Over dinner recently a friend lamented that she hasn’t intentionally memorized Scripture recently, or ever, despite believing in its importance. I introduced her to the idea of memorizing Scripture through song. I hesitate to call it effortless, because I agree with the adage that nothing worth doing is easy. But the truth is, memorizing through song is enjoyable, natural, and long-lasting. I’ve forgotten quite a few Bible passages that I memorized by recitation and writing it out (although those methods are important), but the ones I’ve memorized through music have been ingrained in my mind for years. Music has a special connection with memory, as we’ve experienced when a certain remembered song elicits powerful emotions, or when a childhood cartoon jingle still floats around in our heads.
My absolute favorite Scripture memory music comes from the Slugs and Bugs “Sing the Bible” albums. They’re made up of word-for-word Scripture, gorgeous and striking music with fantastic production… and a healthy dose of silliness. My husband and I listen to these songs just as much as the kids do: they are equally delightful for 4-year-olds and 40-year-olds. Volumes 1 and 2 are already well beloved in our home, and Volume 3 plus a Christmas album are in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that is well worth investing in.
“You Forgave Me” from Volume 2, based on Psalm 32:1-5, is one of the most haunting and reviving songs I’ve heard (acoustic version). He begins with a groaning confession of his sin and a declaration of the joy of having that sin cleared away. Then a pause, pregnant with grief and longing. The next sound is that of a child, singing tenderly, “You forgave me; all my guilt is gone,” which swells into a confidently joyful chorus. Every time, it sends chills and soaring hope through me.
In the interest of showing that Scripture memory is multi-faceted (and perhaps risky!): A few months ago, while undergoing a minor procedure at the doctor’s office, I played the first Sing the Bible album on my phone to pass the time while I sat there alone. By far the silliest song on the album goes, “Do not eat anything you find already dead…but you may give it to the alien living in your town.” It’s egregiously and hilariously taken out of context from Deuteronomy (which they explain at the end of the song), and pretty funny to come across without any warning. Well, just as this song started blaring from my phone, the doctor walked back into the exam room to check on me. In the middle of the procedure, my hands weren’t free to turn off the music, so we tried to talk over the refrain about giving dead stuff to the aliens. I could see his professional face slipping as he half listened to me, half tried to decide if he was really hearing what he thought he was hearing. I was torn between laughter at how hard I was unintentionally punking this doctor, and scarlet-faced embarrassment at how much of a lunatic I must seem. Thanks for the good times, Slugs and Bugs!
Another good option for Scripture memory music is Seeds Family Worship. They have about ten albums with word-for-word Scriptures: a wonderfully huge number of options! The musicality is more hit-or-miss with these. Some songs are fantastic and I find myself singing them for days on end; some are more kid music. I appreciate the usefulness of all the songs; I enjoy a lot of them; my kids love all of them. My kids consider them dancing music (what isn’t, really?) and beg to play them over and over during our Scripture memory time.
Outside of pre-recorded music, a great way to memorize your own selected verses is setting them to a tune you already know. I’ve memorized Philippians 1-3, and about half of chapter 4, set to the tune of the Christmas carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” I have no idea how that song popped into my head for this purpose, but it has a good distribution of syllables that makes it fairly easy to fit in your own lyrics. I set a few verses at a time to the tune, whatever one round of the song will “hold,” and make my way through chapter by chapter. I used “Over in the Meadow” and a made-up tune for a few verses too. Just pick a flexible tune and try it out!
What I really love about this approach is how it makes it easier to memorize long passages of Scripture. My goal is to finish Philippians soon, and while it’s certainly possible to achieve that through rote memorization, this is more fun and sticks better.
There are countless articles about the benefits of memorizing Scripture, but in short, it transforms you to get God’s Word embedded deep in your being. The process of memorizing makes you reflect and meditate on the text. It gives you ample chances to check out a commentary for a phrase or passage that’s unclear to you. It forces you to take it in word by word rather than glossing over parts. And having Truth available anytime, anywhere, to rejoice, mourn, pray, and bring light into darkness, is priceless.
You CAN do it.
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.
Is it okay to be just a mom?
We are conditioned to believe that being a powerful and impressive superwoman in every area of life is the ultimate goal. But what if you feel called to be primarily a mother? What if you feel like that is what you were made for?
