About a month ago, I got the bright idea to donate my dresser and bookshelf to the Habitat Re-Store. I was preparing to get married and no longer needed them. I figured I’d load them into my Honda CRV and drive them over.
I’m not entirely sure why I thought this was a realistic goal for me. To begin with, my car is not that big. But more importantly, both pieces of furniture were significantly larger than me. Aside from the sheer weight of them, I needed another set of arms just to lift both sides.
Even so, I set out to accomplish this task, oblivious to the odds.
I started with the dresser. One side at a time, I slowly inched it through my bedroom doorway. This process took just as long as it sounds. To make matters worse, once I got it into the narrow hallway I realized that my method would no longer work. The dresser needed to be lifted and carried long-ways down the hallway. With my unimpressive muscles and short arms, that wasn’t gonna happen.
As I tried to simply shove the dresser across the carpet, sweating, panting, and on the verge of giving myself a hernia, the doorbell rang. It was a man who had come by to check on our new AC system to make sure it was working. Swallowing my pride, I asked him if he could help me with the dresser. He walked down the hallway, scooped up the dresser, and easily carried it out of the house. He made it look like a piece of cake.
Since that demonstration of my muscular inadequacy, I’ve gotten married and witnessed a similar discrepancy in strength between my husband and myself. I’m not exactly a wimp. I used to kill spiders, unclog drains, and repair broken housewares before I ever met him. I just did it very slowly and inefficiently. Now all I have to do is call my husband and he’ll knock it out in no time flat.
It is with this dynamic in mind that I have come to understand Peter’s words in 1 Peter 3:7 much more clearly:
Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
As I said, I was an independent woman before I ever got married, but my husband bench-presses 250 pounds, more than twice my body weight. I don’t think Peter was too far off the mark with his whole “weaker vessel” assessment.
However, it’s hard not to read Peter’s words and also feel a little insulted. Is he saying that all women are weak in general? Am I so fragile that I can’t do anything without the aid of man?
In seeking to understand this passage, I’ve heard a number of pastors interpret it in some very helpful ways. My own pastor explained Peter’s words as a matter of difference — men are strong in different ways than women. Were I to compare the strength of a crowbar and a glass thermometer, the crowbar would seem the obvious winner. I can’t pry open a door using a thermometer. It would snap in half. But is the thermometer strong in other ways? Yes. It can detect temperature up to a hundredth of a degree. It is indeed strong in this regard, but in a very different manner from a crowbar.
Another pastor compared a wine glass with a plastic thermos. Both hold liquid, but in very different ways and for very different purposes. A thermos protects its contents. I can throw the thermos on the ground, even run over it with my car, and most likely the thermos will remain unfazed. A wine glass, on the other hand, is fragile and can’t withstand nearly the same amount of abuse, yet it can accentuate the essence of a fine wine better than any thermos ever could.
Different design. Different strengths.
Clearly, Peter was referring to one type of strength. In general, men have greater physical strength than women. That’s why, for instance, sports are usually divided along gender lines. But that leaves me with the nagging question: What kind of strength do women have?
Throughout our nation’s history, many women have gone awry by assuming that to be strong in this world means competing on the same terms as men. As a result, some have shunned their femininity as itself being a form of weakness. They have regarded their gender’s attributes as a kind of setback in male dominated fields.
Interestingly, this method’s flaws are becoming apparent, even in the secular realm. In her book See Jane Lead, author Lois Frankel writes, “Women possess a different leadership style from men — but one that’s equally effective.” She then adds that we need to shift our thinking from “I have to be more like a man to succeed as a leader” to “the skills I bring to the workplaces, whether developed by nature or nurture, have intrinsic value.”
Frankel concludes that it’s not only important for women to embrace their femininity, but it’s their responsibility to do so. In a population of differing gifts and strengths, I owe it to my community to bring my uniqueness to the table.
Though her argument is based on purely secular motivations, Frankel’s conclusions are not far off the mark. Given that God created Eve because Adam was “not good” on his own, it would have been doubly “not good” to have created an exact replica of him. Eve was different for a reason. She added strengths to the equation that Adam could not offer.
Yet this still leaves the hanging question: What kind of strengths do women uniquely possess? Honestly, I have trouble answering this question because women come in so many different shapes and sizes. Various women have diverse talents and callings, so to conclude that all women are “xyz” is to make the same mistake as women who imitate men — both are ignoring their individually created beings and trying to fit one particular mold, perhaps a mold that God did not intend for them to fit.
With that in mind, the best way to approach this question is not to say what strengths a woman has, but how she should use them. On this point scripture is very clear.
The Bible contains a lot of verses for women on how to faithfully follow God and honor Him, and it’s crucial that we know them. Why? Because God may have given me gifts and talents, but I can sabotage them if I use them incorrectly. In the same way that a thermometer will snap in two if I try to use it as a crowbar, my talents must be used for their created purpose. Namely for God’s ends, not my own.
That said, the strength of a woman has little to do with her actual strength at all. A woman might have the gift of teaching, leadership, compassion, counseling, perseverance, patience, faithfulness, or hospitality, but it’s how she uses her gifts that distinguish her as a strong woman of God. When these strengths are powered by humanity, they will falter. When they are placed on the altar of God, they never fail.
When I admit my shortcomings and weaknesses, and therefore turn my abilities over to Him who is infinitely stronger, all-knowing, and all-powerful, it is then that I am truly strong. It is in that moment that I remove myself and my “strengths” as an obstacle to God’s work, and instead allow Him the freedom to work through me. Just as Paul proclaims in 2 Corinthians 12:10, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
That is the paradox of being a strong Christ-honoring woman. It only comes in acknowledging my weaknesses and deferring to God’s perfect power. Then my abilities will no longer be an obstacle to God’s work, and will instead be a willing vehicle of it. When I surrender to the perfect design that God has instilled in me, I find myself surging forward in the current of His good will, instead of swimming against it.
Maybe I can’t lift a dresser on my own. Maybe I need help sometimes. And maybe there are times in my life when I feel weak, scared, or inadequate for the task before me. But the Bible is full of stories about people like me. The Bible is a history of weak people being used by God to do mighty things. So at the end of the day, I rejoice in my weakness, because when I am weak, then I am truly strong.