Saturday, 30 November 2013

Why I'm sorry for not loving myself enough...

        Every teenage girl, and later every woman, has experienced that gut-wrenching feeling of inadequacy. We look around us and there is always someone prettier, someone smarter, someone cooler. We look in the mirror and all we see are flaws, things to improve, and things we just wish were different. We try on clothes and all we can say is “it clings too much here”, “it’s not flattering”, “I really need to lose weight!”. We tentatively tip-toe onto the scales and immediately think “time to cut down”, “I’ve really let myself go”, or “I wish I hadn’t had that 2nd helping at lunch – I’m so weak-willed”. 

        Of course we don't accept that we have a completely different body shape to ‘that other girl’, completely different skills and strengths, probably a closer friendship group. We don’t perceive the things in our own appearance that we would no doubt like were we to see that same feature on a friend. Clothes don’t fit and we immediately assume we should change ourselves to suit them, rather than considering that maybe they just aren’t the right style for our shape. It doesn’t cross our minds that a significant proportion of that weight might be muscle because, actually, we DO go to the gym enough and we DON’T eat too much fat!

        The other day a friend paid me a compliment and I caught myself essentially replying “thanks, but you’re wrong because…” It took a guy to point out that I just couldn’t take a compliment – because males think differently about these things. My friend particularly liked my hair that day and didn’t think twice about telling me so because that’s what good friends do – they affirm and encourage. Yet my automatic reaction was to explain to both myself and her the extensive reasons why it couldn’t possibly look as nice as she thought, and had been done that way to cover up all the reasons it would have looked even worse otherwise.

        But we should be striving for modesty without inferiority. For humility without insecurity. And for self-confidence without fear of conceitedness. Because we ‘are fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139:13) in the image of God Himself. Our call to ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34)  does not stop at the people around us. It is a call to love ALL of God’s people, including ourselves! The command to ‘love your enemies’ (Luke 6:27) takes on a whole new meaning when we consider the age-old saying that we are our own worst enemy. 

        When we struggle to accept another person we constantly remind ourselves to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (Mark 12:31), but by that reasoning I don’t imagine that means we need to love our neighbour very much at all! We don’t think to consider a different interpretation whereby that phrase does not tell us to love our neighbour AS MUCH as ourselves, but rather to love both our neighbour AND ourselves. 

        In criticising our bodies and doing everything we can think of to change them, we are ultimately forgetting the fact that ‘your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God’ (Corinthians 6:19). Our bodies enable us to live, to love, and to fulfil His purpose for us – they are the greatest gifts He could possibly give us!

        So I’m sorry for the times I’ve compared myself to others rather than acknowledging my own talents. I’m sorry for criticising the body that my Father lovingly crafted. I’m sorry for placing far too much weight on what I look like and whether my clothes are stylish enough. I’m sorry for measuring my self-worth by a number on the scales. And I’m sorry to the millions of women whom life has made feel the same way. May we, like David in Psalm 139, give thanks for the bodies God has given us, for His works are marvellous. 

        On behalf of women everywhere I would like to make a promise to start again. Let us not be self-critical, because we are picking fault with God’s work. Let us stand against self-rejection, because by accepting ourselves we allow His spirit in. Let us challenge our self-hatred, because God’s love is enough to sustain us. Let us answer back to the voice of the enemy telling us we’re worthless, ugly, a failure, and instead turn to the one who poured unceasing love and effort into our creation. The one who tells us we are beautiful in His eyes. The one who tells us He is pleased with His work and doesn’t see a single flaw – because He doesn’t make mistakes.

The one who tells us we’re ENOUGH.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Anna: Selfless Devotion and Unwavering Patience

        We are introduced to Anna in the in-between phase at the beginning of Luke’s gospel: after Jesus’ birth has marked the transition between the Old and New Testaments, but before He has come of age and begun His 3 year mission of spreading the Good News. Though only given a fleeting mention in a single gospel, it was Anna who, along with Simeon, first recognised Jesus as the Messiah. 

        In her unquestioning belief, Anna approached the infant Jesus as a child herself – the ultimate manifestation of our call to ‘become like little children (to) enter the kingdom of Heaven’ (Matthew 18:3; NIV). Though 84 years old, she had not allowed life to make her cynical – her heart was wide open to receive her saviour. She did not waver in celebrating the presence of the Messiah, but instead rushed to greet Him immediately – ‘at that very moment’ (Luke 2:38; NIV). Like a child she ran to Him with innocence and purity – not a flicker of doubt crossed her mind. 

        Anna ‘lived with her husband 7 years… and then she was a widow.’ (Luke 2:36-37; ESV). Bearing in mind that in those days girls were married off by their families at the age of around 13-14, this means Anna would have been widowed by 21. Sill so young, she would no doubt have found it easy to marry again, and have been encouraged to do so, and yet she chose instead to remain single and dedicate her life to the Lord.  If you’re discerning a single life, or are struggling with your singlehood, take courage from Anna. Her singleness empowered her to do things for God that a married woman would never have achieved from the shadows of her husband’s authority!

        Through fasting, praying and dedicating her every moment to the pursuit of God’s kingdom, Anna spent year preparing herself to receive Christ in His human form. This devotion drew her ever closer to God in heaven while she was on earth. That closeness enabled her to prophesy the birth of the Messiah as she ‘gave thanks to God’ for the miracle child that was placed in her arms. Let's not underestimate the power that God gave her here - in a society even more patriarchal than today, God was making a stand by choosing a woman as a prophetess. He was showing that he loves us all equally regardless of gender or social status!

