John Piper is well known for exhorting Christians not to waste our lives. When he was fighting cancer, he wrote something even more eye-opening: “Don’t Waste Your Cancer” (http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/dont-waste-your-cancer).
I do not have cancer, for which I am thankful. I have a horrific pregnancy. This article is not meant as a diminishment of the gravity and agony of cancer, but rather as a greater-to-lesser argument: if this is true of something as serious as cancer, it is certainly true of something painful but redemptive like pregnancy. Even if my trial isn’t deadly, it is equally important to think about what God is doing through it.
Facing pregnancy sickness that makes me despair, here is my adaptation of Piper’s points:
1. You will waste your sickness if you do not believe God designed it for you.
This is my fifth pregnancy, and they get worse every time. I have half-jokingly prayed/begged for God to let me learn whatever lesson I’m supposed to learn already so I can move on. I know that’s not how God works: he’s not zapping me like a rat in a maze to condition me into learning something. But after I prayed this, I thought about it more seriously. What can I learn from this time? Have I learned anything in the other pregnancies? I joked with a friend that I hate this lesson, whatever it is, and if I’m lucky I can escape from this sickness without learning a darn thing. But what’s the point of running from God? God is sovereign, and he has indeed designed pregnancy to go like this for me. Which leads me to…
2. You will waste your sickness if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.
What a doozy. How can I believe this horror is a gift? What truth do I know from Scripture that shows me God is gifting me rather than cursing me? If when I was still his enemy, he gave up his only Son for me, how will he not together with him give me all good things? Those good things don’t always look good to my limited vision, but as my best friend always says, God’s view of things isn’t just another alternative to ours: it’s Reality. The blessing of the children within me is obvious. But even the sickness itself must be a gift. Through this sickness, God is forming something in me, in my husband, in my children, and in my friends, that could not be formed otherwise. I must trust that it is indeed beautiful and worthwhile. In fact, I must embrace it. It would be senseless to waste this unique chance to be made more like Christ, merely to avoid submitting to God’s wisdom that contradicts my comfort.
3. You will waste your sickness if you seek comfort from trimester milestones rather than God.
I’m 14 weeks pregnant. Theoretically, I should feel better soon. According to the pregnancy websites, it’s practically my inalienable right to feel better soon. But God doesn’t operate based on neat timelines. Most likely, I will feel better soon, at the very least by the time I give birth. But my comfort, my hope, isn’t in statistical predictions of relief. It’s in the God who gives me breath every day, and has given me LIFE in Jesus Christ.
4. You will waste your sickness if you spend too much time reading about the problem and not enough time reading about God.
There’s only so much that can be done about my situation; instead of distracting myself to numbness (which seems like a good tactic and indeed, sometimes it’s all I can manage), I want to strive to use this bedridden time to know God, my truest love, more deeply. What could be a more worthwhile investment of my sick time?
5. You will waste your sickness if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepening your relationships.
You will be blessed and strengthened when you receive love from others, and when you give it. You are helpless in a big way. Pride and self-sufficiency make no sense here. Depend on others and give them the chance to love you well; it will be good for their hearts too. But you are not the only suffering one. Pouring into others, even in the midst of your pain, brightens your view. Even as I’ve been bedridden and miserable, my happiest moments have probably been while tending to my very sick 4-year-old, curled up on my lap for hours that turned into days. We struggled through a bad virus together, and when I had to push aside my own needs to care for him, I literally felt fewer of my symptoms.
6. You will waste your sickness if you lose hope.
Whatever is the end of this trial, God is in control and working it to his glory. It is not wasted and it cannot destroy the most important things.
7. You will waste your sickness if you treat sin as casually as before.
How can this present sickness and helplessness, in which there is no pleasure in anything earthly, help me to see the futility and worthlessness of sin? Pain strips away pretense. You can’t effectively hide behind a façade when you can barely stand up on your own. The lies that lead us to grab after sin look faded and insipid when none of them bring even the hint of pleasure. The helplessness is a gift too: pride cannot survive easily in someone who needs help for everything. Unforgiveness must go when you realize how fragile you are and needy of others.
