Abigail Dodds

Is Jael a Model Woman?

When God wove Deborah’s and Jael’s stories into his big story, he didn’t do it so that we would turn the whole thing into a call for female empowerment, intent on making it all about how awesome women are. He did it so that we would know what kind of God he is — he is a God whose mercy triumphs over, and even through, judgment. He is a God who keeps his promises to his people and provides everything we need to walk uprightly in the strangest of circumstances.

Many have noticed the trend in modern films: the warrior woman. From animated stories to superhero genres to crime mysteries, women are cast less frequently as the damsel in distress, and more often as the physically powerful rescuer come to save the day.
Rather than reflect the realistic differences between men’s and women’s physical strength, many of these movies portray impossible ideals. While our family is very picky about what movies we watch, we occasionally go ahead with one that indulges this sort of fantasy, and when we do, we talk through it together, asking questions and making sure we don’t check reality at the door.
It matters what kinds of figures we set before our sons’ and daughters’ eyes. Stories shape our understanding of what’s good, true, and beautiful. They shape our sense of what’s normal and what we ought to aspire to in life. Often the stories that put women in the role of the physically dominant hero do so to serve a particular feminist agenda that would have us understand men and women as interchangeable — or, even more so, it would have us believe women are superior to men, both mentally and physically.
Tent-Peg-Wielding Weaker Vessel
Stories from the Bible give us glimpses of women in real life — some godly, some not. There are women we should imitate, like Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and women we should not imitate, like Ahab’s wife, Jezebel.
The book of Judges tells the story of God’s people, Israel, during one of the more terrible times in their history. God’s people were doing what was right in their own eyes rather than remembering his faithfulness to them and obeying all he commanded them to do (Judges 17:6; 21:25). So he gave them judges, each of whom ushered in a brief time of turning back to God and subsequent rest. Of all the judges God gave to Israel, he gave one who was a woman — and she wasn’t only a judge, but also a prophetess. Her name was Deborah.
When God made a woman to rule over Israel as judge, it was likely a signal of his judgment on them. The prophet Isaiah describes the judgment upon Judah this way: “Infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them” (Isaiah 3:12). And God doubles down on this theme by using another woman, Jael, to deal the fatal blow to Israel’s enemy. In God’s good design, men are rulers and fighters; they bear the responsibility of providing and protecting. A female judge and warrior, then, suggests that something has gone wrong in Israel.
But first, God commands Barak to gather ten thousand of his men at Mount Tabor, where God himself will draw out the troops of Sisera’s army and give them into Barak’s hand. Barak refuses to obey, instead insisting that he won’t go unless Deborah goes with him. Because of his disobedience, Deborah tells him, “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).
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Is Jael a Model Woman? Feminine Fight in a Feminist Age

Many have noticed the trend in modern films: the warrior woman. From animated stories to superhero genres to crime mysteries, women are cast less frequently as the damsel in distress, and more often as the physically powerful rescuer come to save the day.

Rather than reflect the realistic differences between men’s and women’s physical strength, many of these movies portray impossible ideals. While our family is very picky about what movies we watch, we occasionally go ahead with one that indulges this sort of fantasy, and when we do, we talk through it together, asking questions and making sure we don’t check reality at the door.

It matters what kinds of figures we set before our sons’ and daughters’ eyes. Stories shape our understanding of what’s good, true, and beautiful. They shape our sense of what’s normal and what we ought to aspire to in life. Often the stories that put women in the role of the physically dominant hero do so to serve a particular feminist agenda that would have us understand men and women as interchangeable — or, even more so, it would have us believe women are superior to men, both mentally and physically.

Tent-Peg-Wielding Weaker Vessel

Stories from the Bible give us glimpses of women in real life — some godly, some not. There are women we should imitate, like Abraham’s wife, Sarah, and women we should not imitate, like Ahab’s wife, Jezebel.

The book of Judges tells the story of God’s people, Israel, during one of the more terrible times in their history. God’s people were doing what was right in their own eyes rather than remembering his faithfulness to them and obeying all he commanded them to do (Judges 17:6; 21:25). So he gave them judges, each of whom ushered in a brief time of turning back to God and subsequent rest. Of all the judges God gave to Israel, he gave one who was a woman — and she wasn’t only a judge, but also a prophetess. Her name was Deborah.

