If you are anything like me, there are days when you feel like whatever it is you are trying to accomplish in life isn’t enough. Whether you aren’t doing enough to win or keep the heart of a man, working hard enough for a degree, loving your children enough, putting in enough effort at work, exercising enough, eating right, cleaning your house enough, relaxing enough, spending enough time with God… fill in the blank, I’m sure you can come up with other ways you feel like you fall short.
If we’re not falling short, we’re not sure whether we’re doing what we ought to be doing. Am I spending too much time at work and not enough time with my family? Am I staying up too late and waking up too early? Am I getting enough sleep? Am I getting too much sleep? Should I be single or should I be dating someone? Should I get married? Should I have kids or should I have a career? Am I serving enough? Am I giving enough? Should I give more? Am I stretching myself too thin? Am I being selfish? Am I being selfless? Should I be more sympathetic or should I be firmer? Am I working hard enough? Am I working too hard?
If we’re not confused about our state of affairs, we’re convinced we know exactly what God has in store for us, what we’re supposed to be doing. In college, my friends and I were going to classes to pass the time until we found a man, married, and could begin our real purpose on the planet – to be fruitful and multiply. Sure, God had given us certain gifts and talents; yeah, God had a plan and a purpose for our lives: we were meant to have babies. And that was it. That’s all we wanted. In many ways, we would have been happy living in the fifties.
Regardless whether you have been on the hunt for the man of your dreams so you could settle down and begin the work of baby-making or whether you have had your eyes focused on the PhD, CEO, or VP title, at one point or another, you’ve been sure of what God wanted for you. And then God laughs.
The women in Mona Lisa Smile all share one thing in common – their visions of the future ended up slightly or drastically different than what they expected. How do we come to grips with that? How do we face the harsh reality of a shattered dream? How do we respond when the man of our dreams never shows up? How do we keep going when the job doesn’t work out? How do we react when the babies don’t come? How do we keep going when the babies leave the house? What do we do when the wrinkles start showing?
When everything on the exterior is stripped away – make-up removed, hair undone, designer clothes turned in for some comfortable pajamas – and we’re honest with ourselves, what is left? What is left once we take off all of the roles we’ve adopted: mother, daughter, wife, sister, employee, student, grandmother?
God has always had a better design and model for women. Whatever our circumstances, each of us has a soul. We have been designed unique and are continually shaped into the image of God. Jesus destroyed the societal constructs against women throughout Scripture – he talked to the woman at the well when she was both a woman and a Samaritan – two big no-no’s in his day. He loved Martha and Mary, two women with drastically different gifts but both blessed to be in the company of the Lord and to discover themselves in his light.
What does it mean to be a woman of God? I think being a woman of God begins by trying to see ourselves as God sees us and not as the world wants us to see ourselves. The ideal image of womanhood projected by the world is that of power, control, youth, sexual appeal, dramatic beauty, a kind of do-it-all and do-it-yourself feminism, self-reliant, strong. The image of perfect womanhood provided by our culture is impossible to strive for, impossible to sustain, and does not bring any sort of sustained peace or joy. Reaching to become all things to all men and women will only lead us to despair.
But in Hosea, God promises that he will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. In Hebrew, “Achor” means trouble or despair. There have been many times when I have felt desperate – for love, affection, stability, peace, friendship. We can get stuck in those places and just keep looping through what our world’s definition of success and happiness is: getting what we want. What we are doing is worshipping the gods of this world rather than the God of heaven and earth. Hosea goes on to say that, “On that day, says the Lord, you will call me ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My master.’ For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more… and I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.”
How do we respond to the husband of our souls who has taken us in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and mercy, in faithfulness? We know him – we spend time with him. We figure out what he likes and do special things for him. When I was getting to know the guy I dated before getting married, I thought about ways I could make him happy all of the time. As a new bride, I tried to be the best woman for my husband. As a wife of five years, I’ve gone through my own valleys of self-centeredness and I’m not always as focused on how I can be nice to my husband.
Our relationship with God is so often the same way – we get all hyped up on how much he loves us at the start and then we kind of get used to it and don’t try as hard to show him our love. But both relationships are a process – both relationships go through phases, seasons, valleys, and peaks.
Our lives are constantly in a state of transition. Fortunately, we do not have to be everything to everyone. God does not expect us to be worshipping at his feet and simultaneously preparing the meal – there’s a time for both. One of my favorite passages in Scripture that deals so directly with women is Proverbs 31. The Proverbs 31 woman is not one woman; I think she is “Every Woman”, like Joan declares in the beginning of Mona Lisa Smile.
The Proverbs 31 woman glorifies God – whether she’s a businesswoman, single, a mother, a wife, a grandmother, or a widow, or any combination of these at whatever phase of life we find ourselves. It isn’t that she is signed up on a half-dozen church committees, singing in the choir, leading a Bible study, or tithing every week. She glorifies God by her attitude, her servant heart, her wisdom, her kindness. Proverbs 31 ends - “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”