The overlooked reality is that no one is “just a mom.” A mother may be a wife, daughter, sister, friend, church member, church leader, homemaker, missionary, educator, volunteer, listening ear, helping hand, reader, learner, thinker, artist, author, musician, mentor, language-learner, server of those in need, etc.
She may excel in determination, integrity, sacrificial love, intelligence, selflessness, humility, quick-wittedness, and a nurturing heart. Whether in paid roles or not, within the home or outside it, the possibilities for her love and wisdom to change lives are vast.
But I know what the question is really about: Is it okay if I primarily invest my time and talents in the raising of my children? Is that a good enough use of my education and skills? Is it enough for God?
An important note before I go any further: This essay cannot cover every person, every situation, every possibility. I previously wrote about how our work and ambition glorify God in “Holy Ambition” and how “having it all” is not any Christian’s highest goal in “Can Women Have It All?”
This discussion is not about how much a mother should work outside the home, nor is it meant to demean anyone in any life situation. I am championing the calling of deeply investing in our children for the sake of God’s kingdom. I am honing in here on the mothers who choose to make mothering their primary job, although it is disdained in our culture. This is for the mother who longs to center her work on her family and wonders somewhere in her heart if that is enough.
If the outcome of raising children is not majorly significant; if the investment of parents is not overly important and can easily be simulated; if parenthood is a bottom-rung job requiring little skill; then perhaps it is a waste of an empowered woman’s education and gifts to stay home with her family.
But what if raising children is a fundamental and vital commission in the advancement of God’s kingdom?
Historical norms and new ideals
In pre-industrial societies in the West, the distinction between work and home was much less defined. These days we may “bring work home,” but for many people in the past “work” was already in the home; the happenings of the home were the very definition of work. Labor revolved around making a home and providing for the family; the farm animals slept in the house; the family shop was the first floor or front section of the family home. Everyone, including children, participated in the life and growth and sustenance of the family. Generally speaking, neither men nor women “worked outside the home” in the modern sense.
This was not all a flowery ideal; many people worked under others in near-slavery conditions, and even for those fortunate enough to have a degree of autonomy, life was harsh and often stayed at the level of subsistence. Whether pre- or post-industrial, some people were actually slaves, so their work did not benefit themselves and their families could be brutally ripped apart against their will.
Industrialization initiated the increase of production outside the home realm, with cities exploding as people flocked there for greater earning potential and stability. This was as drastic a shift for human society as the shift from nomadic life to agriculture, and we are still undergoing and understanding these monumental changes; the whole system is still in flux for men, women, and children alike. Now there are often two dichotomous worlds, that of the home and that of the job, and enormous pressure for us to prioritize the work world over the home world.
Because of the newness of this way of life, we are still in the infancy of asking and answering important questions about what this means for us as humans. What ideas have we accepted about work and the family that need to be reexamined? Is the pressure that industrialization has put on the family a neutral thing? What does human flourishing look like? What is the Good that we should pursue? Can we do work and family in a way that honors God and doesn’t deprive women or men of who we can and should be? These are weighty, ultimate questions that bleed into the everyday questions: How do I spend my time on a day-to-day basis? What do I do with my children? Where do I invest my energy?
I bring up this brief historical perspective not to glorify the past or try to reproduce it, but because I want us to think more critically about the views we have absorbed from the current cultural air. Why do we define work almost exclusively as a paid job separate from home life, and worship it absolutely? This is a very new cultural construct.
Of course I am thankful for the many people who work hard in their careers to contribute to society. Most jobs will be outside the home by necessity, and I appreciate the benefits of modernization. I ask these questions to unmask the unspoken but unyielding ideals that drive our choices.
Why is the sacrificial, creative, ceaseless work of a stay-at-home mother called “not working”? We are very confused.
The call of motherhood
I do not want to be like the servant in Jesus’ parable who was given one talent (an enormous sum of money) and buried it to keep it safe instead of investing it for his master’s gain. The master was pleased with the servants who invested their trust responsibly and doubled his wealth, but he reproached the first servant and took away even what he had (Matt 25:14-30).
Is being primarily a stay-at-home mother a good enough steward of God’s gifts?