When God made a woman to rule over Israel as judge, it was likely a signal of his judgment on them. The prophet Isaiah describes the judgment upon Judah this way: “Infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them” (Isaiah 3:12). And God doubles down on this theme by using another woman, Jael, to deal the fatal blow to Israel’s enemy. In God’s good design, men are rulers and fighters; they bear the responsibility of providing and protecting. A female judge and warrior, then, suggests that something has gone wrong in Israel.

But first, God commands Barak to gather ten thousand of his men at Mount Tabor, where God himself will draw out the troops of Sisera’s army and give them into Barak’s hand. Barak refuses to obey, instead insisting that he won’t go unless Deborah goes with him. Because of his disobedience, Deborah tells him, “The road on which you are going will not lead to your glory, for the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman” (Judges 4:9).

Everything happens just as the Lord said through his prophetess Deborah. The troops are drawn out and given into Barak’s hand, but the leader Sisera escapes, only to come upon the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Jael comes out to meet Sisera, lures him into her tent, puts the fleeing man’s mind at ease, and gives him food, drink, and a blanket. Before he falls asleep, he tells her to keep watch at the door for him. “But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died” (Judges 4:21).

She Killed Like a Woman

Too often, the moral of this story is reduced to something ridiculous like, “Yeah, girl power!” — a rallying cry for women, many of whom wield it against those supposedly misogynistic words of the apostle Peter, who dared call women the “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7). But is it?

What some fail to notice is the distinctly feminine way Jael conquers her enemy. She does not approach him on the field of open combat so that she can jujitsu her way to a victory. She deceives him, making him believe she’s a place of safety and refuge as she bides her time, tent peg within reach. This is not unlike the subversive work of the Hebrew midwives — or, in more recent history, the subversive work of Corrie Ten Boom, as she deceived the Nazis who were hunting Jews.

“Deborah’s and Jael’s unlikely roles were a sign of God’s judgment on his people.”

Perhaps more importantly, though, the story is fundamentally one of God’s mercy triumphing over (and even through) his judgment. Deborah and Jael did nothing to incur guilt in this story — they acted with integrity and did what God required of them. Yet their unlikely roles were a sign of God’s judgment on his people. And it doesn’t end there. God takes that sign of judgment and turns it around to put a song of triumph in his people’s mouth and to give them rest for forty years (Judges 5).

This is the story God tells over and over on the pages of Scripture, and it climaxes at the cross. Jesus — God’s perfect Son — incurs the wrath and judgment of God, and it is through that very judgment of death that the mercy of God triumphs forever in the empty tomb.

Copy-and-Paste Womanhood

How might Christian women think about figures like Deborah and Jael now? Should we try to imitate them? Well, yes and no.

“Are we the sort of godly woman who overcomes her fears, keeps her wits about her, and acts with resourcefulness?”

We should imitate them in such a way as to apply the godly principles they followed, but not try to replicate the exact scenarios. In other words, I think it unlikely that many of us will find ourselves in a position to kill our people’s sworn enemy after he’s fled the battlefield. But I do think we ought to consider if we’re the sort of woman who could do such a thing if God asked us to. And on a more fundamental level, are we the sort of godly woman who overcomes her fears, keeps her wits about her, and acts with resourcefulness when called upon? How might we grow into that sort of godly woman?

It’s unlikely that any of us will be called upon to sit as judge over a people, so our imitation of Deborah will not be a copy-and-paste job, but how might we take the principles of godliness that she displayed and begin living those out in our own set of unique circumstances? I’m not called to be the mother of Israel, but I am called to be the mother of my own children. That may sound small in comparison to Deborah’s role, but I find that too many women have worldly ideas of big and small, not realizing that it’s our faithfulness in little that qualifies us for much. What do you suppose God thinks of those who neglect the job of actual mothering as they pray, “I just want to do ministry and lead people to you, Lord!” We can start with the ones he’s already given us.

When God wove Deborah’s and Jael’s stories into his big story, he didn’t do it so that we would turn the whole thing into a call for female empowerment, intent on making it all about how awesome women are. He did it so that we would know what kind of God he is — he is a God whose mercy triumphs over, and even through, judgment. He is a God who keeps his promises to his people and provides everything we need to walk uprightly in the strangest of circumstances.

