Life comes with no promise of smooth roads, clear landmarks, or luxurious destinations. At times, it seems as if a Christian worldview complicates our lives. Suddenly, we are culpable not only for right actions, but for pure motives as well. In a full life with limited time for friendship or fellowship, the authors of good books have served me well as mentors from afar. Classic authors such as Amy Carmichael and Elisabeth Elliot have enriched my faith, followed by the next generational wave of faithful women including Gail MacDonald, Luci Shaw, and Madeleine L’Engle.
I’m always on the lookout for fresh insights from godly women, and the unwelcome surprises that have characterized 2020 thus far have done nothing to dim the shining quality or the depth of wisdom of books that have been released or are under construction during this non-normative season.
Making Marriage Beautiful
For example, the COVID-19 quarantine has been rough on marriages. “In sickness and in health” is one thing, but sharing work space and living space for 12 weeks without a break…? Dorothy Greco weathered this storm while doing the final edits of her new book, Marriage in the Middle, due to be released in the fall. This event is on my radar because last summer I read Making Marriage Beautiful in which Greco manages to offer hope and sound counsel for those whose marriages are in serious trouble, while also sharing practical insights and exercises for helping a pretty-darn-good marriage to become even better and more satisfying.
As soon as the words “I do” leave our lips, the process of radical transformation begins for both spouses. The way we handle our vows, the way we manage our egocentric selves in the life-on-life process of living as “heirs together of the grace of life” shapes us either for good or for ill. If I am committed to having my own way no matter what, I will become more and more of “myself” to the detriment of becoming one flesh.
Dorothy Greco brings the clarifying gift of story to her readers through interviews with eight couples from various ethnic backgrounds. Their real life challenges and their commitment to live their way toward healthy relationship practices were both inspiring and instructive. Too, the Grecos themselves know what it is to weather marriage turbulence. Viewing their own marriage as a continual work in progress, they speak with authenticity about the challenges of living transparently within a marriage. Along the way, both Dorothy and Christopher make spot-on observations and analyses of cultural and historical trends that have impacted marriage as we understand it today. Astute biblical insights on human nature and the comprehensive rescue Jesus offers make the book a valuable resource for couples or for groups to work through slowly, sitting with the “Questions for Going Deeper” that round out the wisdom of each chapter.
God will stop at nothing to transform his much-loved children to the image of his Son. The movement toward health in our relationships is part of that process, and as our marriages become ever more beautiful, the power of God to break into brokenness with healing and hope is put on display.
The costly sacrifice that says, “My life for yours” is rooted in the gospel, and it mirrors the sacrificial love of Christ for his bride, the Church. By grace, we learn to receive God’s perfect love, to return it in spite of all our imperfections, and to let it spill over into a growing marriage that becomes more beautiful with each passing year.
Because this growth process is ongoing, our personal walk with God deserves regular attention amidst all the other competing (and conflicting) priorities. Vigilance is key, and author Richella Parham realized one day that she was deep into the comparison game, and had taken on an impossible opponent: “the mythical composite woman.” (3) Focused on the best features of everyone she knew, she came up short every single time because she was holding herself to an impossible standard. Her imagination had created a situation in which it was impossible to be content because she was always striving to measure up on every front.
Mythical Me: Finding Freedom from Constant Comparison is the record of Richella’s journey away from the distorted vision comparison fosters. In recognizing the problem, she was challenged to acknowledge truth about God that corrected her vision and to find the path of self-acceptance, well-lit by the love of God and well-watered by his grace. Of course this did not happen overnight…
Drawing on the rich resources of classic works on spiritual formation by the “giants” including Richard Foster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Henri Nouwen, doing the hard work of excavating painful memories in the presence of praying friends, and making peace with her own particular God-given set of physical, intellectual, and spiritual equipment, Parham found that changing her mind would involve changing her habits. Thomas á Kempis taught that “habit overcomes habit,” and so she set out to address the underlying insecurity that kept her in the loop of comparison by redesigning the habits of her daily living in ways that are straightforward and yet profoundly helpful:
- The habit of regular rest: This included a routine bedtime set, by faith, with full assurance that God was able to run the universe without her input for a few hours. A cheap alarm clock on the nightstand is a much better choice than a phone.