You cannot read the Bible seriously and escape the vital importance of raising up the next generation to know and walk with God:
"We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments..." (Psalm 78:4-7a)
In addition to the obvious fact that we need people investing in children in order to have a next generation, we must intentionally teach and train our children to know and delight in God and his ways. The Bible does not relegate this work to people who are not skilled enough to secure impressive jobs. It is seen as a central work of the people of God; when left unfulfilled, his people as a whole flounder and turn away from him.
We parents are the first line of disciplers for our children, by our modeling and explicit instruction. Our children will also be loved and mentored by many other people throughout their childhood (and adulthood), and that is wonderful and essential. But the responsibility for their spiritual and holistic guidance into adulthood ultimately rests on us parents.
In a stirring and daunting charge, God’s people are instructed to make growing ourselves as disciples and discipling our children a part of everyday life, all the time. It is a comprehensive lifestyle.
"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise." (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
Negatively, we see a mammoth example in the life of King David of what happens when you do not train up your children. There is a gulf of difference between parenting practices of ancient near eastern kings and ours today (unless you happen to be very old-fashioned royalty), but the Biblical author repeatedly points out how his sons were never disciplined for egregious sin, never questioned when doing whatever they wanted: “His father had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” (1 Kings 1:6a). Three of his sons committed serious offenses against their siblings or father and were killed as a result.
The all-encompassing nature of the nurture, discipleship, and education (thanks to Clay Clarkson for these categories) of our children requires the skills and character we have gained in our education and life experience. And even more so, through parenting we will gain skills and character like never before. God sanctifies us in astounding ways through parenthood.
The diligent, creative, loving management of a home is more comprehensive than any other management job; we absolutely need to be talented in our character and perseverance. And whatever specialized skills we bring to the job will bless our families and our homes: our artistry, our medical training, our communication skills, our theological knowledge, our math and science expertise, our musical ability, our organizational skills, and so on.
We will make our homes better places for flourishing. We will ignite our children’s passions and curiosity. We will have conversations with people in our spheres of influence that enrich and challenge their thinking and living.
It cannot utterly fail
Of course, we cannot ensure that our children will follow Christ, even if we were perfect in every way (and we are not even close). But our Spirit-empowered work of raising our children to know and love the Lord cannot be worthless, cannot utterly fail, even if our child chooses to turn away from God. Faithfulness to Christ is itself success, and it is eternally valuable.
But even a wayward child is blessedly limited by their upbringing, as David Mills (“Enchanting Children”, Touchstone) explains:
"Even if he insists on losing his faith, it limits the sort of faith he will adopt instead.… It directs what charity he exercises.
"'[A]s we were driving through Sag Harbor just now,' wrote the lapsed Catholic writer Wilfrid Sheed, 'I saw three hopelessly fat, plain girls, who by the sound of it were also stupid, and I thought a certain pagan friend of mine might say, "Why do these fat, ugly people marry and procreate and produce such hideous children?" And I thought, No Catholic could ever say that. Nobody is altogether worthless to us.'
"There you have a man who, though he had lost his faith, was still governed in this matter by the Christian imagination he had gained in childhood…. Hence the need to form our children’s imaginations, to counter what the culture and our failings both teach them."
Our work as parents continues in some capacity, certainly in prayer, for the rest of our lives. Parents of those shunning the narrow path know this well, as they pray and plead and hope for the truest freedom for their children.
Just a season
“This is just a season.” The kids won’t be young forever, and when they leave the house, or really as they gradually assume more responsibility and self-discipline, daily life will be radically different. Motherhood with children at home, especially little ones, is a season. I have heard this from very encouraging older mothers trying to help us younger mothers see that some present hardship will pass.
But sometimes people mean something more like, “This is only a season, and then I can get back to my real life.” But what is real life? C.S. Lewis’ brilliance does not fail us: “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one's 'own,' or 'real' life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one's real life -- the life God is sending one day by day.” (Not that parenthood itself is an “unpleasant thing,” but it does involve a few of them, as does any job.)
No one misses diapers and tantrums, and I know very well the delirious anticipation of bedtime after a tiring day. I’m not criticizing the battle-weary mother who longs for a bit of rest. I just want to avoid the attitude of anxiously staring out the window waiting for a different time, forgoing the wealth of possibilities right in front of us. Why are we so quick to mean, “It’s just a season, you’ll get past it,” and rarely, “It’s just a season, so let’s thank God for the joy and sanctification he is working in us that I never imagined beforehand”?