The Sacred Life of a Mother’s Mind

Much ink has been spilled over the mundane days of motherhood — days, many seem to assume, full of mindless tasks and repetitive duties.

While the job of mothering certainly requires us to do many jobs on repeat, I wonder if the “mindless” and “mundane” descriptors are more a reflection of our lack of imagination. God has given us countless ways we might fruitfully engage our minds as we mother. Far from mundane or mindless, motherhood can provide fertile soil for thinking, problem-solving, expanding interests, growing in competencies, and learning our Father’s world.

“When a mother’s mind is fixed on the Spirit, it becomes a wellspring of blessing to those around her.”

The life of a mother’s mind is sacred. Those who live according to the Spirit of God have minds set on the Spirit — minds full of life and peace (Romans 8:5–6). When a mother’s mind is fixed on the Spirit, it becomes a wellspring of blessing — physically and spiritually — to those around her.

Multitasking Mother

With many of life’s jobs (not just tasks related to motherhood), we can operate on autopilot. That is, we often perform tasks that we have done before — tasks that we can do without having to think about them.

For instance, when we first learn to drive, all our senses are on high alert for intense learning. But after years of driving, we rarely think about using our turn signal or pulling into a parking spot, because our subconscious brain and body know what to do. That means that while we drive, we’re able to have a conversation with someone, or sing along to music, or listen to a podcast. Our minds can do something else while we drive.

This same concept holds true for parts of motherhood. When we’re doing the dishes, or folding the clothes, or cleaning the bathroom, our minds have already learned the job, so our hands can go on autopilot to get them done while we engage our minds elsewhere. In some ways, this is like having a homeroom class in school where we get to choose what to do. We get to choose how to engage our minds while we work on autopilot.

Your Autopilot Moments

How will we engage our minds during those moments? We could engage them in all sorts of unhelpful ways — anxiously worrying about the state of the world, counting wrongs others have done to us, complaining internally about all we have to do, replaying difficult circumstances and wishing about different responses. We could also squander that “homeroom” time for the mind by turning on frivolity and foolishness via a show or ungodly music.

Or, we can set our minds on things that enrich and deepen us as women of God. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). Listening to the Bible on an audio app is not the only way to obey this command, but it is the surest way to have our minds shaped properly.

Tuning into godly, wisdom-filled podcasts could be another way to engage our minds fruitfully while we work to serve our families. From getting tips on practical Christian living, to deepening our understanding of good theology, to increasing our awareness of church history, podcasts can help us grow in our love for God and his people. Listening to audiobooks that either explicitly (Christian non-fiction) or implicitly (great stories) inspire us toward virtue can also help us keep our minds on things above.

Some days, when we’re tired or spent, cultivating our minds may mean setting aside watching or listening and simply keeping our minds more aware of God — his goodness, his love, his holiness — not necessarily trying to learn anything new, but resting our minds, savoring what we know of him, and receiving his care for us.

Lastly, prayer is one of the best ways to use our minds (and spare moments). As our arms scrub the floor or change the diaper or hold the baby, hopefully our minds are regularly lifted up in prayer to our Lord who is always with us. We can pray through singing, or we can pray silently, but a mind that is fixed on Jesus in prayer, making our requests known to God with thanksgiving, is a mind bearing good fruit (Philippians 4:6).

What Needs Are Around Me?

Our thought life need not be explicitly spiritual or theological to be empowered by the Spirit to meet the needs of those in our care. The same Spirit who reveals the glories of God in Christ also created the earth and everything in it.

A mind set on the Spirit will delight to learn the patterns and intricacies of the Spirit’s creation. There may be hundreds of practical topics you wish to give your mind to as a way of enjoying God’s world and blessing others — from bread-making, to gardening, to furniture-building, to home repair, to computer programming, to learning a foreign language, to animal husbandry, to canning. There is so much knowledge available to us, it often feels daunting to know where to begin!

We can start by asking, “What are the needs around me? What might best serve my husband and children and church family? In what areas am I lacking?” Those questions can at least give us a starting point for what areas might be helpful to pursue. Perhaps we need to brush up on our cooking skills. Maybe we never learned how to maintain a home. As we grow in competence, we inevitably grow in enjoyment of our duties. No one enjoys doing a job poorly, but when we take the time to be interested in our work and learn to do it well, we take greater delight in it.

