“You are a creative, intelligent person with a very bright future ahead of you. Don’t feel bad about your decision. I’m proud of you and I know God is proud of you too.”
Those are the words I spoke to a young woman a few weeks ago; and another a young woman a few weeks before that; and another young woman a few weeks before that. All in regards to a decision they made for their lives that the community around them failed to support. I’m beginning to see an unfortunate trend surfacing among young women:
- Parents wondering why their daughter wants to work out of state and are angry because she doesn’t want to move back to the community she grew up in.
- A Youth Pastor discouraging a girl in his youth group from studying abroad because he just didn’t think that was something she should be doing.
- People looking down on a young woman who received a job opportunity across the country because she “clearly wasn’t thinking about leaving her boyfriend behind.”
The young women coming by my office don’t understand why making a decision for their lives has brought on so much resistance from their family and faith communities. Perplexed and sad, I watch these young women and wonder why they are being discouraged in something as simple as the freedom of their decision-making.
I do not hear these messages being communicated to young men. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that our society has traditionally recognized men as the primary decision makers within family structures. After all, if boys are to one day rise to the position of head of their families, it makes more sense for them to practice making decisions for their lives regardless of the risk. Men are “supposed” to make decisions. Women are “supposed” to follow their cultural rulebook.
We have created a culture where independent thinking and decision making for girls & women is vilified. It’s okay for them to decide as long as those decisions fit within the normative sphere for women. Women’s decision making has been encouraged primarily in the areas of relationships, be it romantic relationships, friendships, family relationships, etc.
Within Christian culture, I’ve noticed that teaching on the women in the bible who are traditionally highlighted often focuses on narrow aspects of their stories (though all are powerful accounts). Sarah is highlighted because of her inability to have children and her jealousy of Hagar. Esther is the beautiful queen that the King chose, and her nobility and submission to him placed her in a position to save her people. Ruth and Naomi were known for their bond and devotion to one another as in-laws. Mary Magdalene – I was taught – was a prostitute. Even the Proverbs 31 woman has been solely taught to me as a good wife only; no mention of her entrepreneurial skills and wise investments.
There has been a subliminal message directed to women & girls that their decisions have to be within a relational and domestic framework and anything outside of that is devalued.
I fear this message is present in society as well as the church. The church community has contributed to this through the misuse of scriptures to keep women submissive and silent (1 Corinthians14:34–35). These arguments negate the contextual realities and dismiss the fact that women did participate in authority in prayer and prophecy within the church. This debate has contributed to the culture of dissuasion as it relates to women feeling empowered in their choices. The patriarchy (in particular Christian patriarchy) has taken away their ability to decide.
As a result, when I am with students, friends, or any women of different contexts I make sure to encourage them in the freedom of their decision-making. I do this simply because the system they live in discourages them in their autonomy. I want to make sure there are women out there who know that by simply exercising their freedom to decide they are unleashing a power and shifting a culture for generations of women behind them to do the same.
That power is liken to the female personification of God through Sophia or Wisdom who declares in Proverbs 8:14, “Counsel and sound judgment are mine; I have insight, I have power.” Wisdom is a unique, timeless, and necessary feature of God – one that God has given human beings the opportunity to obtain.
“Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
‘To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all humankind’.” (Proverbs 8:1-4)
I would contend that when we discourage a woman’s right to choose, we deny her God-nature, which is her innate ability to choose and choose wisely.
I am eternally grateful for the women in my life who have decided to live within the tension of autonomy and community and make choices for their lives. Women like my friend who is pursuing a PhD in criminal justice and spends a great deal of her free time teaching political science to prison inmates. Women like another friend who pastors her own church while nine months pregnant; as she moves into a season of being a wife and a mother and a senior pastor, fully committed to all of those spaces. Women like one of my mentees who will graduate from college and spend the next two years of her life in Thailand serving young people in a small community.
We need to encourage our sisters, mothers, daughters, friends, and every woman in our communities to exercise their freedom to make wise, prayerful, guided decisions. If we don’t, women will miss out on God-given opportunities and experiences. Women will miss out on exercising the practice of divine Sophia.