In a way, “just a season” means this precious time is a gift from God and should be used and enjoyed to the fullest. In another way, it means that one day the things we have set aside or pulled back from in the midst of hands-on motherhood will once more be ready for us to explore and pursue.
What will I lose? What will we gain?
But what about my career? What will I lose if I pause or slow down my career during my children’s time at home? What will I lose if I wait to start ramping up my career or my education? Is it worth it?
Let’s not forget the other side of those questions and the other people involved. Our culture forgets these, which is very telling; questions point us in a direction. The questions the world asks lead us on toward specific conclusions.
What will we gain if I have a close and vibrant relationship with my children that endures through their childhood into adulthood? What will we gain if my investment overflows in a return of children who love the Lord with all their hearts and spend their lives serving him? What will we gain by training our children for the task of raising up their own children, so that the mission of making disciples who make disciples is embedded in our family life? What will I gain for eternity, and even now in sanctification and joy, by loving and serving these eternal souls that God has entrusted to me?
It is worth it.
Joy and love
Amy Carmichael, lifelong missionary to India and spiritual mother to over a thousand orphans and rescued children, unfolds the truth of humble love in her description of turning from the work of evangelism tours and conventions to care for children:
"Could it be right to turn from so much that might be of profit and become just nursemaids? 'Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He was come from God and went to God; He riseth from supper and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girded Himself.' He took a towel—The Lord of Glory did that. Is it the bondservant’s business to say which work is large and which is small, which unimportant and which worth doing? The question answered itself, and was not asked again. It was a foolish question, for the Master never wastes the servant’s time.
"Children tie the mother’s feet, the Tamils say, and Bishop Paget said, “With the venture of faith there is need of self-discipline and of effort.” Babies are truly a venture of faith and, in India at least, they tie the mother’s feet. … We could not be too careful of our children’s earliest years. So we let our feet be tied for love of Him whose feet were pierced." (Gold Cord)
John Piper says that “love is the overflow and expansion of joy in God, which gladly meets the needs of others” (The Dangerous Duty of Delight). Being a mother advances God’s kingdom by bringing forth a new generation of people who know and treasure the Lord God and overflow this joy into the world in the form of loving service.
I grew up with a grueling ambition to be the absolute best—to be perfect—the only way I knew to receive affirmation. Even now as a believer with my hope set in Christ, I sometimes wonder if I am enough to be worthwhile, usually based on comparison. Will I be enough if I can speak Chinese fluently, or write a book, or be an exceptional homeschooler, or be admired for my listening and counseling abilities?
And my kids? Do they need to be well-rounded down to the last neurotic detail? If I opt out of the childhood rat race, am I depriving them of opportunities for maximum success?
Please, my soul begs, when am I enough so that I can be at peace?
Never, as long as my ambition is centered on me rather than God.
Too often we absorb cultural assumptions as fact—as something barely examined, like breathing or gravity—and we rarely think to question them. We happily believe that our education and career are for our own exaltation; if our life path does not serve the end goal of “being all we can be,” then it is a waste of talent and training, and whoever or whatever got in the way should be discarded. A sacrificial mindset focused on God’s desires is either absent from our thinking, or witheringly denounced as subjugation.
I desperately do not want my children to walk the same harsh and deadly road of selfish ambition that I once walked. I felt the effects of plain and simple burnout for years, and I see clearly now that much of what I strove for—worshipped, really—betrayed me, as false gods are certain to do.
My utmost desire for my children is that they love the Lord and walk in his ways all the days of their lives. That is the sum of success. The only true life is one lived all for the glory of God. Anything else, no matter how glowing, is a mirage.
What are the best questions?
Many of us Christians blessed with resources have the opportunity to ask the very good question of whether our children can become strong and competent in their spheres of influence, without their ambition turning toward serving their own ends.
But what if my child has a disability? Or, God forbid, has a short lifespan? What if my child’s skill set or intelligence does not incline them toward college or a white-collar job? What if my child is not a leader in the traditional sense, or is content with what the world deems menial labor? Will he or she be a success still?
