Set-Apart Femininity Review #9: This used to be me. And I’m sorry.

Oh my goodness we made it!

This the last blog review of this book. By me. Ever. Huroo!

To be honest, this book has turned out way, way worse than I thought. I thought I was choosing something that would spark conversations on women in the church and understanding gender roles in the modern world. I didn’t expect to be running into prosperity gospel teachings and the sacred/secular divide and a cold indignation toward those who don’t follow this book’s advice. Sorry to expose y’all to that.

But I want to be clear that I didn’t choose some random book from the fringes of Christianity just to pick it apart. This is book is pretty mainstream in evangelical circles, and was used in a study at the church I used to attend.

And I used to be like this.

I used to read books like this in college, and like them. I used to think that life should be black-and-white and if you follow the rules enough you should expect good results. I used to assume that people facing issues like depression or relationship issues or self-image struggles weren’t going to Jesus enough. I used to think that being a good church member meant basically killing yourself “loving on” people, and that those who took time to care for themselves were selfish.

I used to be an awful human. And I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for every person I gave bad advice to or hurt during those years of my life. I’m sorry for every time I shoved a verse or a book or arbitrary Christian rules at someone instead of listening. I’m sorry for all those times I “loved” someone or acted nice to them so they would come to my cult church. I’m sorry for all of those times I didn’t allow for nuance or the reality that sometimes life just sucks and faith is hard because the world is broken.

I’m not like that anymore, and I never want to be like that again. And so I write this review, perhaps, as a sort of redemption: as a way to be the voice of reason that I wish I would have had back when I was in that church, and to speak publicly about these awful lies in a way that I used to be too afraid to do.

And I just want to say that if your only exposure to God has been through a system that says “go and conform likewise,” that system is not God. I’m sorry if that’s how you, like so many of us, have come to understand this great and awesome deity that is so much greater than the screwed up systems we create around God. But there’s life beyond that, and if you’re still seeking, there are people on the other side ready to welcome you with love and nuance and mystery and all those crazy things that come when you throw off religiosity and open yourself to boundless love.

The Final Problem

Perhaps fittingly, the theme of the second to last chapter, “Sacred Claim,” brings back memories of the final problem that finalized my leaving the church.

In this chapter Ludy talks about the need to care for the poor, the “countless millions” who don’t have food or shelter, the people who don’t know Jesus and have no hope. No, it wasn’t the basic idea of caring for the poor that drove me out of the church. I’m not that heartless, and I think we need to care for the poor every day.

Rather, it’s the idea of using the poor and needy to guilt-trip Christians into what Sarah Bessey calls the Evangelical Hero Complex, or the idea that if you’re not doing full-time ministry you’re a horrible person. You know: people are dying on the streets of Mexico City and you’re sitting in a comfortable Bible study in a suburb, you evil wretch. That kind of thing.

Ludy writes that God loves us and sets us free not so that we can “selfishly soak up the benefits and blessings of Christ” but so that we can love others and place others’ needs above our own. And if you’re not pouring your life into rescuing the poor overseas, it’s basically the same as supporting the Holocaust (p. 192).

The whole purpose of why God loves you is so that he can “use you” (as the saying goes) to love others through you.

There are countless human lives desperately waiting to be rescued. There are millions of precious children facing unspeakable suffering. And like Jackie Pullenger said, if Christ’s set-apart ones do not act as His hands and feet to them…who will? (p. 195).

And to be his hands and feet, you don’t apply the Bible to yourself:

In a diabolical twist, the New Testament has morphed into being all about our interests, such as beauty, men, health, career, and relationships (p. 196).

(Erm, not sure if she noticed that these “interests” formed a huge portion of this book. But anyway.)

To be a good Christian is to be overwhelmed with all of the pain and suffering in the world and heroically forget all about yourself in order to care for the poor, who are closer to God’s heart and more important than you (p. 197).

And it makes sense, right? We look around us and we see exorbitant spending, not only in our personal lives but in our own churches. Meanwhile people are dying, and we have the power to do hard things and be God’s hands and feet and save the lost!

Now, I’m not saying to ignore charity. Please, do care for those who are hurting and less privileged than you. I really do believe that loving the vulnerable is a central part of what it means to be a Christian.

But I took this message too far, to the point where I believed that caring for myself was at odds with caring for others, and that my worth to God was directly dependent on how much he “used” me to save people around me.

I’d come across messages like this and believe that caring for my mental and physical health was selfish:

Browsing in the women’s section of the Christian bookstore, you’ll see a myriad of titles that encourage you to “discover your own intrinsic value” or “get comfortable in your own skin,” but very few that echo the words of Paul:

Let nothing be done through selfish ambition of conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself (p. 196).

