Letter to a sister in Christ

My dear, your long response took me by surprise! It was the longest reply to a Christmas greeting that I ever got. So much so that I couldn’t help but gather my thoughts into a post. And no, I don’t think your feelings are invalid; your predicament is not uncommon to people who grew up inside a church.

You know, my initial reaction to your missive was “Why listen to them? You don’t have to! They’re thousands of miles away.” In a sense, aren’t you thankful that you’ve been blessed to be given that much distance between you and family?

But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that your mother-in-law has a point. Oh not that part about holding on to the standards that you were raised with. I’ll say more about that later on. Ultimately – in the long run as others might say – one can’t divorce the external from the internal. Our appearance, our behavior, our words only reflect the convictions of our heart. How we project ourselves to others may depend on what we’re feeling at the moment, yes, but ultimately, our image is shaped by what is in our heart. That applies to an homemaker (and I know many homemakers who are very fashionable despite being saddled with little children – how they do it remains a mystery to me) as well as an abaya-wearing maiden or a sari-clad Indian lady.

Yes, you’re right. To focus only on the external is wrong even though that’s how we are primarily judged. That is why Jesus again and again targeted the heart. It’s just like parenting: if we don’t get ahold of our children’s heart, they will obey externally while rebelling internally. That is why many children wander away from their parents’ faith after leaving the nest. Nobody can truly legislate morality beyond the home – not the school, not the church, not the government – though God knows many continue to try.

In the epistles, Paul speaks of legalism in the context of circumcision and talks about being free in Christ. We talk so much about freedom in Christ yet we’re still chained in our way of thinking. We shouldn’t be. We’ve been set free.

The trouble, I feel, arises when men (some would say “the church”) impose their standards (some would say “their interpretation of Scripture”) on the flock of which they are shepherds. But consider. Isn’t it telling that Jesus never said anything about outward appearances or how to clothe ourselves or how we ought to look? Correct me if I’m wrong but the only verses I can find are Matthew 6:28-30 and they concern the provision, not the use, of clothing. As an aside, isn’t it also telling that the verses we Christians hold on to as biblical standards for dressing were written by men? Why do you think God did not use women writers to record his message?

You know, I wrote about my standards for dressing two posts ago for a secular audience. That piece came about after much reflection on the evolution of my fashion sense through the years and how it reflected my Christian walk. So. Please believe me when I say I totally get your frustration. Your problem is: How do you get the message across that they should not worry so much about the external trappings of religion (in this case Christianity) because you’ve finally found joy in being liberated from oppressive standards that smack of legalism?

The tension between finding freedom in Christ and breaking free from what you’ve been trained to be and do while growing up is real. Believe me. I’ve been through it. Where I come from (and may I just say that I do miss the way you preface every explanation with that phrase), legalism did not come from church – it came from the convent school where I finished high school. Where one had to button up to the neck and you could be penalized for wearing hair down your shoulders (it took a long time but when I did, I wore my hair down all the time without feeling any guilt).

But we’re not talking about me. So let’s get back to your problem. My dear, there’s only one solution: with love. The particulars of which He will instruct you.

You’d love our devotional group. I’ve never found a group permeated with so much honesty. A few weeks ago, I told the girls “There’s a benefit to growing old: one attains the wisdom one lacked in youth. One also dispenses with others’ standards and finally gets comfortable with being accountable to only Him above.” 

You’ll get there, my friend. You’ll get there, eventually,  though the path will require you to make some hard decisions. Finding freedom in Christ, you’ll also find the confidence to be YOU, the unique you God created you to be without feeling apologetic to anyone. And when you do, you’ll be free to decide whether to make a statement or conform to society’s norms. IMHO, it’s more convenient to take into account the cultural context of one’s environment but what do I know? I live in a desert town deep in Arabia where men outnumber women ten to one.

I have to stop here. The sun has now come up and I have to smell my roses.

