Mothering, Excellence, and the Problem of Comparison

Evangelical blogger Tim Challies recently tackled what he dubbed "competitive mothering."  Undoubtedly, there is such an animal.  We've all heard about and likely seen new moms trading barbs about how soon their baby rolled over, or at what point they weaned, how early their little one potty trained, etc.  And certainly that same level of competition can translate into each stage of parenting thereafter.

Unfortunately, in this particular article, Challies in my opinion used Scripture in an unbalanced way to try to snipe attack women on the internet who share from a place of strength or wisdom.  While his article "sounded" right, the underlying message was wrong.

One thrust of his article was right-- certainly we want to be realistic and transparent about our humanity, that we are made of dust.  We want to always be aware of our own weakness, and boast in Christ.

But as a Christian woman, or as a Christ-follower in general, does being realistic and humble as a sinner in need of Christ negate or exclude the sharing of excellence and wisdom?  It seems clear to me that Paul would say "no":
But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine... Older women are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine.  They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husband and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.
This is a serious exhortation to women, with serious implications-- "that the word of God may not be reviled."

We have to be careful, particularly in this age of perfect-pictures-on-the-blog and Pinterest, to separate the pursuit of external perfectionism from the pursuit of excellence in our service to Christ and others (including our own families).  I personally have been far more encouraged and infused with vision and passion by godly women who are farther down the road, who humbly but honestly share the wisdom they've gleaned, than I have from hearing about failure.  Honestly, I would not visit and do not want to sit around and read articles by women highlighting all of their failures and areas of weakness.

What Challies is communicating is flawed: that, in order to make sure everyone knows that we are sinful and in need of Christ, Christian moms on the internet who share from their strength are wrong to do so.

I am certainly not advocating perfection in our decor, or that we seek or force robotic, externally "perfect" children, but that we strain and discipline ourselves toward greater and greater godliness.  As children of God, in our housekeeping, in our marriages, and in our mothering, like Proverbs says, we can shine brighter and brighter, like the sun as it reaches full day.  Paul told older women to teach us about purity, love, self-control, etc., because we need to be reminded of the upward call.  I love to see and hear godly women share from their wisdom, and I really don't appreciate how Challies paired the idea of a perfectly posed pinterest picture with the pursuit of being a godly mom and wife.  One is unattainable and ultimately fleeting, but the other is worthwhile, eternal, and spoken highly of in Scripture.

The problem with Challies' article is that he leapt from perfect home decorating to the pursuit of excellence by his "fictional" homeschool mom.  Why the assumption that this woman, sharing from an area of strength, is "boasting"?


The implication that we should all sit around and focus on our failures truly irks me.  And it is wrong to label regular, thoughtful sharing of wisdom and insight as "boasting". Challies puts it this way:
Instead of boasting in your strengths as a mother, or wanting to be able to boast in your strengths as a mother, why not boast in your weakness? Only when you accept your weakness, your insufficiency, will that competition and guilt begin to melt away. 
Why is a mother sharing what is positive or excellent in her life automatically labeled as "boasting"?  It is an unnecessary and unhelpful leap.  In fact, I see a scriptural injunction for older women to "teach what is good", which implies not only that they have authority, but that they have something excellent to share from the overflow of what God has taught them.  And I don't believe Challies would listen for one second if another blogger accused him of being 'haughty' or "boasting" by hosting regular read-throughs of puritan classics, as he does on his blog.  His pursuit of excellence as a believer in Christ does not mean that he is boasting, however, his article seems to laud mediocrity and borderline ridicule the woman pursuing and sharing wisdom and excellence.  

At a time when I have repetitively heard many younger women (myself included) crying out for Titus 2 women in their real lives, Challies' criticism is aimed directly at the (admittedly imperfect- I mean, they are human after all) women who try to share their lives online, so that others can be encouraged.

We would never expect Christian electrical engineers to sit around all day telling everyone how much they stink at being electrical engineers.  We expect them to work with all their might, to God's glory, at being a great electrical engineer.

This is the way I see motherhood- as an important role that younger women are to learn about from older women, and that we should be growing in excellence and skill.  In an age where less and less women are taking on this role of motherhood to begin with, and less and less women are truly pursuing and living out excellence in this role, I am delighted to hear wisdom from godly women, wherever I can find it!

