Grasping For “It All”
I was the star of my own world. I competed and placed highly in the International Science and Engineering Fair, thereby having a minor planet named after me; MIT and CalTech wanted me; I interned at NASA and major universities; I was going to be a renowned scientist.
I genuinely enjoyed science, but what I wanted most was validation. I intended to have my “all,” especially the things I most craved: respect, admiration, worth. I gloried in achievement because it made me feel worthwhile; it was oxygen and water to my starved, suffocated sense of self. But the oxygen was mixed with noxious fumes and the water had stuff swimming in it.
Even after all the awards ceremonies and interviews, I still felt empty inside — hollow. I did not have a solid core, unlike the earth with its innermost ball of iron-nickel alloy, blazing hot and definitively solid. I was an egg with the insides blown out, an electroplating of gold, and if anyone managed to get beneath my surface, they would find… nothing.
My abiding fear was that someone would find out I was hollow and void: worthless and hopeless. So I pressed on, achieving everything with perfection. Or at least I tried.
I went away to college, the dream child of all my friends’ vicariously ambitious parents, and something unexpected happened. Some people started to love me — Christians. I joined a Bible study. Believers demonstrated genuine faith. I heard the Gospel, and was floored by this staggering truth: God wants me.
After less than two months of college, the Spirit of God brought me to the point where I could understand His question: Do you want to continue in your death, or have life in Me?
I chose life.
From that moment, “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss… because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:6-7). And the emptiness inside me was filled up. It was not instantaneous, but with time I began to understand and feel a God-centered sense of self-worth. I was no longer arrogantly grasping and haughtily begging for validation of my significance. I had a solid gold core of worth, having been made in the image of God and being loved by that majestic and oh-so-tender Creator. I had life like I never dreamed.
That is why I cringe at the question that is so often flung at women, the question that purports to lead us toward greater liberation, but really encourages us to be slaves to the affirmation of worldly systems, just as I once was.
Can women have it all?
Fast forward ten years from my conversion: I am now a stay-at-home mother of three children aged four and under, and a seminary-trained counselor and missionary in Taiwan. I spend a lot of time pouring myself out for little people who are very cute and very demanding. And I love it with all my heart. I also work with and support my husband in ministry, learn Chinese, read, write, and mentor. Do I have it all?
Despite recent popular belief, questions are not necessarily objective, innocent things. Even questions convey ideas with their presuppositions and inherent worldview. The question “Can women have it all?” assumes that there is some ideal and precious “all” to be had, and that by rights women should have it. Can women have the home life that they inexplicably and persistently desire, despite the victories of certain strains of feminism in convincing us that motherhood is a trap? Can they rise ever skyward in the ranks of corporate and academic influence? Can they have both?
The mainstream discussion surrounding this question allows little ambiguity: attaining this “all” — getting what life owes you—requires achieving or at least having the concrete opportunity for an impressive, successful career. Giving this up is seen as tantamount to wasting your life. But this eager bending to the unrelenting expectations of the world is willful slavery.
Is this the message of the Gospel?
In Philippians 3, is Paul assessing whether he has managed to achieve everything that makes him feel powerful and important? Just the opposite. When Paul says that, “for his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection,” he calls us to compare the fruit of putting confidence in the flesh versus putting confidence in Christ (Philippians 3:8-10). Trusting in worldly treasures and triumphs is a complete loss—it leads to nothing—whereas trusting in Christ finally leads to the resurrection to life.
I am not meant to spend my life questioning if I have everything I want or not. Questions about career are very important but subservient to our first goal of serving God. So what is a profitable question regarding what women can have?
How about: Can women — can I — have a life spent glorifying and enjoying God, and carrying out his good purposes on earth?
And we can confidently answer yes.
Which Life Pursuits?
Godly women using wisdom and discernment will fulfill this pursuit in different ways with different practical applications. And it is wonderful that some women will have far-reaching influence in their fields of work, maybe even enough influence to transform society’s view of the value of femininity and the distinctive contributions of women.
But let those of us who have been entrusted with children take care not to throw away the unique gift and calling of motherhood. For an intensive season, we are raising up the next generation. We are discipling people in the most effective and life-changing way possible. As disciples of Christ obeying the Great Commission, what wouldn’t we give to intimately influence growing Christians who cherish and soak up the truth with their whole hearts, and with whom we naturally have the loving relationship and time to do life-on-life discipleship?
Mothers, we have just that. Let’s delight in it and use it to the full glory of God.
I did not give up self-aggrandizing ambition when I became a mother and chose to devote this season to bringing up my children in the knowledge and love of the Lord. I gave it up when I first bowed to Christ. I gave it up when I first acknowledged that the point of my life, and the world, is not my will but His.
In Paul’s explanation of his radical change of ambition, he did not “lose” his former “gains” by utterly discarding them. We do not have to eschew our talents, training, and influence, but we must keep them from usurping the place of ultimate trust and hope that only Christ should occupy. I am not arguing that we should give up the desire of having a meaningful influence in our world, but just the opposite; we will only have a significant influence if we do what we do for the sake of Christ.
A holy ambition stems from a humble heart bent toward God’s lovely purposes.
Do I still love and engage in meaningful pursuits in the sciences and arts? Absolutely! Now, and as my children grow older, I will be learning and being sanctified in the truth and, God-willing, enriching the world around me. I hope to get a PhD. I hope to become fluent in Chinese. I hope to help foster counseling initiatives in this country grounded in Biblical principles within the framework of Taiwanese culture. I hope to be a voice for good interpretation and application of science in the medical and health fields, challenging fear arising from misinformation. I hope to write a book. These are exciting but must serve my first love and pursuit of God’s glory.
Dying to self, rising with Christ
As Christians, both female and male, the pursuit and achievement of our dreams is not the highest goal. We are fortunate that in our age in the developed world we have a great deal of freedom to pursue what we want, which has not been true for most of humanity, now or ever. But our calling is to die to ourselves, living for Christ. Sacrifice is inherent in the Christian life.
Some people will glorify God by going far in their field and they may receive great recognition and prestige. Some will glorify God in a different way, through the humble daily plodding of life, or even through great loss and pain. The Lord’s ways may at times seem mysterious to us, so we bow before him and accept his loving and gracious will.
If there is real “having it all,” it is gaining Christ, being found in him, and knowing him and the power of his resurrection. This is true for all human beings who seek to live to the glory of God. So it is true for us women. Let us seek this gain, and by doing so, offer these riches to the rest of the world.