I’m a quiet person, and I remember reading a Q&A with a reader on Ludy’s website, that said shyness is proof of selfishness, because if you really cared about loving others you wouldn’t feel shy. I came to believe that my personality was wrong and my desire to be a writer was wrong because it didn’t help me serve others.

So I had to forget about myself, my tendencies, my issues, and just love, love, love.

Which is how I found myself months later crippled with debilitating anxiety, depression, and physical illness as I tried to contort myself into this Evangelical Hero missionary in a place, job, and setting that I, as God made me, had absolutely no place in.

And I felt so desperately trapped because I wanted to know I was loved, to be convinced of an “intrinsic value,” but couldn’t even let those prayers cross my mind because they were “selfish” in the face of so much obvious suffering around me. And I thought that if I had enough faith then doing God’s work wouldn’t be so hard.

Until I sat out on the rooftop one evening, watching the hazy sun set over the miles and miles of houses as far as I could see, and a thought came to me: I’m part of this world too.

This world that God wants to love: I’m in it. And he wants to love me. And loves all of these people, and he cares about my depression and illness like he cares about the family next door. Like he cares about the gorgeous garden of flowers on the neighbor’s rooftop and the dogs running about the dusty streets. We are all a part of this world, and he cares for all of it.

And to be honest, he was plenty capable of caring for that city without my help.

In fact, God’s work gets done better when I live in a place with clean air and water and can function, because part of God’s work is loving me. And my part in God’s work for the poor is done better when I have a job and send my money overseas to people who do better face-to-face work than I could ever do. And perhaps God’s work is done better when we don’t dehumanize entire groups of people by defining them by their need and imagining ourselves as their saviors?

And so I packed up and left the mission field early. I fled to the wilderness, both literally and spiritually, and I started my life over.

A lot fell out from underneath me as I faced the Final Problem. It was the last piece of the dam holding back the flood of questions and disagreements and doubts that had been building up more and more the longer I was in that church. I came across writings like this book that said my faith struggles are selfish, and that pushed me away even further.

But one thing I’ve carried with me for sure is the certain knowledge that every one of us is loved, not as a mere means to an end, but as a part of the end as well.

God’s love is not an either/or. It’s both/and. And it’s not a black-and-white, one-extreme-or-the-other existence (imagine that).

By all means, don’t hoard your money and blow thousands of dollars on stuff you don’t need and then say you “care for the poor” by putting a few dollars into the Salvation Army bucket once a year. (With a selfie for proof. #Blessed!) But don’t make the same mistake that I did and think that you have to save the world for God to be pleased with you.

Be genuine and loving to those around you. Donate money to charities that do legitimate work, or even go on a mission trip if that works for your personality and skill set. Notice that coworker who’s been acting a bit down. Be a Christian while being you, in every moment of your everyday life.

Wrap-up

Working through this book has been an interesting journey in learning where I’ve come from. Stuff like this is part of my past, like it or not. I’ve done a lot of work now identifying what I don’t believe and what teachings in popular Christian culture are wrong. Now it’s time to start working through what I do believe, though that’s another set of stories for another time.

The book ends with a chapter encouraging girls to perform a ceremony where they go into their room, light a candle, and promise to God to follow the principles in this book. Heck, they can even frame the last chapter as a reminder of the promise they made to God at this ceremony. I have no comment on this.

As this is a book review, I’ll wrap things up with some book-reviewish things:

  1. Would I recommend this book? No. First off, I honestly don’t know what this book has to do with femininity. That sounds weird, but almost all of it is not gender-specific, save for one section where she advocates for women to sit back and be quiet so a guy can feel good about making the first move in a relationship (which I find incredibly sexist). Secondly, I can’t recommend a book that flirts so closely with the prosperity gospel and the idea that God’s work only happens in a select few “churchy” activities.
  2. Was the writing good? Oh my word, no. The book is full of sweeping generalizations with no research to back up such “facts.” It relies on repetitive language like “most modern Christians” and “the average woman today” to such a degree that I almost found it almost unreadable. I like a writer with nuance, depth, and artistry; this style is black-and-white, simplistic, and judgmental.
  3. You’re being ridiculous. Was there anything good about the book? I liked the instances where she challenged some ideas ingrained into the Christian culture: that marriage is the #1 goal, that a woman’s highest calling is to have children and doing so means escaping from other areas of ministry, that it’s okay to ignore caring for the marginalized. I wish she had explored those ideas more, but am glad she presented them nonetheless.
  4. If I want to find a book about living as a Christian woman, what would you recommend instead? Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
  5. Okay, how many times did she use the word princess? Nine. Which is nine too many.

Well, if you’ve stuck with me this far, you deserve a prize. Until then I’ll be out in the woods, learning of peace and love and beauty and all things that heal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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