Australian author Mem Fox illustrates the effects of the little “l” law in the parent and child relationship in a children’s book entitled Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild. With short sentences illustrated by Marla Frazee in pencil and transparent ink, Fox tells the story of young Harriet, whose childish antics exasperate her mother, who “doesn’t like to yell,” by degrees until she reaches the boiling point: “There was a terrible silence. Then Harriet’s mother began to yell. She yelled and yelled and yelled.”
I imagine most of us can identify with Harriet’s mom. I know I can. After 26 years of raising my six children, I’ve had plenty of “Harriet’s mom moments” – like the time when I was pregnant with my third child and lost my marbles because the cupboard door in the kitchen that my husband kept promising to repair fell off its hinges again. I recall two scared toddlers in tears hiding in their bedroom because “mommy was mad.” Sigh. Or how about the time I was teaching in our homeschool co-op and decided to make our read aloud time more interactive by bringing crepe batter and making each of the kids a treat? Getting six littles to a co-op for which you are responsible to open up, teach, and administrate is no small thing. When I asked my 5-year-old daughter to hold the container of batter, she dropped it, of course. Batter (milk-based batter) spilled everywhere in our suburban. We were late, it was cold, the baby was crying, and I was screaming. “She yelled and yelled and yelled.” Or how about the time I sent my son to the bathroom to await discipline and utterly forgot about him? I only remembered when I passed the door and saw him sleeping, covered up in the tub with a towel. Or that time when my youngest followed his older siblings outside and was left behind? I found him sleeping, head on the doorstep. He was too small to reach the doorknob and cried himself to sleep.
1 Timothy 2:15 says, “But women will be saved through childbearing, if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with self-control.” Ahh, the “if.” I don’t know about you, but it’s killing me. What does Paul mean? The Law of Motherhood, like all of the other applications and extrapolations of the good and holy Law of God, kills. All of my attempts to be a perfect mom failed, and when I read those lovely self-help books that taught me how to do better and try harder, I got what I deserved: a reminder that I didn’t measure up to the Law. No matter how well I did, it wasn’t good enough. There was always room for improvement. In fact, the only way I could feel good about my own performance was by comparing myself with others that I thought fell shorter than I – and that was healthy for my community, right? I had to lower the standard (remember – perfection) to convince myself that I was succeeding. This, I would argue, is true antinomianism – a very low view of the law indeed.
I grew more and more disillusioned. If a woman can’t “continue in faith, love, and holiness with self-control,” then what? What of faith? Faith in whom? Ourselves? In what? Performance? Success? What is faith? And love? Whose love? Our love? What is love, and who is doing the loving?
Paul reveals answers to these questions that solve the riddle of performancism and identity in Philippians 3:3-9:
“For we are the circumcision, who worship God in the Spirit, rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh, though I also might have confidence in the flesh. If anyone else thinks he may have confidence in the flesh, I more so: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews: concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness that is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. But indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”
Faith in what? Ourselves? No, but in another – in Christ, who performed all things for me.
In Psalm 57:2, David confesses: “I will cry unto God most high; unto God that performeth all things for me.” David speaks of a God that, rather than requiring performance of him, performs things for him. In fact, He performs all things for him. This is the testimony of the Scriptures regarding the Christian God. We get things a bit backward when we think we exist to perform for Him. How did Jesus perform all things for me? Well, He kept the Law – perfectly as I cannot. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:5). He was perfect and sinless. He never had – He never has a “Harriet’s mother’s moment.” He never loses his temper with us and yells and yells and yells. Quite the contrary, Paul tells us in Colossians that “[b]lotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, [H]e took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross…” (2:14). Paul is speaking of faith in Jesus’s effective life and atoning work at the cross. He speaks of hope in His effective lawkeeping – His performance – and His love for us.
Only, we don’t look to Jesus for this identity and belonging. In all of our contortions to conform ourselves to the law of enoughness, we do what the builders of Babel’s tower did. We attempt to build a ladder to heaven so that we can approve ourselves and attain independent identities. “Come, let us build a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves...” (Gen. 11:4). The Apostle Paul discourages this kind of ladder climbing. He’d tried it, and he knew it was vain, unsturdy, and precipitous of a Fall. He reminds his readers to “take no confidence in the flesh…” He counts his efforts vain rubbish, and he clings to the perfect work of Christ, preferring to be identified with Him in His death, so that he can be found alive in Him, named as His very own.
The Law does what it’s supposed to do – it condemns us. Law does that wherever it is found. You see, the Law of Motherhood does for us the one thing necessary to secure our identity, salvation, and resurrection life: it kills us and makes us despair of our own fleshly efforts to save ourselves - to make ourselves - to secure for ourselves the “well-done good and faithful servant.” It turns our heart to the One who secures all things for us - who performs all things for us - who proclaims to anyone who would listen: “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mtt. 11:28-30). In all our labor, Jesus invites us to die. Death is His yoke. No more self-salvation projects. No more identity crafting. He says, die to it! Lay it down!
By this death, we are conformed to His image. We are gathered under His wings, like a hen gathers her little chicks. We are called by His name, and receive His inheritance, His well-done, achieved through His finished work on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). The Apostle John, author of the gospel of John, recounting Jesus crucifixion, explained, “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said… ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, He gave up His Spirit” (John 19:28-30).
Listen to that again: “Jesus, knowing that all things were now accomplished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said… ‘It is finished!’” Jesus pronounced our identities secure in that moment when He completed all things for us. When we find ourselves in need of Him, we can remember His sacrifice and know that we are the ones He loves, forgives, saves, and will surely resurrect. Because of this, like Paul, we can admit, “I am the worst of sinners.” We can abandon our hope in our own efforts. Every time the Law of Motherhood rears up and testifies against us, we can remember that Jesus has canceled the handwriting of the ordinances which are against us, nailing them to His cross.
It is in this way that Paul’s words to the Philippians have been true for me: I have been saved in childbearing because God has put His faith and His love in my heart, discouraging me by His Law from trusting in my own performance and causing me to abandon my impulse to control and master my own identity, instead conforming me to Him in a symbolic death to my own self-salvation projects, and granting to me thereby the freedom He purchased for all whom He causes to trust in Him. I am His and He is mine. This is the only truly secure identity.
What does this identity do for our horizontal relationships – our relationships with our kids and spouses and friends? Take another look at Harriet. What did she and her screw-up mother do after all the yelling? They repented:
‘I’m sorry,” Harriet cried. “I’m really, really sorry.’
Her mother took a deep breath. ‘I know you are,’ she said, hugging Harriet tight. ‘I’m sorry, too. I shouldn’t have yelled, and I wish I hadn’t. But sometimes it happens, just like that.’
When we know that our identity isn’t riding on our perfect performance, there’s no need to contend that we have been perfect! Instead, we can admit our failures and inadequacies and live in light of our fallen humanity. This is our only chance at healthy relationships: Self-awareness. Walking in the light. Repentance, reconciliation, and forgiveness. These things allow us to face the yelling, the failures, the frustrations, and the silence humbly, giving and receiving grace and being reconciled to God and to one another. In Christ Jesus, we find permission to be the creatures that we are and to stop attempting to be little gods, defining ourselves, naming ourselves, saving ourselves, securing ourselves. In Jesus we find we are both known and loved, and that is all the “enoughness” any of us really need.