once I realized this, I wanted to help others as I had been helped, to show compassion as others had shown compassion to me.
I talked with other Christian women who, like me, had tried to die to self before they had an awareness of and appreciation for who God had made them to be. When these women became Christians, God accepted them just as they were and brought them into relationship with him. But when it came to growing in that relationship, they mistakenly believed that they needed to give up being the unique individuals God had made them. In their minds, that is what dying to self meant. Their lack of awareness about what Christ had to say about their value created a lot of confusion about the difference between dying to self and self-abandonment.
Excerpted from The Myth of the Submissive Christian Woman by Brenda Waggoner Copyright © 2004 by Brenda Waggoner. Excerpted by permission.
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