“The fruitfulness of our minds is meant to spill over into fruitful, productive lives and homes.”

Beyond these ideas, our own God-given interests are a good place to explore as we seek to fruitfully engage our minds. We never know how the meeting of practical needs and our own areas of interest may coalesce in surprising ways. The fruitfulness of our minds is meant to spill over into fruitful, productive lives and homes.

Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

A mother’s duties are not all repetition and autopilot; our duties change and expand. The skills required in one season are different from those required in a later season. Much of a mother’s time is spent engaging with her rapidly growing and changing children. It seems the minute we learn how to parent one child at a particular age and stage of life, the child grows and changes, and we must adapt and expand our mothering to new scenarios.

Perhaps one of the most important tasks of a mother is drawing out the life of her children’s minds and sharing hers in order to help shape and form them. There are many words for this task: education, discipleship, formation, parenting. A mother must learn to teach, but she will also be taught as she teaches. Paul goes on to say to the Philippians, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). We mothers have “learned and received and heard and seen” from the very word of God. We want our children to learn and receive and hear and see the same wonders we have, so we teach.

We teach them all that is in our sanctified minds — all the knowledge and insight and wisdom, all the Bible stories and proverbial principles and prophecies from of old. We grow them up from words to sentences to ideas to arguments. We help them crawl and stand and walk and run. We teach them the gospel. But we also practice these things. The fruitful life of our minds must be put on display and practiced. And as we practice, our weaknesses will be exposed, and we will have more opportunities to continue learning — to continue being conformed to Christ ourselves.

In the end, the life of the Christian mother’s mind is sacred, but it is not solitary. It is a place where Christ’s Spirit is present with her. It is a place where family, friends, and children are welcomed — to share in the insights, the competencies, the knowledge, the Spirit-given life and peace that are hers in Christ.

Your First Years of Marriage: Three Lessons for Young Couples

In many ways, we were a natural fit. My would-be husband and I both loved Jesus, studied his word, cherished worship through song, desired many children, longed to be hospitable, and valued the home and the wife’s joyful place in it. We both had Scandinavian heritage and understood the barbs that flew between Swedes and Norwegians. We both prized hard work — with an openness to risk-taking endeavors.

As an engaged couple, with all we had going for us, it was hard for me to imagine what bumps we might face as we started down the road together. But that’s only because I underestimated how real and stubborn indwelling sin is. I thought external bumps in the road would be the obstacles — circumstances like finances or health issues or job difficulties — when really it was our own flesh that presented the biggest problems.

Reflecting back on the first years of marriage and family, I commend three principles to ease the bumps and grease the wheels of joy in Christ in your marriage and family.

1. Let God Define ‘Normal’

We all come from unique backgrounds. Even two people who share a similar heritage, like my husband and I, have had vastly different childhoods. I grew up with 27 first cousins. I became an aunt at 14 and can’t really remember a time we didn’t have young children around our home (even though I was the youngest child in my family). My husband had four cousins and had rarely encountered an infant or toddler at close range prior to marrying into my family.

This made for very different ideas of what “normal” felt and sounded like. I grew up on an acreage in a blue-collar town that bordered several rural communities. My mom grew up on a farm. My husband grew up in a first-ring suburb of a major metropolis. His dad grew up in the big city. We had very different conceptions of what the “outdoors” was for. For him, it was mainly for recreation and enjoyment — for hiking or biking or kayaking. For me, it was mainly for work — for mowing or burning the burn pile or doing animal chores.

Our former “norms” can enrich our marriage, adding interest and laughter and providing opportunities to take something that’s been passed down and make it new. Or they can threaten the allegiance of our hearts. If what was normal to us in our childhood becomes the ultimate standard for our marriage, we have misplaced our loyalties. We need to be led by the only authoritative and inerrant guide to life and marriage that we have:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)

Including every good work in the sometimes thorny first years of marriage.

In marriage, God is making something new: a new one-flesh union, that is, a new family. And when a husband and wife let God’s word define normal, the wife willingly comes under the leadership of her husband in submission, as Scripture directs her to reflect Christ’s church (Ephesians 5:22–25). Her family of origin may aid that process or hinder it, but in either case, a reprioritizing happens. For the husband, it means looking to Christ as the standard by which he loves and leads his wife, and adopting his previous family’s practices only inasmuch as they accord with Christ.