Yes, my sin is ever before me, and I am so aware of my failure (as I trust that Christ-following blogging woman also does), but I press on and am greatly encouraged by women who share their godly, righteous wisdom, and by others who share their practical, daily, how-to wisdom.  It is wrong for me or Challies to believe that every woman who shares good things also has to list out all of her flaws in order to be "real" and not boasting.

Let's take it a step further and say that there was a biblical instruction that older electrical engineers should teach younger electrical engineers how to be excellent and honor God in that position.  Wouldn't it be all the more incumbent upon Christian electrical engineers to examine their lives and find the "excellent" so that they could share the wisdom that God had put in their life, and the way He had multiplied their skills over the years?

If there was a website where Phil the electrical engineer shared his success, or a website where engineers got together to share their best ideas (like Pinterest), it would be foolish and absurd for anyone to think that just because Phil had some great ideas and possessed an unusual combination of talent, that he never failed or never also had crappy ideas.  Of course everyone knows that success comes through trial and error, hard work, and a continual seeking and gaining of wisdom.

My point is that if that fictional homeschooling mom actually happens to make it work, teaching her children to read and understand John Owen, and also decorate a great home and take pictures of it, well, here's one additional thing I can know about her: I can absolutely, 100%, definitively rely on the fact that she is not perfect.  No one is.  I don't have to feel guilty or ashamed because I don't, or don't yet, possess her same skill set.

So what do we do with the woman who is naturally crafty?  Good for her if she can turn a barn into a ballroom with balloons, burlap, and twine!  It doesn't reflect poorly on me if I can't, don't, or don't want to do that.  But it does reflect poorly on me if I choose to see that woman's natural, God-given talents & express dissatisfaction in God's sovereign dispensing of abilities by choosing to see myself poorly because she can do things that I can't.

For my part, when reading a blog, or looking at pinterest or Facebook, I feel free to partake or not partake, to read and glean, or to click the little red "x" and never return to that blog again.  But I would not ever come to the conclusion that the woman with strengths shouldn't be blogging or sharing just because some woman sits behind her computer screen feeling inferior.

I can choose not to look at that woman's blog, and not "repin" her ideas on Pinterest, but I really dislike and disagree with the idea that she has to always and only highlight her failures in order to be godly, or that by sharing her strengths, she is "boasting".  On this issue, I'm convinced that Challies has it wrong.  Do we really expect her to not share what she's good at?  Does Challies hold himself to this same standard?  Or, as I think is accurate, does he believe his gifts are a natural place for the outflow of his sharing?

I can't imagine a bunch of men sitting around and complaining because Tim Challies sets such a high example of studying the works of Puritans, reading books like a mad man, being an excellent writer, and having connections with the evangelical high-and-mighty, that they feel intellectually puny and worthless in comparison.  And if Christian men did say that, they would be in the wrong.  Challies is who he is because it flows out of the natural gifts and inclinations God has given him, as well as the hard work and dedication he puts in day in, day out.

And, in my mind, it's the same thing for that John Owen reading, photograph-taking homeschool mom. She's sharing and exhorting others to grow from the area of her strength.  She might BE boasting, just as Challies could have a boastful heart as he writes about Puritan authors, but we cannot conclude that because she shares her strengths, she is boasting.

As women, we can (A) see success and glean from it what to do and what not to do, (B) choose to click away from a blog or website that does not personally encourage us, or (C) we can give in to comparing and nurturing a sense of discontentedness and guilt from a woman who does certain things well.  I think A and B are biblical options for us as believers.  But as Christian women on the internet, we need to buck up.  C is not an option- comparison is actually and ultimately a dissatisfaction with God's sovereignty in making each individual as He has.

Christian woman,
If you look at Pinterest and find yourself discouraged, QUIT LOOKING AT PINTEREST!  Or better yet, go to the Word and see what your priorities should be, and then feel free to go back with a new set of eyes that values godliness, and can glean and learn useful things without comparing.  If there is a blog that leaves you feeling tired and like you'll never measure up, it is possible to just click that red "x" and take those thoughts captive and move on.  Or, you can ask God to give you a set of eyes that can rejoice in the gifts and talents of others (without envying), and can also choose to be grateful and delighted in the gifts and talents that He has given you.

Women teaching other women is wise and biblical.  To learn and glean from the wisdom and righteousness of others is wise and biblical.  Comparisons kill and ultimately disdain what God has given and ordained.  As Christian women, I believe we can and should grow in grace to be able to see others without automatically reflecting it back on ourselves, for good, or for ill.  

