Rediscovering Womanhood

Diane Woerner

Not long ago, the “What is a woman?” question backed some otherwise intelligent people into an unexpected corner. With the removal of biology as the most obvious basis for a response, they were left with the strange possibility that womanhood doesn’t really exist at all. But long before people made it all the way into that corner, there have been many other vagaries in our cultural thinking that have converged to deprive us of what is arguably God’s crowning creation: manhood and womanhood.

On a positive note, this phenomenon could easily be understood as a fatal blow to naturalistic evolution, as there is clearly nothing to be gained concerning human flourishing if our sexual natures are obscured or obliterated. On the other hand, it adds strong confirmation to the biblical perspective that human history is the outworking of a cosmic battle wherein the enemy is intentionally conspiring to demolish everything God created—and especially that which he declared to be “very good.”

Therefore, for those of us who have come to the assurance that what God has created is eternally valid and secure, there is even more reason in our day to seek out all he had in mind when he first presented Eve to Adam—and then, by his grace and empowerment, to live as fully as possible within that perfect design.

What Has Been Lost

We don’t actually know much about pre-Fall womanhood. The primary descriptor we are given is that Eve was created to be a “suitable helper” for Adam. This implies that her very nature was to function in close relationship with another person, specifically a man, and of course eventually with their children as well. It also carries the understanding that there was a designated calling given to Adam that would benefit from what she contributed.

Perhaps we learn more from considering what the Fall inverted in her nature. Her impulse to dominate suggests that the original submissive and cooperative character of womanhood was most directly corrupted. But another residue of the Fall evident in all women still today is their deep sense of insecurity. Thus for them, the desire to control isn’t so much driven by pride (as is true for fallen men) as it is by fear. They no longer trust men, and by extension, they no longer trust God.

Womanhood Obscured

While the presentation and roles of womanhood over the centuries have been notably varied, we now live in an era where these seem almost entirely hidden from view. Through the efforts of feminism, which morphed from mild to militant, women have been drawn into an illusion that they are most fully human to the extent that they live out the characteristics and callings of men.

Strangely complicit in this process have been men themselves, for a few possible reasons. First, the fallen nature of manhood includes a strong pull toward laziness (thus the specific sting of Adam’s curse), and ceding their responsibilities to women was easy enough to do. But even for those who would endeavor to retain their position of leadership, a growing swell of cultural pressure to give women what they were demanding (along with the winless prospect of competing with women) has proven to shape the dominant patterns in modern society.

One of the greatest challenges to restoring womanhood in its true expression is the reality that the women who are most visible and influential are often the ones most ensnared in the deceptions. Young girls are taught, both directly and by example, that they must take and retain control of their lives in every way possible. From one angle, this includes the necessity for a profitable career that can ensure their independence. More subtly, they are encouraged to use their physical and mental female capacities to manipulate and dominate the men in their lives.

How Not to Resolve This

For those who are able to recognize and deplore the brokenness in our current sexual assumptions and patterns, there are several responses that are actually not helpful. First on that list would be shaming or accusing those caught up in these wrong directions. Particularly the younger generations are not primarily responsible for what they have been led to assume is normal manhood and womanhood. Rather, they are paying high prices for these aberrations, one of which is the unprecedented prevalence of singlehood.

But the other thing we should avoid is simply imposing external patterns that emulate the norms of earlier days, back when men “went to work” and women “stayed at home.” It’s not that simple, nor was that the most righteous time in history (this isn’t to say that things were not far better in terms of stable marriages and more secure children). But humanity was still fully impacted by the Fall, and the only resolution to that has always been a supernatural one.

Is Restoration Possible?

To some extent, the answer to this question depends on one’s view of biblical eschatology. With regard to humanity as a whole, what most prophecy seems to suggest is that it will require the presence of Christ ruling on earth to restore godly ordering to all aspects of society, including male/female relationships. But setting that aside, how possible is it for us as individual believers to regain those qualities of relationship more closely resembling God’s original design?

An obvious first step would be to clarify what that ordering should look like. What are godly femininity and masculinity? Surprisingly, the best way to envision this might not be to think about women and men at all, but rather to consider the spiritual reality their relationship was intended to typify. According to Paul, human marriages contain God’s clues to the mystery that is the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32).

There are limits, of course, to this, as human men fall far short of Christ’s perfections. But the general pattern is for men (representing Christ) to lead, provide for and protect their families, and women (representing the church) to gladly follow their leadership, gratefully receiving what they are given, and thereby flourishing in a way that brings honor to their leader. Clearly, these interactions are mutually enhanced—as women learn to trust men, they relinquish their need to control. And as men receive authentic respect and gratitude, they far more easily stand tall in their masculine capacities and roles.

Let’s Be Real

So, with that as an ideal, how do we get there from our far-less-than-perfect present realities? Because our question at hand is regarding womanhood, we’ll focus primarily on what she needs to do, understanding that men have a corollary responsibility. Foundationally, a woman must discover the reliability of God to protect and provide for her, not in theory, but in the grittiness of her realities—and especially when the men in her life have let her down. This is not something easily done, but it is the only authentic path to the security she seeks.

The other thing that should be helpful is to understand that she is not being called to some sort of mindless servility. Whereas Christ doesn’t really need the counsel of the church, human men require that kind of help. One image to consider (especially in marriage, but in other female-to-male relationships as well) is that of a king and his counselor.

Because women are not only given different capacities for grasping and interpreting various aspects of life but are often strongly gifted in other ways as well, men stand to benefit significantly when they are willing to receive counsel from the women in their lives. The tricky part is that it must remain counsel, not command. Few women know how to give this with no strings attached, especially when they see their wisdom ignored and the consequences prove to be less than pleasant.

But ultimately both parties need to realize that God will hold men responsible for the leadership in the contexts where they serve, whether in the home, the church, or society at large. So while this brings us quickly back to ideals and the very real challenges they bring, those who are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount will recognize this to be consistent with what God requires in all contexts of life. In every instance, progress is made only to the extent that we humbly acknowledge our fallenness and our total dependence on him.

Rediscovering Womanhood

So what is womanhood? While we will never be able to fully comprehend the depths and mysteries of our sexual natures, clearly women have been designed to exemplify rich aspects of godliness and beauty. We see glimpses of this in Scripture: in Esther’s submission, in Jael’s courage, in Ruth’s loyalty, in Hannah’s faithfulness, in Abigail’s wisdom, and most especially in Mary’s surrender, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”

It is my prayer that this brief discussion will open some new understandings of both the difficulties and the rewards that accompany a return to authentic womanhood. Women are precious treasures in God’s eyes, and to the extent, by his grace, that they can be freed (and healed) from the very broken aspects of their present lives, I believe they will discover the joy and peace and satisfaction our world is pursuing in all the wrong ways.

As this takes place, those around them who are seeking something they know is missing in their lives will hopefully be drawn to the Source of this contentment and security. Not only is he the One who will one day restore his creation back to the woman-and-man miracle he envisioned before history began, but also he will eventually bring all of us who are his church into an eternal marriage—which may well be the most significant reason womanhood exists at all.

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