“If God’s word is the norm, the authority, you will have solid common ground on which to stand, come what may.”

When I was young, my mom gave me one primary piece of advice when it came to choosing a husband: “God’s word must be his authority.” It’s key advice for men and women, and I gladly pass it along to you. If God’s word is the norm, the authority — not the culture, not your friends’ opinions or your family’s traditions, not Netflix or social media — you will have solid common ground on which to stand, come what may.

2. Stay in Step with the Spirit

Paul tells the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Galatians 5:25–26). It may seem unlikely for two people who love each other and have committed their lives to one another “for better or worse” to fall into conceit, envy, and provocation of one another — and yet it’s common enough in marriage.

The lies of the world have primed us to believe that men and women are on two separate teams in life. Team Women must advocate for women, and Team Men (in a bit of irony) must also advocate for women (although many rebel against this). This means that, at least for those of us raised in the United States or the West, women are expected to compete with men. From a young age, girls are taught that how they rank is a function of whether or not they are beating the boys. This way of thinking infects both boys and girls.

And while that attitude may lie dormant during dating or courtship, it will rear its head if not dealt with. In a husband, this can look like unrealistic expectations for his wife — treating her like another man who shouldn’t have any significant differences from him. For example, he may expect her to earn what he earns, or overlook the inherent vulnerability of pregnancy and caring for small children. In a wife, this can look like pulling out the measuring stick to keep track of all the ways she’s getting a raw deal compared to him. For example, she may envy the occasional out-to-eat work lunches while she eats with the kids at home, or she may resent that the care of small children falls mainly to her.

These are deadly attitudes to maintain in a marriage. When we marry, the Spirit of God does something amazing: he makes us part of a new team. I was blessed to join Team Dodds — not Team Women, or Team Men, or Team Me. When something wonderful happens to the husband, the wife rejoices as though it has happened to her, because it has. When something difficult happens to the wife, the husband nurtures and defends her as though it has happened to him, because it has.

How do we keep in step with the Spirit in marriage? By prayerfully and regularly confessing our sins, and by setting our minds on the things of the Spirit, with a special focus on Christ — his life, his words, and his ways (1 John 1:9; Romans 8:5). We walk in the Spirit of Christ when we conform to the way he’s designed the marriage: “‘a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:5–6).

3. Share Your New Life with Others

My husband and I were married in June 2002. By October, we were taking a class to join our local church. At the same time, we opened our home (the upstairs of a duplex) to host a small group of singles and couples. I was 21 and still finishing college. It may have seemed a bit premature for us to join a church we were so new to, or to host a small group made up of mostly strangers, but the church had a need and we were eager to help. We didn’t join the church or host a small group primarily as ways to establish a stronger marriage, but looking back, they were important in shaping the patterns and priorities of our life.

“The hospitable people I know are hospitable with little and with much, in small spaces and in big.”

Many young families think that hospitality will sprout when the timing is right — when they get a bigger place, or when the kids aren’t so little, or when the finances aren’t so tight, or when they get that one room cleaned out. I’ve never seen it happen that way. The hospitable people I know are hospitable with little and with much, in small spaces and in big, among babies and boomers, in a dirty kitchen and a clean one.

Sharing your home with others — making food for them, stretching your grocery budget on their behalf, letting them into your bathroom, cleaning up after their messes, inviting them into your thoughts through conversation and listening to theirs — is shockingly intimate in a world where embodied presence is becoming rare. Paul tells the Thessalonian church that “being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). When we invite others into our home, we give them a bit of “our own selves.”

When a husband, wife, and their children offer their home and their “own selves” to others through hospitality, they are not robbing time or resources from each other; they are gaining by giving. Hospitality forms a family identity that is not navel-gazing, but focused on sharing the love of God in practical ways with others. I can think of little else that will form and establish a Christian family to be joyful and robust in the Lord for decades to come than to practice sharing your life with others. Don’t let your home or marriage or family be only private.

“Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7). A husband and wife who have made God’s word their norm and who are keeping in step with the Spirit will have much to share with others. Open your doors and welcome many to come taste of Christ’s goodness at your table.

Suffering Under an All-Powerful Love

As I sat atop my lofted dorm-room bed and turned the page from Romans 8 to Romans 9 in my small, tattered Bible, I went from a chapter familiar enough to be easily skimmed to a chapter that I had no recollection of ever reading before.