Let us pursue excellence, together.  Let us grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Let us offer grace to one another as we read and learn online together.  Let us believe the best about one another, not leaping to the conclusion that someone else is boasting, but recognizing that all Christ followers are sinners saved by grace.  

All images used by permission:


jayme said...

I'm not sure that's what Challes meant -- that women shouldn't instruct or teach or show what is good.

The way I read his article was that our boasting is from a wrong place. That women are seeking Glory for their mothering - or maybe more so that women are giving other women glory for their mothering and feel inferior.

The examples that he gave in the beginning of the article set the context that he was talking about (as I see it):
The mom who updates facebook and blogs with a spotless house, 6 homeschooled kids, magazing ready house, beautifully dressed, handsome and easy going husband, etc. "Of course these moms also chart and photograph every one of their triumphs."

I didn't take his article as "Women, stop sharing your life and your wisdom" as much as "Women, quit being unnecessarily competitive!"

Jess said...

I *get* that. However, we would not derive the same assumption "that she is boasting" from a man who has a blog about the books he reads (Challies) and is constantly updating it, in everyone's face about how intellectual he is, right? It's taking the evidence and assuming the worst possible assumption about it- that there is a heart motive of harm or boasting inherent in the sharing.

Jess said...

My point is that I think he is assuming motive of the one sharing, and not even questioning the perspective of the hearer that then takes on guilt and inferiority because of the successes of that other gal.

Jess said...

It is certainly possible that I'm reading his article wrong, but I don't see in it an acknowledgment that women who take on guilt or inferiority are in any way wrong to do so. Do you read it that way?

Rachel said...

I think it would be boasting to pretend to be strong in ALL areas, like the fictitious example that he describes, but I don't know any woman or blogger who really acts like that. Most women who share are trying to be positive or helpful. Those pinterest/blog tutorials take too long to do it otherwise.

When I deal with guilt it's my own issue before the Lord, not caused by someone else.

jayme said...

I was grocery shopping and kept thinking about his article. I think the Electrical Engineer example that you brought up was a good one. I think the article he had would say that talking about being an Electrical Engineer is good, but that it isn't good to:
-Constant posting about the cool radio you just built, but no instructions on how you got there.
-Rave about how great it is to be a highly paid electrical engineer, but never talked about the hard work to get there.
-Never acknowledge that God enabled you to have the intelligence, the resources and the job.
-Never thank the wife that managed the home front so that you could win at being an Electrical Engineer or thanked the parents that paid for the schooling so that you could learn.

I don't think he's talking so much about women instructing others, but more so women who just show the end result - that's what causes guilt and wonderment when the average Jan e says "Why can't I have my house look like that? Why don't my kids respect my teaching like I assume hers do? Why don't my pictures look as good as hers?" Facebook is awesome at just giving you a snapshot of life with no opportunity for dialogue behind it.

Blogs can be different - some women bloggers do a great job at instruction. Other women bloggers are just showing their lives and do such so in such a perfect pristine way that companies want to put ads on their blogs. Why? Cause women are flocking to them and it's paying off for the companies. Women are great at choosing to ingest things that aren't great for them!

As far as Challes goes, I think when he posts about books he's reading, it's from a position of "I found these worthy reads, you might too." or "Here's a book that I read and here's why the theology/premise is wrong and how we should think on these matters." As a pastor, that's his version of showing how a craft is done or how a budget is managed or how a homeschool is ran. If he just said "I read 20 books this week!", there isn't much value in that...that's a great example of boasting.

I think you're right in that fact that he doesn't say "Women, stop putting yourself in a position to feel guilty" - I must've taken that away as a "To Do". I just know that's what I often do...especially on facebook. On pinterst, I've learned to only pin things that 1) I'd honestly want to make and would feasible make or 2) that have tutorials with them. I don't need more just pretty pictures in my life!

jerilyn said...

I see both sides here. It is ironic that Tim blogs about this topic on his blog... and I've struggled with envy in the past. But over the past year or so I've had so many issues with a friend over "mommy wars" type stuff that I'm learning to just let it go. I still need to confront her about some of the things she says (very offensive) but i've come to the point where we're growing apart as friends. we're not having more kids, they're having a bijillion more. they're homeschooling, we're not. they're eating organically, we're not. none of these things are wrong but the attitude towards them is wrong. I have an easier time on the internet- if i come across a blog that makes me feel bad (other than a true gospel conviction) I DO NOT READ IT. Same with facebook (said friend mentioned above is hidden). I use pinterest for ideas I can use and skip over the rest. I kind of like being messy :) So I agree with you and I agree with him.