And for those billions of people living in a very different culture from mine: What if success means having enough food to eat? Having a sturdy home? Having a skill that allows for an honorable job? What if becoming great in the world’s eyes is not on the radar?
What is success in God’s eyes? Can we Christians envision and live out a holy ambition? Can our discipleship and education of our children empower them to do the same?
The founder and perfecter of our faith
How did God in the flesh live on this earth? He worked a trade with his father and learned from his Heavenly Father. His short period of public ministry drew a following, but it seemed to dissolve at his death. He alienated most of the religious and political leaders, even within Judaism. At his crucifixion he was readily forsaken by almost everyone.
But that is neither the full story nor the end of the story. Jesus died as the exact fulfillment of God’s plan from before the beginning of time, to save his people from their sins, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). His ransomed followers will come from every tribe and tongue and nation.
His death was not even the end of his work. He rose again, defeating death, and foreshadowing our own resurrection to eternal life with God. Christ, “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross,” and is now “seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).
His death and resurrection were the greatest success the world has ever known. There is no greater glory than that which Christ earned.
We children of God who died with Christ will be raised and glorified with him. We will share his precious inheritance as his brothers and sisters. We receive not only ultimate glory but the heady, nourishing love of our Heavenly Father that we all crave and for which we find various substitutes until we are found by him.
If Christ’s death accomplished this for him and for us, should we not sprint forward to die to self along with him? He died that “those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Corinthians 5:15). It sounds like madness to the flesh, but with an eternal perspective, it is the most rational route to ultimate success.
Servanthood and glory
Philippians 2:3-11 is the best explanation we could ask for:
 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Selfish ambition goes hand in hand with conceit and only caring about our own interests. We are instead called to observe and emulate Jesus, to look to others and their needs as more important than ourselves, and to become servants in humble obedience to God.
Jesus was obedient to the point of death, and though we too may die for the Lord, we will certainly not die the atoning death he died, experiencing the horrors of God’s wrath and separation from God. But because of his obedience in degradation, Jesus is now exalted above all, worshipped rightfully as God. It was worth it.
We are wise to follow Jesus and seek after heavenly treasure that cannot be stolen or destroyed by decay. The things we chase in selfish ambition—exalted positions, wealth, envied experiences, physical beauty—will burn in God’s judgment.
In God’s estimation of success, the day laborer who reads haltingly and has no degrees, and gives freely to those in need out of love for Christ, is a success. The paraplegic who cannot work or walk, and lives daily with faith in Christ that secures joy and hope, is a success. And the millions of people who struggle every day to procure life’s necessities without any fanfare, and who bow down before Christ, are successes.
Servanthood is the route to true glory.
If holy ambition is about servanthood, about treasuring Christ above all else in our work, then how do we do it and model it?
We work hard, by God’s grace, to fulfill a holy calling with humility, for God’s glory.
Certainly we work hard. We are not given the option of laziness just because God is sovereign. And we know that all our work depends on God’s grace to have any meaning or fruitfulness. Our work must be marked by humility and self-forgetfulness, because our eyes are so fixed on Christ. We must pursue things pleasing and desirable to God with the steadfast goal of God’s glory.
By “work,” I mean the full range of constructive things we do here on earth. There is no division between the “sacred” and “secular”. In other words, being a missionary or pastor is no more holy or pleasing to God in and of itself than being a physicist or barber. All of these callings (assuming they are ethical) can and should serve God’s ends in the world.
We must remember that work is rooted in creation. God gave Adam and Eve the grand job to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion” over it (Genesis 1:28). In God’s perfect plan, work was to be delightful and fulfilling, and magnify his love and loveliness throughout creation. The back-breaking toil it has become is due to the fall of humankind: “cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17). We long for God’s restoration of all things when work will once again be pure pleasure; until then we endure the hardships but aim for our work to reflect its original purpose.
Rest, too, is rooted in creation. God rested on the seventh day and he commands us to do the same. Jesus reinforces this command, with his burden-breaking, joy-restoring corrective to legalism: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Rest is not laziness or copping out, and it is not optional. It is a gift, meant for our restoration and our continued dependence on God. Ambition that shuns rest will not succeed in the long run. Take care not to believe the strange lie that becoming a workaholic in the name of doing more for God is impressive to him.