Both chapters emphasized the sovereignty of God — his sovereign love and his sovereign power. At 19 years old, I had not thought much about God’s sovereignty. I believed what I’d been taught as a child — that God was in control, that he knew every hair on my head, that he had the whole world in his hands. But I also believed that salvation was a choice I had made — that God chose me because he knew I’d someday choose him.

When I entered college, however, the issue became inescapable. My college campus swirled with discussions about whether God elected people to salvation and whether he could know the future at all. Even my theology class was getting ready to host a debate between an Open Theist (someone who believes God doesn’t fully know the future until it happens) and a Calvinist (someone who believes God knows and ordains the future, including who will believe and be saved).

It was only by chance that I had been reading Romans 8–9 the night before this debate. Or was it?

God in Control

That night, my beliefs began to change. I read of God’s relationship with his chosen people:

Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:29–30)

Could it possibly be true that this foreknowing, predestining God didn’t know the future? It could not.

Or was it conceivable that the God who said, “It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy,” was merely looking ahead in the future to see who would and wouldn’t choose him (Romans 9:16)? It was not. And furthermore, God declared that he was working all things together for the good of those he’d called (Romans 8:28). Could God work all things together for good if all things were not genuinely under his control?

My 19-year-old heart began to swell with joy and relief. This God was not back on his heels, trying to figure out what to do, nor was he waiting for me to figure him out. He was bringing his good plans to pass. He called me, he saved me, and he would keep me in every circumstance.

Does God’s Goodness Miscarry?

My understanding of God’s sovereign grace grew as my knowledge of God’s word grew. And I loved his sovereignty — in theory at least. I loved that my God was so powerful and big and in charge. When I saw others go through difficult circumstances, I sympathized with them, but I also had a settled sense that God had a plan born from his love. It wasn’t until I was up against my own difficult circumstance that the thought flashed in my mind: perhaps God was working something not good in my life.

As a young wife and mom, I never considered the possibility of miscarrying. So when it happened, I was shocked that my own womb could become a place of death. All I knew of God flooded my mind, almost as a reproach.

As I faced the loss of our little one, I wasn’t tempted to doubt his power but his love. I knew he could have kept our baby alive, so why didn’t he? Yet Romans 8 was there to keep me grounded, reminding me that not even death could separate us from his love. Paul’s words were an anchor:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)

As the years rolled on, God’s sovereignty over all things was the buoy that kept me afloat in every season. I was learning to trust God’s love as he carried us through job loss, babies received and one lost, moves, and new ministry. Yet it was the birth of our youngest son that brought the deepest challenge to my trust in God’s power and plans.

With our son’s arrival, we faced uncertainty regarding his future, a future that, in the best case, would involve disability and health difficulties. During the chronic trials that ensued, including our son’s sleep disorder, seizures, and eating difficulties that involved years of almost daily vomit, a different sort of temptation occasionally crept in — the thought that God might love us, but he maybe couldn’t help us. Night after night after night, year after year after year, we would pray for relief. But relief didn’t come.

Different Sort of Power

I was looking for God’s power to come in the form of physical relief from our trials. I was tired and worn. I wanted to be free of the difficulties of nighttime G-tube feedings and regular vomit clean-up. If God answered those prayers, I reasoned, that would be a sign of his power. Yet which is more difficult: to change someone’s circumstances from hard to easy, or to change the person in the circumstances from floundering to flourishing despite it all?

Would God have shown more of his sovereign power if he had put down all his enemies once and for all, preventing the cross and the resurrection? Or is God’s power more greatly displayed through his planning from before time to crush his Son, defeat sin, and then raise his Son from the dead, so that he could make his enemies his friends? Any tyrant with a large army can squelch his enemies, but only our gracious and powerful God turns enemies into sons through the folly of the cross and the empty tomb.

As Paul testifies, God often manifests his power through our weaknesses. It was Paul’s thorn in the flesh that occasioned God’s sovereign power resting upon him:

I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

“The sovereign power of God rests on his people, not to remove their thorns, but to teach them of a stronger power.”

In a world where almost everyone seems obsessed with power — whether they have it, how they can get it — God’s word shows us the deeper power: the power of his Spirit.