- The habit of handing the day over to God: Richella starts the day with the Lord’s prayer. Instead of looking in the mirror and coming up short in her own estimation every single day, she is cultivating the habit of acknowledging God’s power and glory, his Fatherhood, his nearness, and his acceptance.
- The habit of an open Bible: When words fail us, God has provided a book of 150 glorious poems to express whatever emotion we bring to the breakfast table. Reading a psalm and praying its truth reinforces God’s presence and his goodness. He is able to enter fully into my day with me.
- The habit of pausing and pacing: Trying to make it through a long day on the remnants of truth remembered from a mindful morning is risky. A pause for prayer, a few minutes of contemplation on the way to the mailbox, or a whispered thank you to God for the beauty of a roadside view on the commute home from work are all little boosts to the understanding that every single day, we stand on holy ground.
- The habit of “help me” prayers: When Paul exhorted his readers to “pray without ceasing,” he may have been thinking about the expulsive power of prayer over temptation. Even a short “breath prayer” has often re-calibrated my own thinking away from sinful patterns, and if comparison is a product of envy, Richella recommends sincerely praying for the person you envy: “Lord, please continue to bless [name] and help them use your gifts well.
- The habit of fellowship: As we engage with other believers, our mythical composite person is shattered by the reality of other Christians with genuine struggles that, incredibly, look very similar to our own.
Struggling to present herself to the world as incomparable did not provide the solution Richella Parham sought for shattering harmful and demoralizing comparisons. Acknowledging that only God is truly incomparable freed her to embrace her connectedness within his family and to put aside the habit of comparison. You and I, too, can embrace the better habit of resting in God’s love while delighting in the glorious comparability of all that he has made.
The truth is that God has equipped us all with different strengths—and a full complement of off-setting weaknesses to keep us humble and prayerful. Whether athletic or intellectual, artistic or analytical, we are wise women if we make it a practice to focus on strength of soul as a life goal. Like wisdom and daily provision, strength of soul is one of the gifts God holds out to his children for the asking. David the psalm-writing king bears witness:
“On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.” —(Psalm 138:3)
Even so, there’s something in our human nature that sends us looking for what we need in all the wrong places. Author Lucinda Secrest McDowell offers this definition of soul strength: “the deep commitment and even deeper empowerment” that wars against insecurity, the poison of comparison, and the fear of obsolescence. (xiv)
The “long obedience in the same direction” where soul strength is born is often discovered in the wilderness, and in Soul Strong: Seven Keys to a Vibrant Life, McDowell shares seven decisions that have enabled her to live vibrantly and soul strong. Our ability to live loved and to be authentic are rooted in a muscular understanding of God’s love. His unwavering presence invites us to dwell deep, to meet him heart to heart as we trust his sovereign control of the universe.
As we allow our scars to open new doors of service, we discern God’s way of overcoming pain. The soul strong are continually learning to extend kindness, throwing grace, mercy, and compassion into their world like confetti. Others are blessed by our stories of God’s faithfulness, and, honestly, Lucinda McDowell is an unmatched storyteller, and has masterfully interspersed her teaching with tales like beads on a string. I am finding myself encouraged to unearth my own stories, to reflect on all the ways they provide evidence of God’s goodness.
When believers live soul strong, we point others to Jesus. It’s “not a perfect life, more a passionate pursuit!” (7) And the best news of all is that God stands ready to pour his own strength into us for the journey.
This Life We Share
When one of God’s women pauses on her fruitful way, takes up a pen, and begins sharing the harvested wisdom from her faithful following, I’m all ears. Maggie Wallem Rowe has experienced ministry on the front lines as a pastor’s wife, a speaker, and now in This Life We Share, the stories of a lifetime have been gathered into 52 inspirational reflections, paired with Scripture, and followed by searching questions.
Rowe is careful to mark both successes and failures along the way, demonstrating that there are fruitful lessons to be had from both. Leadership tidbits include the 3D Concept for soul care (Decide, Delegate, and Delete!) and from her own wrenching experiences with anxiety, she provides hope and help in facing down the bullying power of worry with an offering of positive, expulsive habits.
Women of faith who have been called to write come alongside readers with the quiet enthusiasm of a traveling companion and the faithful wisdom that comes with devotion to the hard work of laying down words, one after the other. Whether married or single, whether a seasoned traveler or just barely beginning on the journey, we really do need each other as we practice resurrection and fulfill our “long obedience” on the uneven terrain of this pathway through life with God.