That the next generation might know
If God has called you to marriage and given you children, your foremost ministry is to your family. The Bible teaches illustratively about the unique importance of marriage and its reflection of Christ's relationship with the church. The inherent dependence of our children, coupled with the Bible's repeated exhortations to "teach them diligently" (Deuteronomy 6:7) about the ways of the Lord and to "tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders he has done…that the next generation might know…so that they should set their hope in God." (Psalm 78:4-7)—these make it very clear that God will hold us accountable for the discipleship of our children. It is the most significant work we will ever do.
Our ambition must prioritize this. I am not talking about letting the world revolve around your kids, which teaches them a worldview of entitlement and self-absorption. The point is to invest in them so that their world revolves around the Lord.
How do we raise our children to believe and follow this?
We disciple them in the truth. We teach them the whole counsel of Scripture. We teach them that true success is modeled and enacted by the once-dead and now-risen Jesus. We impress in their minds the counter-cultural idea that servanthood is the path to glory, and that pleasing God is more desirable than pleasing themselves or the world.
Modeling servanthood is key. If our children see and participate with us in loving, serving, and learning from the “least of these,” their hearts catch the idea that this is what we do; this is special and a great privilege. This is what God loves and this is what I love. This is true life. And you will not have many greater joys than witnessing your kids selflessly care for someone else, glowing from the joy of it.
How do we live as individuals and families? Do we tell our children that most of all we want to please God, and then throw a fit when we do not get the job promotion, or mourn despondently that our body does not look like it did in our youth? Do we tell them that our treasure is in heaven, but hoard our money and drool after the endless torrent of bigger and better stuff? Do we yearn (and pray) most of all for holiness and joy and justice, or to win what we want and finally be on top? Do we gather with the body of Christ faithfully even when it costs us something, or do we make church and fellowship a lukewarm priority?
We must also have educational and career expectations for them that line up with these truths. Do we drill it into their heads that education is about getting the best grades and the most recognition, to get into the best college with the most recognition, to get the best job with the most recognition? Do we do the same thing subtly, by being over the moon about academic achievement and hardly involved in their spiritual development? What messages do we send, explicitly and implicitly, to communicate that our most cherished hope for them is an upward-climbing career?
Instead, can we encourage and support them in diligently flourishing in their studies and later in their families and careers, so that they can minister God’s love and truth in their life’s work? Can we grow our philosophy on the trellis of knowing that “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain,” and that “it is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2). Can we place success within the helpful boundary of knowing that all of it is worth nothing if we magnify ourselves instead of Christ?
How will people respond?
This vignette about John G. Paton never fails to snap me back to the real point of life. He and his wife, upon their departure to be missionaries to an unreached island, were warned by an elder that they would be eaten by cannibals. Paton responded:
"Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms."
I’m thankful it is very unlikely for most of us to be eaten by cannibals. Still, following Christ means giving up things that even fellow Christians do not understand.
Some people are frightened by giving up the security of worldly gain, and want to silence others who say this is what Christ calls us to. Some have come up with the idea that worldly influence, at any cost, is the means to do the most good in the world. But imagined “good” does not justify unholy living, and wealth is more seductive than any of us imagine (recall the parable of the sower and the seeds sown among thorns). Many people simply think that worldly treasure is the only treasure, and you are a fool to give it up for something unseen.
Giving up your opportunities to “live to the fullest” is seen as a betrayal of yourself; a betrayal of the god within and all he or she could accomplish. If you give up any worldly advantage to raise your children and serve your family, as a man or woman, you are a dupe. As a woman, you are even worse: a traitor, because you have willingly submitted to serving someone other than yourself.
It is good to be prepared for these reactions, and fortify ourselves with truth so as not to turn back when the path is lonely.
God with us
If God gives us opportunities, such as intelligence, skills, and education, we use them for his kingdom, without shame. His gifts are not signs of superiority or occasions for guilt. Do it all for God’s glory. But be on your guard. Earthly success is not an enemy, but we know that the true enemy will happily use success to destroy us by diverting our attention and affection to something other than the Lord.
There is no easy and clear-sailing flow chart for living out holy ambition. But God will not leave us bewildered; he will answer us when we ask him to make us holy and to live for his glory. He may not (probably won’t) give us a neon sign telling us how to make every choice, but he himself will be with us.
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.