God’s power is ours when we entrust ourselves to him amid weakness. We need not demand power from the world. We need not seek position or platform. The sovereign power of God rests on his people, not to remove their thorns, but to teach them of a stronger power — the power of God that contents us with trials, so long as we have Christ’s Spirit.

No Trite Slogan

All those years ago as a college sophomore, Romans 8 and 9 showed me the sovereign love and sovereign power of God.

In Romans 9, I met a God to whom back talk was not permitted:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:19–20)

In Romans 8, that same fearfully powerful God was also utterly committed to my good in all things, so much so, that his Spirit intercedes for me as he works on my behalf (Romans 8:26–28).

Some believe that Romans 8:28 is a trite way to comfort the afflicted — that it shuts up the grief of the hurting, as though telling a suffering saint that God is working their hardship for good makes a mockery of the pain. As we are imperfect people, we should consider that possibility. But for me, no truth is as precious.

“God is good. God is strong. Not one thing happens to us apart from his perfect plan.”

Knowing that God is working all things for my good has been the dearest and deepest comfort, even, and especially, in the darkest of seasons. God is working all things for my good when our son is in the hospital (again), or when my husband is dealing with chronic pain (still), or when betrayal and slander touch my life or the lives of those I love. It’s a reality that keeps my heart whole even as it’s breaking, and my mind clear even in the fog of confusion.

He is good. He is strong. Not one thing happens to us apart from his perfect plan. God’s sovereign love and power mean that we can trust him — now and forever.

More Than Mom Can Bear

When God pushes us past our limits with circumstances that have us sprinting and gasping, it is his grace to us. He’s driving us toward his goodness. He’s pressing us beyond ourselves to new vistas of himself. He’s moving us away from the things that would really harm us by putting distance between us and our old enemies — the world, our flesh, and the devil.

And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out.
The old cliché “God will never give you more than you can handle” has taunted me over the years. I can remember several times in life when it has seemed evident that God was giving more than I could handle.
Would anyone claim the ability to handle the sudden, near-death experience of their son due to life-threatening seizures? What about loved ones walking away from God? Disability? Chronic pain? You likely have much worse trials to add to my list. We endure these circumstances because we have no choice, even as we endeavor to walk through them trusting that God is for us in Christ.
Still, as I was lying facedown on the bathroom floor, drenched in a sweaty fainting spell while paramedics worked on my seizing son in the next room, I certainly didn’t feel like I had been given a situation that was within my ability to handle.
A Lion and Our Limits
“Gallop, Bree, gallop. Remember you’re a war-horse” (The Horse and His Boy, 270). Aravis, a young princess escaping the evils of her country, Calormen, urged the talking horse named Bree to run as fast as he could away from the enemies that pursued them. C.S. Lewis tells us this story in A Horse and His Boy, one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. Bree and his friend Hwin appear, by their own reckoning, to be running all-out. “And certainly both Horses were doing, if not all they could, all they thought they could; which,” as Lewis tells us, “is not quite the same thing.”
This desperate sprint across the countryside by two talking horses — and the unlikely boy and girl on their backs — would quickly reach a peak of terror none of them could have anticipated. For not only were they chased by a terrible army of Calormene soldiers, but a much nearer and more dangerous enemy roared at their backs: a great lion.
“And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out” (271). This simple scene in the midst of a children’s story profoundly changed my perspective in three ways over the past decade and beyond: (1) it has changed how I understand my “limits” in the midst of difficulty, (2) it has reminded me of Who it is that bears down on me in those difficult times, and (3) it has helped me glimpse the goodness of God in how much he chooses to bear down on us.
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More Than Mom Can Bear: How to Love Beyond Our Limits

And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out.

The old cliché “God will never give you more than you can handle” has taunted me over the years. I can remember several times in life when it has seemed evident that God was giving more than I could handle.

Would anyone claim the ability to handle the sudden, near-death experience of their son due to life-threatening seizures? What about loved ones walking away from God? Disability? Chronic pain? You likely have much worse trials to add to my list. We endure these circumstances because we have no choice, even as we endeavor to walk through them trusting that God is for us in Christ.

Still, as I was lying facedown on the bathroom floor, drenched in a sweaty fainting spell while paramedics worked on my seizing son in the next room, I certainly didn’t feel like I had been given a situation that was within my ability to handle.