8. You will waste your sickness if you fail to use it as a means to witness to the truth and glory of Christ.
In a world where babies are disposable and children are only welcome if they don’t interfere with our well planned-out life, choosing to endure suffering for the sake of your little ones is a big message. I do not serve myself. I serve God. His plan is to create these little babies and bring them forth into the world for us to raise. I bow to God and his purposes, above mine, because he is the greatest treasure there is, far greater than a dress size or a good night’s sleep or hobby-filled evenings. What’s more, as my children and the world see me trusting in the Lord despite my wretchedness, it shows that Christ is true, worth suffering for.
In a bizarre and shocking turn of events, this evening local parents “Mommy” and “Daddy” reportedly put their two young sons into bed after a homemade dinner and dedicated time reading books, singing songs, and snuggling. The hapless boys, aged 1 and 3, protested this unprecedented incident with, quote, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaiiiiiieeeeeeeee!”
Neighbors are unsure what could have provoked such an unusual and surprising action on the part of these parents. “You just never know what people might do,” laments Jim Bob Smith, next door neighbor to the family in question. Another nearby friend, Suzie Que, wails, “I thought I knew them! But forcing a tired child to go to bed and sleep for a healthy length of time during the night! I just…can’t take it all in…”
It is unclear whether this outlandish practice has any history within the family or if this is the first time the boys have been subjected to “bedtime.” But their wretched, forlorn cries over this injustice demand action. Updates as events warrant.
I love organization. And intentionality. And, well, perfection. Sometimes my perfectionism spills over into my homeschooling. I want to do exactly what I had planned, in exactly the right order, with no wasted time; only efficiency and precision.
These are worthy values, but in the extreme they collide with my educational (and life) philosophy: that learning and relationships are much more than checking off boxes or completing tasks. I believe fully that learning happens through real life. The frontiers of my children’s knowledge, and hopefully wisdom, reach out like amoeba pseudopods, stretching here and then there, inching and then leaping forward, rather than in measured yardsticks of progress.
I can see the fruit of this philosophy when my children write out and illustrate Bible verses for their friends, or explain to their dad about the various strata in our local dirt. It’s just that it’s so… so… unsystematic. If I don’t make sure that every goal is pinpointed and achieved, then who will? If I don’t give my children the perfect start to life, who will??
But those are the wrong questions. Jesus Christ, through whom the entire universe in all its glory was made and is presently upheld, will take care of the overarching story of my family as I am faithful in what He gives me. So why do I struggle to believe this in everyday life?
I have just emerged from the beginning months of pregnancy with hyperemesis gravidarum, with nausea and fatigue of such magnitude that every minute was a fight to trust God. In the thick of the sickness, I couldn’t control anything. I couldn’t clean my house. I couldn’t cook. I continued to homeschool daily, but we were in a hunkered-down phase of only doing what really mattered. My plans and dreams took a backseat to the realities of my physical limitations.
Some homeschool days I had the energy to lie on the floor of the living room with three kids surrounding me and occasionally crawling on me, and read from our school books. At the end of each chapter, my daughter would beg me to read the next, and so I would, until we were all yawning and ready for naptime (Mom most of all). Some days we examined the ubiquitous millipedes around our home or virtually explored caves through the portal of the laptop screen, and every day we kept on learning from and adjusting to cross-cultural life in Taiwan.
For some blessed reason, I was content. I lived in the moment by necessity and God’s mercy, learning to appreciate the present grace, because I didn’t know how I would cope with the next moment’s requirements until it came. And through this time, my five-year-old’s reading and writing skills skyrocketed, her wonder-filled conception of the natural world blossomed, and her help around the house proved indispensable. I witnessed education happening in the midst of my own limitations and inadequacies.
Even my sickness, helplessness, and reduced ability to take care of our family were a lesson plan. A dear friend of mine, who suffered debilitating and dangerous pregnancy sickness, told me that her older son grew in compassion and kindness while watching his mother’s suffering. He wasn’t being cheated out of the opportunity to succeed, but rather given the opportunity to learn sacrificial love and tender empathy.
The fact that the Lord is ultimately in control of my family almost feels like I am admitting laziness or incompetence. But it should feel like blessed kindness and a gift. God is not wresting control of my life away from me. He is showing me, this silly stubborn woman, that I do not need to “eat the bread of anxious toil” in my delusion of limitless expertise. Instead, He will coordinate all of the universe, including my family and home and children’s education, far above my understanding. He merely calls me to joyful obedience in what He’s revealed to me.
My sickness brought my family and me a hidden blessing: it showed me my true weakness, and God’s incomparable strength.
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.