Lots of love,
Athena

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7 thoughts on “Letter to a sister in Christ

  1. It’s a little difficult to judge what the original letter might have been based on a response to it – but I did see a few things that are worth considering. I broke it up into three replies so that you wouldn’t be overwhelemed with one long one:

    “Thing is, you can’t divorce the external from the internal. Our appearance, our behavior, our words only reflect the convictions of our heart. How we project ourselves to others may depend on what we’re feeling at the moment, yes, but ultimately, our image is shaped by what is in our heart.”

    Yes, one can. One can externally be obedient and modest and inwardly be rebellious. One can externally be the opposite of what they are internally. Humans have the ability to look like a biker on the outside and be a Christian on the inside as well as the ability to look like a Christian on the outside and yet not be one on the inside. There need not be a correlation between the two.

    “It’s just like parenting: if we don’t get ahold of our children’s heart, they will obey externally while rebelling internally.”

    This just proves that externals and internals can be divorced. One school of thought teaches children that to be upset or angry or sad is to be ungrateful to God, so they are only allowed to be happy (on the outside) no matter what they actually feel (on the inside.) The children have learned how to smile all the time even when they’re actually sad or mad, that way their parents are glorified and so is God; but they’re emotionally unhealthy and unpredictable as a result.

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    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate your explanations but I still stand by my assertion that in the long run, one can’t divorce the external from the internal. One only has to look at how celebrities dress to see how their worldview/religion impacts their day-to-day wear and activities. Do you see nuns indulging in what they do?

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      1. We don’t really have any nuns in this area; but we do have Amish people whose internal devotion can be exhibited through outward appearance; but Jesus warned the Pharisees in Matthew 23 that they were like ‘white-washed tombs’ beautiful on the outside, but dead inside. He also reminded them to wash the inside of the cup so that the outside will also be clean. He recognized that the Pharisees excelled in outward perfection, but failed at inward devotion. I’ve run into my share of Christians that are more like pharisees and less like the Amish or nuns but sometimes based on the externals alone it can be difficult to discern how somebody is doing inwardly.

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  2. When it comes to modesty, the rules that men require women to obey – it’s almost always exclusively taught as how women’s external appearance affects men’s internal condition; if women’s appearance externally cause men’s lust internally. Not once has it ever been reciprocal; man’s outward appearance causing women’s internal lust. Which is why women have so many rules about what they can wear, how much is not enough and how there’s never a ‘too much’ coveredness and men have no rules. The verses about modesty are all about economic modesty, not wearing expensive fashions because that was proof of one’s status 2,000 years ago; it was never about wearing modest (not lust inducing) clothing for the sake of the men. Matthew 7:28-30 isn’t exactly about provision; Jesus was saying that He was supposed to be there giving aid to the children of Israel only, the Syrophonecian woman was a foreigner – the dog that eats from the children’s table-scraps. Jesus saw her point and agreed with her, that even though he was here for the Israelites, she was also deserving of the same grace and that’s why Jesus healed her daughter.

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    1. Thank you for pointing out that typo error. Interestingly, I was reading an analysis of that passage (Syrophonecian woman in Matthew 7) in Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes yesterday.

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      1. You might find ‘Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes’ to be an insightful read as well, it’s helped me to understand that Westerners often don’t understand ‘what went without being said’ and often fill in the gaps with our own concepts.

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  3. When legalism comes from the church, then the rules of modesty are enshrined, almost to the point of virtue. Making disobedience the equivalent of sin. Christianity is a spectrum of tradition on that score. For the Dugger family, the word ‘Nike’ was a code-word, no sooner was it uttered, the eyes of every single young man was to look in any and every which direction away from their sisters because one of them was immodest. Or some woman walking on the street might actually be showing her knees and they’re not supposed to look. That’s legalism taken to an unhealthy extreme. It’s becoming more and more common – when girls are told to wear t-shirts over their modest one-piece bathing suits, but boys are allowed to swim shirt-less, when girls are sent home from public school for having their collar-bone showing, when girls have dozens of rules they have to obey and boys have only a few. When girls have to worry about what they’re wearing externally to prevent the boys from sinning inwardly but never the other way around. I think anyone who has experienced the bad side of these teachings is right to reject them in all their forms. I know I certainly would.

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