If you’ve spent much time in Christian women’s circles, you may have noticed that we have devoted many gatherings to exploring our identity.
Retreats, conferences, and topical Bible studies rush to assure us that we are redeemed and treasured, that our lives have purpose, that our actions carry eternal significance. If we just understood who we are — the message goes — we would turn from our sin patterns and our spiritual low self-esteem and experience the abundant life of which Jesus spoke.
Recently I attended a women’s conference at which this message predictably took center stage. One after another, all three keynote speakers took us to Psalm 139:14, urging us to see ourselves the way God sees us, as fearfully and wonderfully made. It could have been just about any women’s event, with just about any typical speaker. Christian women ask Psalm 139:14 to soothe us when our body image falters, or when we just don’t feel that smart, valuable, or capable. We ask it to bolster us when our limits weigh us down. But based on how frequently I hear it offered, I suspect the message may not be “sticking to our ribs” very well.
Why is that?
I believe it is because we have misdiagnosed our primary problem. As long as we keep the emphasis on us instead of on a higher vision, we will take small comfort from discussions of identity — and we will see little lasting change. Our primary problem as Christian women is not that we lack self-worth, not that we lack a sense of significance or purpose. It’s that we lack awe.
Awe and Wonder
On a recent visit to San Francisco, my husband and I had the chance to hike Muir Woods. Walking its paths, we halted, slack-jawed, to gaze up at 250-foot redwoods that had stood since the signing of the Magna Carta. Towering and ancient, they reminded us of our smallness.
Muir Woods was a place to be awestruck. But not necessarily for everyone. I can still see the eight-year-old playing a video game while his parents took in the view. I’m not judging mom and dad — I’ve been on vacation with young children myself — but the irony of the image was compelling.
Research shows that when humans experience awe — wonderment at redwoods or rainbows, Rembrandt or Rachmaninoff — we become less individualistic, less self-focused, less materialistic, more connected to those around us. In marveling at something greater than ourselves, we become more able to reach out to others.
At first, this seems counterintuitive, but on closer examination, it begins to sound a lot like the greatest commandments: Love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength (marvel at Someone greater than yourself), and love your neighbor (reach out to others).
Awe helps us worry less about self-worth by turning our eyes first toward God, then toward others. It also helps establish our self-worth in the best possible way: we understand both our insignificance within creation and our significance to our Creator. But just like a child on an iPad at the foot of an 800-year-old redwood, we can miss majesty when it is right in front of us.
We have done it habitually with Psalm 139:14. It’s easy to hear it as a “pink verse” when a woman is reading it aloud to a room full of women. It is harder to hear it that way when we consider who wrote it. Imagine King David writing it to give himself a pep talk about his appearance or his self-worth. No, Psalm 139:14 is not written to help us feel significant. We have only to zoom out and consider the entire psalm to see this. Without question, the subject of Psalm 139 is not us. Rather than a reflection on me, fearfully and wonderfully made, it is an extended and exquisite celebration of God, fearful and wonderful.
Awe yields self-forgetfulness. When we emphasize self-awareness to the omission of self-forgetfulness, we have missed the mark. You can tell me that I am a royal daughter of the King. You can assure me that I am God’s poem or his masterpiece. You can tell me that I stir the heart of God, that I am sung over and delighted in, that I am beautiful in his eyes, that I am set apart for a sacred purpose. You can tell me these things, and you should. But I beg you: Don’t tell me who I am until you have caused me to gaze in awe at “I Am.” Though all of these statements are precious truths, their preciousness cannot be properly perceived until framed in the brilliance of his utter holiness. There can be no true self-awareness apart from right, reverent awe of God.
Lift Up Our Eyes
So I implore you, women teachers, lift my eyes from myself to him. Teach me the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 31:30). Finding our identity in the wrong places is a symptom of succumbing to the fear of man. We measure ourselves by a human standard instead of a divine one. But the solution to the fear of man is not repeated assurances that we are loved and accepted by God. It is fear of God.
When I ask, “Does he delight in me?” Teach me, “He delights in those who fear him.” (Psalm 147:11)
When I ask, “Does he call me friend?” Teach me, “His friendship is for those who fear him.” (Psalm 25:14)
When I ask, “Is he for my good?” Teach me, “His goodness is stored up for those who fear him.” (Psalm 31:19)
When I ask, “Will he grant me wisdom?” Teach me, “It begins with the fear of the Lord.” (Psalm 111:10)
When I ask, “Can I turn from my sin?” Teach me, “Yes, by the fear of the Lord.” (Proverbs 16:6)
When I ask, “Does he see the way I take?” Teach me, “The eye of the Lord is on those who fear him.” (Psalm 33:18)
When I ask, “Does he love me?” Teach me, “His steadfast love is for those who fear him.” (Psalm 103:11, 17)
The fear of the Lord is linked to contentment (Proverbs 15:16; 19:23), to confidence (Proverbs 14:26), to blessing (Proverbs 28:14), to spiritual safety (Proverbs 29:25), and to praise and adoration (Psalm 22:23). It is no wonder, then, that the much-referenced Proverbs 31 woman is called praiseworthy because she fears the Lord.
Teach Us Awe
As Ed Welch has rightly diagnosed, we must fight fear with fear. We cease offering reverence and awe to a human standard by instead offering it to its true object: God himself. This is worship. And when we “worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness” (Psalm 96:9) an interesting thing happens: we do rediscover our true identity — as sinners redeemed by grace, in a manner that defies human understanding.
In that moment, the one in which we tremble and stammer, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful woman,” our hearts are ready to drink in the good news that we are daughters of the King. The priceless pearl of his love for us can at last be properly valued. The miracle of our acceptance through Christ can at last be properly savored.
It’s time for women teachers and authors to abandon the thin gruel of self-reflection for a message that sticks to our ribs. Women desperately need to be discipled into the joyful practice of self-forgetful worship. Help us lift our eyes to towering majesty. Help us learn awe. Teach us the fear of the Lord.