PSA before we get started: My book is on sale on Amazon this week. Like, really on sale. So if you want to check it out but don’t feel like spending much, this is your chance!
Now for the book review, which…oh gosh.
Friends, today is going to be a fun exercise in Rae trying to remain even-keeled and logical in the face of infuriating subject material.
To be honest, this book has really turned out a lot worse than I thought it would be. I thought I was picking a book that would bring up some interesting discussion points on women’s roles, and then we end up with chapters like this one: “Sacred Cultivation: Unearthing femininity’s valiant strength.”
It seems like the main idea of this chapter is that God is really big and offers a lot, and that Christians have access to unbelievable power. Unfortunately, “most modern” Christians are too consumed in their own problems so that they never realize this amazing potential, and live lackluster lives because of it.
As a far-reaching, big-picture idea, I agree with a lot of that. Having been through my own faith struggles recently (okay, and currently), I agree that there comes a point where you really need to stop complaining and move on. Find some love. Claim some victory. Be some light. Our world will be better off for it, and you’ll be better off for it. Certainly, don’t make yourself ignorant, but don’t become such a resigned cynic that you close yourself off to new blessings.
So that’s the big-picture idea. And then the details of it go south. Like, way south.
Set-apart femininity: The secret to overcoming depression
In this chapter, Ludy builds the argument that if you have enough faith you won’t have certain problems in your life. Specifically, she keeps mentioning anxiety, depression, and faith struggles, and how God wants us to ask him to heal us from those burdens.
Unsurprisingly, Ludy introduces the topic of despair with her puzzling notion that issues like depression and faith struggles are “modern” issues that were not characteristic of people in the “olden days” (p. 124). This article on her website is actually the first several pages of this chapter, in which she cites Hudson Taylor’s healing story, and somehow ties it into the idea that real freedom in God used to happen all the time but doesn’t anymore.
She also cites lyrics to old hymns like “It is Well with my Soul” and “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and claims that we no longer sing those songs because back when those songs were written, people were full of joy, but in the “modern” world we’re not, so we can’t sing joyful or hope-filled hymns without feeling like a hypocrite (p. 126).
This misunderstanding of the true meaning of joy (and the true meaning of worship) ends up forming the basis for some of her thoughts in this chapter. Ludy treats joy as the absence of sorrow, and victory as the absence of hardship. And since Christ came to bring us joy and victory, anyone who has enough faith, is praying hard enough, and is “actually” following him won’t have big problems in their lives.
Ludy writes about hearing from a young woman named Kelly, a woman who started following the set-apart life and found the life she dreamed of:
In a recent email to me she wrote, “What great joy I am finding in the yielded, set-apart life! What a privilege to commune and talk with my Lord Jesus; depending upon Him for even the slightest need.”
Her words sum up the secret to overcoming all fear, anxiety, and depression: depending upon our faithful Lord for even the slightest need. The reason that so many of us are weighed down by unnecessary burdens is because we don’t take them to Jesus (p. 134).
I just…I actually swore at this part.
And not just because of this book. But because I’ve personally seen this philosophy unravel people. It is harmful and disgusting and needs to be laid to rest.
Anxiety and depression are not emotions. They are legitimate health concerns that affect religious and nonreligious people alike. You cannot make an assumption about someone’s spiritual integrity by whether or not they have health issues, mental or otherwise.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I get it that God’s offering healing, offering help, offering miracles even, is in the framework of Christianity. I’m actually quite glad that Ludy challenges the idea that we’ve entered a different era where God no longer works the same way he once did (p. 163-164). If there’s anything I learned during my time in Asia, it’s that you can’t possibly spent time in the Church in Asia without believing in modern-day miracles (miracles made up a huge percentage of conversion stories there).
However, twisting this to say that anyone who is a “real Christian” will see miraculous healings and a supernatural relief from burdens is not the gospel. Writing that people who struggle with their faith, health, mental health, relationships, etc. struggle because they just don’t take their burdens to Jesus is not the gospel. You cannot take a gift and make it into a rule. That is not Christianity and never has been.
The reason we struggle with so many unnecessary burdens is because this world is rough, and broken. Want to know a secret?
There is no secret to overcoming all anxiety and depression.
Some people may find respite through medication. Some heal through talk therapy. Some find help through running, or a healthier diet, or sunlight. And yes, some may be miraculously healed. But there is no one-size-fits all pattern, and living a “set-apart life” is not the secret to overcoming mental health issues, nor is it a replacement for professional medical care.
Is Christianity about getting a perfect life?
Earlier on, Ludy mentions her distaste for people who struggle with their faith and the fact that Christian bookstores carry books that help people deal with disappointment. She quotes the description of a book called Waking Up from the Dream of a Lifetime: On Disappointment. The description addresses women who struggle with disappointment in their faith, their marriages, and their relationships with their children, to which Ludy replies:
I don’t know about you, but I feel depressed after the first few sentences. Why would we event want to follow Christ if that dismal picture is what we have to look forward to? (p. 127).
Remember a while back when I talked about Fowler’s stages of spiritual development, which I learned about from Sarah Bessey’s Out of Sorts? (Which still might be my favorite Christian book. Ever.) In that article, I wrote about how the church needs to move past a Stage-Three faith of wanting blind obedience to authority. This obedience is really not the main flavor of Set-Apart Femininity. Rather, when reading this book, I’ve been reminded a lot of what Sarah Bessey wrote about the phase before that, or the “mythic-literal” Stage Two:
In the child stage of our faith, Fowler’s Stage Two, we are “mythic-literal,” which means that we take everything literally, even our metaphors. We can’t always tell the difference between imagination and reality. We highly value predictable cause and effect. As I read about this stage, I saw some aspects of my former self: “If I pray this way, God will answer” or “If I stand on the word of God, nothing bad will ever happen to me” (p. 50).
So much of this is reminiscent of what I’m reading in this book. Ludy claims that if you pray the right way God will answer and free you from health issues, relationship issues, and faith struggles (p. 158 and 166). She seem to support the need to take the promises in the Bible literally and to expect them to happen in our lives. The theme of standing on the word of God to prevent bad things from happening is definitely present in this book.
In fact, Ludy seems so fixated on God delivering on his promises that she wonders why anyone would even follow Christ if we knew we’d still have disappointments in life.
Hopefully, if you’re a Christian and reading this, you’re into Christianity for more than the idea that you’ll evade problems on this earth.
Hopefully you’ll be willing to follow God even if you knew you’d still have health problems. Hopefully you’d love Christ even if he didn’t give you a perfect marriage. Hopefully you’d still find joy in the midst of suffering. Hopefully you’d persevere through times of doubt, but not turn to doubt over whether your struggles are proof that you’re not a “real” enough Christian.
I hope, too, that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking we need to attract people to religion by pretending our lives are perfect. Being a good witness does not mean pretending that you aren’t sick or don’t have depression or never question anything.
Being a good witness means that, given the trouble of this world, you will still choose joy, hope, and love.
P.S. For all my friends who get a kick out of common Christian tropes/contextomies, this chapter does indeed use Matthew 7:7-11 (“Ask, and it will be given to you…”) in the context of God writing you a fairy tale love story and giving you a husband if you pray for it (p. 156).