Sarah @ Frugal Fun for Boys said...

I read the original Challies article, and at the time, I thought it was a little harsh. While there was some truth to the warning he was giving, I agree that it assumed motivation behind bloggers that may or may not be there.


Jess said...

Thanks for your reply; you made some great observations. I appreciate you taking time to think through this with me. I do see what you're saying about someone who only shares the end result.

At the same time, it seems to me (as a homeschooling mom of 5, going on 6) like a lot of judgment and assumptions towards someone who has (maybe) become an "expert" in her particular field. Maybe that mom can do all those things because she's worked hard at it for a decade. Yes, certainly, it's because of God-given talent & abilities... but maybe that woman (I say this because I've seen it with half a dozen women in real life who sound a lot like his "fictional" woman) has battled through depression, selfishness, poverty, a husband's joblessness, rejection from family, church difficulties, and more to get to the place of joy & contentment with her lot. Perhaps she posts what she does on Facebook, or blogs what she does, or pins what she does, is because she's finally found a place where she has both contentment & "expertise", so to speak.

Why should we begrudge the woman who has taken on motherhood as her full-time vocation her own measure of expertise that would come in a similar way if she were a lawyer, or a travel agent, or a schoolteacher? Why should we begrudge someone else's giftedness?

It just makes sense to me that someone who dedicates their lives-- decades of their lives-- to a given task, will likely be good at it. It seems like Challies' article is aimed at that, assuming that there is boasting involved, rather than at the more clear sin (of envy) listed in the article.

Thanks, again, for dialoguing with me, I'm interested to read you guys' comments.

Deborah said...

I enjoy the encouragement I read on your blog. Keep up the great work. I once heard a preacher's wife say that blogging was self promotion. I almost deleted my blog because of that, but then thought, no. I am blogging to show others how much God loves me, and that He loves them, too. He has no favorites. We must tell others. We must show the world the hope that is in Him, and the healing and restoration that comes from Him.

Beth Celestin said...

This is a powerful post, Jess. And so is the conversation below it :) I had read this article days ago. I understood where Challies was going, but I love your point of view. I, like you, KNOW that no one is perfect, but I run to the women who are *striving* for excellence. I want to learn from them! If all they ever told me was what they did wrong, I would never gain the Godly wisdom that they are scripturally mandated to share. I think we're cheapening motherhood when we give ourselves a "way out" of striving for excellence by always talking about how we're all a mess. I'm spurred on by women, like yourself, who share their wisdom- not from a boasting standpoint, but from a Godly desire to encourage and exhort! Again, great post!

julie said...

This is why I like you, Jess. Because you don't just read a popular Christian blogger's post and nod and walk away. You sift everything through, looking at the root, comparing it to Scripture. Thankful for you and how you challenge me to do the same - from your "place of strength." I've learned much from you!

Sheila @ Seasoned Joy said...

First of all, congratulations on #6! I hadn't realized you were expecting again. :)

I *love* your response to his article. I disagree with his tone, and his implication that if a mom shares anything, it's boasting.

I'm so tired of women feeling the need to justify being good at something by listing all the areas in which they aren't talented. Why can't we just rejoice that we're not all the same, and some are gifted in some areas, and others aren't?

I'm glad women share areas of their life in which they are passionate. That so often corresponds to areas in which they are talented too.

Of course some of them may be boasting; if I don't like the tone in which someone describes their latest project/meal/adventure, I stop reading.

I'm waiting for the first male blogger to feel the need to write a post listing all the things he doesn't excel at, to justify the areas in which he does.

Tara said...

I loved this, Jessica! So well articulated...I think Challies should read it! ;) You get to the heart of the issue when you point out that we are in control of what we read, and then how we consequently choose to feel about it! For that reason, I have chosen to unsubscribe to several blogs and quit FB...but your encouraging blog remains in my feed read, your writing is such a blessing!

Rachel T said...

