I was recently asked to lead a discussion with a group of young ladies (mostly college-age students) on what it means to be a woman of God. I started the conversation by asking them what initial images and thoughts come to mind when they heard the phrase, "woman of God."
"Knows the Bible inside and out."
These examples sounded like some sort of spiritually immortal bionic wonder woman. I was overwhelmed with sadness. I recalled being a young college woman around their age, beginning my own faith journey. At the time, I wanted to be a woman of God so badly. When people would ask me what or who I aspired to be, I always responded, "a woman of God."
I would read and quote Proverbs 31, attend women's conferences, and read books on what it meant to be a virtuous woman. In my journey down the road of biblical womanhood, I heard countless messages on feminine virtue, purity, gentleness, and nobility. I remember feeling like an utter and complete failure, unable to achieve any of those things in their completeness. I was devastated further each time I fell short of the "woman of God" standard. Truthfully, I was chasing an image, a fantasy. I was so busy chasing this unattainable ideal that I denied the very parts of me that made me who I was.
I listened to those girls as they described an unreachable standard of womanhood, the person they were all hopelessly striving to be. I was heartsick, because they were all so eager to be her, the "woman of God," that they didn't realize that she was already them. I realized that I didn't want to watch them journey down the winding road of shame and disappointment the way that I had. I wanted them to realize that they would inevitably fall short of the "woman of God," because she simply did not exist. So, I just went ahead and said it.
"Ladies, there is no such thing as a "woman of God." She doesn't exist. Only you do."
When I say "no such thing," what I'm referring to is the concept of this image. There is no such thing as a "woman of God," or at least, the one we've created in our minds and admired at our churches. We have authored an unattainable image of near-perfection. This impossible standard is then presented to women of faith as the person that they need to aspire to be to honor God.
What's most unhealthy about all of this is that many Christian women don't realize that a great deal of their feelings of inadequacy stem from this false image of infallible biblical womanhood. When we fall short of this virtuous perfection, the shame and guilt feed on our insecurities. We have somehow put all our hope for ourselves into Proverbs 31 and into the figures of Esther, Ruth, and Mary. We are convinced that we should be her. At the same time, we have cast aside the Tamars, Vashtis, and Mary Magdalenes as sinful women whose disgraceful life choices are to be avoided at all costs. We forget that we are these women too, because that reality isn't an acceptable characteristic of that "woman of God" image.
Recently, I've been mulling over my quandary with the "woman of God" ideal in conversation with friends. One male friend pointed out that when it comes to being a "man of God," inspired by the biblical narrative, men don't face the same pressures that women do. There are plenty of examples of men of God in the Bible and they are all fallible human beings who consistently stumble through both success and failure. Yet, they are all counted equally as men of God. To my friend, there is no singular image that he has to strive to become, other than his own.
There are a plethora of examples of diverse male biblical characters, so much so that it is nearly impossible to categorize them into a singular image. Men are portrayed as complex in the biblical narrative. They are assured of their identity even when they fail. When they fall short, they can still have the heart of God. They may have one hundred wives, but they can still have all the wisdom of men. They may deny Christ three times but they can still go on to become major figures and leaders in the church. Women aren't given that same permission to make mistakes. There does not appear to be a lot of room for failure or complexity—often, in cases where a woman fails, that experience becomes her one-time testimony, never to be amended or changed.
I'm not using these examples to give an excuse for failure, but rather to highlight a distinction between the narrow image of the "woman of God," and the concession that is given to "the man of God" in all of his layers and complexity. A "woman of God" is a state of being, a status to be achieved, something to constantly strive for, while the man of God can rest safely in his reality that he already is the "man of God."
I don't want to do away with the idea of wanting to be a godly woman. I want to be who God has called me to be, evolving and growing in the example of Christ. I just wish that we encouraged more women with the certainty that God creates his best work from the soul of who we already are. We don't have to aspire to be anyone other than who we already are. From there, God molds us into who he intended for us to be.
These young ladies don't have to wait to become women of God. They already are, simply because God dwells within each of them. They are the starting point for greatness and it's through who they already are and who God created them to be, that the world around them will be made better.