        Anna had undying patience. I know that this is something I for one am inexhaustibly lacking in! I want God to tell me exactly what He wants from me right now – I want certainty and clarity and I want Him to give me a clear-cut plan for my life. Have you ever felt like that? It’s easy to be tempted to give up waiting and carve out your own path, but Anna ‘never left the temple but worshipped night and day, fasting and praying’ (Luke 2:38; NIV). She didn’t spend all her time asking what God could do for her, she devoted her life to discerning what she could do for Him. She remained as close to Him as she could and spread His message to anyone who entered the temple. As Psalm 40 describes – ‘I waited patiently upon the Lord; He turned to me and heard my cry’ (Psalm 40:1; NIV). The Lord did indeed hear her cry, and that patience was rewarded by God with the greatest privilege – meeting His son before she died.

        She was not afraid to share her faith. She ‘spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (Luke 2:38; NIV). ‘Looking forward to redemption’ pretty much refers to everyone there. All the Jews at the time preached dependence on the Messiah who they believed WOULD come, yet only a minute subset were open to the idea that the Messiah HAD come. Rather than restrict her reach to celebrating with the few who already believed, Anna stepped out in faith knowing she would be met with doubt and mockery. 

        Though it may be impractical for those of us not entering religious life to spend as much time as Anna did in church, her constant communication with God reminds us to maintain our conversation with Him wherever we are: cycling to lectures, sitting in the office, lying in bed at night – there is nowhere that he can’t listen when we talk. Her patience and devotion reveal the value of fasting and waiting on the Lord. Like Anna, we should strive to remove the worldly values that hold us back from Him and replace them with the hope of eternal life and faith that He will always deliver.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Abigail: Beauty AND Brains!

        It is fairly likely that Abigail will be a name you’ve heard from the Bible, but a character whose story you know relatively little about. In fact, hers is a story which we are told very little about – she appears only in a single chapter: 1 Samuel 25. But the small amount we do know speaks volumes about her character. Upon discovering that her husband had refused to repay the kindness that David had shown him – as was the custom – Abigail recognised that ‘disaster was hanging over (her) master and his whole household’ (1 Samuel, 25:17, NIV), because her husband had acted with selfishness and self-righteousness. She hurried to restore her family’s good name by offering gifts to David and begging for His forgiveness. Her display of the deepest humility – ‘she…bowed down before David with her face to the ground’ (1 Samuel, 25:23, NIV) – and her demonstration of wisdom, courage and knowledge of battle led David to accept her plea and give up his quest to kill every male in her community, thus saving countless lives which the actions of her own husband would have sacrificed.

        Abigail was ‘a beautiful and intelligent woman’ (1 Samuel, 23:3; NIV). Why is that important? Simply because we are told so! The Bible is not a book of fancy, descriptive fiction. It rarely dwells on details of physical appearance, so the moments when it does are pivotal (among the few other women described in a similar way are Bathsheba, Esther, Sarah and Rachel – all dominant forces within God’s work across history). The Theology of the Body (Pope John Paul II/Christopher West) tells us that the human body reflects God’s image and is a key part in His plan for us. Therefore we are each given our appearance for a reason that serves that plan. Did Abigail use her looks to get what she came for? Absolutely! But rather than the worldly flesh-flauntation which immediately springs to mind, she used the body God had given her to do His work. 

        In my research for this post I read about a – let’s say ‘stocky’ – youth worker who was grateful for her lack of stereotypical beauty because it meant that she could reach out to the young people she worked with without the males lusting over her and the females being jealous of her. It seems comforting to think that however we look – whether we conform to stereotypes of beauty or not – God made us that way for a purpose. Not only does that mean those of us with insecurities about our appearance can be encouraged, it also means that those whose natural beauty is often recognised must strive to avoid becoming conceited or taking it for granted, but instead ask God why they were made that way and aim to fulfil that purpose.

        Abigail’s wisdom and cunningness not only saved her husband and family from destruction at the hands of David’s army, it also saved David from his own sin. For a woman to approach a man of authority (in a way mirroring the story of Esther approaching the king) was an extremely dangerous move. Yet Abigail’s courage in standing up to David actually rescued him from himself, putting him forever in her debt – ‘May you be blessed for your good judgement and for keeping me… from avenging myself with my own hands.’ (1 Samuel 25:33; NIV). For her actions, and in recognition of her beauty, Abigail was rewarded with the greatest accolade: when her husband died just ten days later (most likely from the shock of sobering up and realising the potential jeopardy he had inflicted on his family) she became David’s wife and queen. 

        In a culture where it is disappointingly common for women to be lumped into the category of either beautiful OR intelligent, Abigail offers hope that we can be recognised for both. She is proof that beauty and brains can be reconciled, and can be used in unique combinations by God. Alternatively, if the world tells you you’re unattractive, ask God to show you yourself the way he views you. Similarly, if the world constantly reminds you that you are ‘hot’ by its standards, ask God how He plans to use that for His will – and pray for the grace to acknowledge that God-given beauty in your heart rather than your head. Most of all, never let yourself fall into a worldly category: to God you are one of a kind, and His plan for you is one that only YOU can carry out – not just ‘any clever person’ or ‘any pretty person’!