I agree. As a young mother, I'm 23 with a 2 and 4-year-old, I find it discouraging to read blogs of women that are 10-15 years older that seem to have difficulty mastering what, to me, are simple tasks. I know I'm not perfect and I have a lot to learn, but that's the point - I want to learn it! I have real-life examples in my family, but I don't see them everyday, so I use the Internet a lot to learn and get new ideas. I would much rather read an experienced, skilled Mom's blog and learn what I can, than read the blog of a woman 10 years older than myself who talks about her "laundry pile" and can't find the time to take a shower and put on makeup before her husband gets home. I know how hectic things can be now, and reading from someone who seems to have some flow and order to their day, gives me hope.

As far as the crafty/Pinterest stuff, I agree also. If it is discouraging to someone, then they shouldn't look at it. Once every couple weeks I'll look at Pinterest or my boards, find something that looks possible, try it, and then stay away from Pinterest for a while. I wasn't blessed with crafty talents, and it's easy to waste time and get sad because there's no way I could make certain things or be that creative or whatever. But if I use it wisely as a tool, then it's a blessing. And it's not the pinner's fault if I feel just means I need to decide to learn how to do ________ (knitting, painting, sewing, etc.), or move on to something else and not worry about it.

educating dad said...

Thanks Jess, this is thought-provoking. I like the electrical engineer analogy, expanded by Jayme. I would agree that not all these Blogs/ Facebook pages etc are boasting, but rather, some seek to give God the glory for being our strength, for giving us the ability (way beyond ourselves) to achieve anything wonderful, anything beautiful. Philippians 4 verses 8 and 9: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—IF ANYTHING IS EXCELLENT OR PRAISEWORTHY —think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.' So this comes from the same Paul, who 'gladly boasts in weakness'. It is through weakness that God gives strength, ability etc. And that is what Bloggers like you try to do, and do so well!

And don't get me started on what my husband and I call the 'culture of the mediocre Christian woman'. I have known well meaning Christians who seem to see excellence in any area in a woman as necessarily being indicative of idolatry. I have even been told before that my clothes are too colourful (as though the same clothes, in washed out pastels would be perfectly fitting). Yes, we are called to be modest, but we are also called to be in the image of Christ, and reflect His glory. Where is the mediocrity in that? Yes, there can be a fine line between the pursuit of excellence to honour Him and the idols of our own heart, but we all walk that balance and pray for His conviction and guidance.

But I do also agree with another post above - I have one Facebook friend (a pastor's wife indeed) whose updates are always things like, 'It's only 10 am and I've already done X, Y and Z'. I cannot say I find these encouraging, but do find myself questioning her motives, and wondering what 'comments' she desires. Having thought about it, I should challenge her some time!


PS Congratulations on expecting another baby!

Charisa said...

Amen! Thanks for the post, Jess. I agree that the responsibility is truly on the reader to sift though what is beneficial and encouraging for us, and what invokes envy. Also, as a blogger, and user of Pinterest, Facebook, I need to question my own motives in what I post. Am I boasting? Then I should stop what I am doing! But I totally agree that not all use of these social media outlets, as a skilled Christian mother equals boasting.

And congrats on baby #6!!

Josh & Lucila said...

I haven't read the Challies article yet, so perhaps I shouldn't comment, but I just wanted to say that as I was reading your thoughts, Jess, I found myself agreeing that hearing what works from older wiser women is far more helpful and encouraging to me than hearing what doesn't. And I think that's one thing that has drawn me to your blog... ie that you've been successful at communicating why you do it (obedience to Titus type commands) and successful at being practical and helpful without passing off as self-glorifying AT ALL. Glory to Jesus :) keep it up...


melissa said...

One other thought that keeps coming to me while I ponder this post and its comments...

I think we, especially women/moms/wives, need to be IN community with other Christian women! When we are regularly encouraging, supporting and speaking Gospel truth into each other, there is a love in it that breaks down the walls we build up around ourselves. When we are *only* reading blogs and scouring pinterest, it is easy to let that world consume and to go down a path of disillusion.

I also think this is true if you take the internet out of the equation altogether. This generation is very isolated.... in our cars, in our homes, even in our churches. If we do not have relationships with others, it is harder to hear truth spoken in love, and it is harder to share as well.

I have learned SO much from wiser women around me -- both my age and older, because my church has encouraged relationships with others. I praise God for this EVERYDAY, and feel convicted to push outside of my world to grow in relationship with others, too, so that those opportunities to share with them will emerge as well. Sometimes it is just an encouraging word, sometimes it is a hard truth, but my heart and my mind are much more open to them if I have already been accepted and loved by the person sharing it.

Just my two cents!
melissa k