A Lion and Our Limits

“Gallop, Bree, gallop. Remember you’re a war-horse” (The Horse and His Boy, 270). Aravis, a young princess escaping the evils of her country, Calormen, urged the talking horse named Bree to run as fast as he could away from the enemies that pursued them. C.S. Lewis tells us this story in A Horse and His Boy, one of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. Bree and his friend Hwin appear, by their own reckoning, to be running all-out. “And certainly both Horses were doing, if not all they could, all they thought they could; which,” as Lewis tells us, “is not quite the same thing.”

This desperate sprint across the countryside by two talking horses — and the unlikely boy and girl on their backs — would quickly reach a peak of terror none of them could have anticipated. For not only were they chased by a terrible army of Calormene soldiers, but a much nearer and more dangerous enemy roared at their backs: a great lion.

“And Bree now discovered that he had not really been going as fast — not quite as fast — as he could. Shasta felt the change at once. Now they were really going all-out” (271). This simple scene in the midst of a children’s story profoundly changed my perspective in three ways over the past decade and beyond: (1) it has changed how I understand my “limits” in the midst of difficulty, (2) it has reminded me of Who it is that bears down on me in those difficult times, and (3) it has helped me glimpse the goodness of God in how much he chooses to bear down on us.

Applying on the Bathroom Floor

I suppose there is some irony that while Bree found new speed with the Great Lion Aslan at his back, my story involves barely moving at all, having blacked out during a moment when I desperately wanted to be present for my son’s crisis. How is the horrible physiological response to stress (blacking out) in any way parallel to Bree finding a new gear with the Lion at his back?

“When you’re under the pressure of the Great Lion, never, ever let yourself forget: all his paths are steadfast love.”

Well, as unlikely as it sounds, I found my own new gear, facedown on the floor. As I lay there, I cried out to God, asking him to save my son, while I was forced to find a new gear of trust in my Lord. I wasn’t there to watch over my son every second, but God was. I couldn’t make the seizure stop, but God could. I wouldn’t go with him if he died, but God would be there. I, like Bree, found that I had not been trusting as much — not quite as much — as I could. I had not been enduring as much — not quite as much — as I could. There was new speed to discover with the Great Lion in pursuit.

Have you learned this yet? That what you consider your limits aren’t your limits? That you don’t actually know what your limits are because you aren’t the Maker and Sustainer?

Beyond My Limits

We think we’ve given our all, we think the reserves are gone, but actually, we have never had our limits truly tested. When my mind says, I can’t do that; it’s beyond my limits — I can’t endure that loss, I can’t live with that trial, I can’t face that outcome — God is perfectly capable of applying the kind of pressure that will prove me wrong.

Paul tells the Corinthians,

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)

You see, the new gear that we find in the midst of hardship is not a testament to our strong constitution. It is a Spirit-empowered gear that blows faith and hope into the hearts of those who are burdened beyond their own strength. It is a testament to his strength at work in us, even when we are weak and sweaty on the bathroom floor.

Paths of Steadfast Love

God often shows us, then, that we most certainly can do what we think we can’t (by relying on him). And as counterintuitive as it sounds, he doesn’t get us there merely by encouragement or through positive thinking or by pouring on the affirmation, but, as with Bree, by bearing down and increasing the trial that drives us to him.

“When God pushes us past our limits, it is his grace to us. He’s driving us toward his goodness.”

You see, as Bree quickened his pace beyond what he thought he could, the Great Lion was increasing the distance between them and the true enemies that were coming after them. Aslan did terrify them, but for the sake of their own safety and well-being in the end. We can trust that even if we, like Paul, feel we have received the sentence of death, God is subjecting us only to what is right and good in the end, and not a drop more or less. He really does work all things together for the good of those who love him — and in so doing, conforms us to the likeness of his Son (Romans 8:28–29).

When God pushes us past our limits with circumstances that have us sprinting and gasping, it is his grace to us. He’s driving us toward his goodness. He’s pressing us beyond ourselves to new vistas of himself. He’s moving us away from the things that would really harm us by putting distance between us and our old enemies — the world, our flesh, and the devil.

And when you’re under the pressure of the Great Lion, never, ever let yourself forget: all his paths are steadfast love (Psalm 25:10). You can trust him, even facedown on the bathroom floor.

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