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The Gospel of Ruth

by Carolyn Custis James on June 1, 2008 in Book Excerpts

Is God good for women?

The question emblazed on the jacket of the book I was holding caught my attention and made me want to drop what I was doing and lose myself in a good read. I was intrigued because, for one thing, the way it fell into my hands was something of a miracle. But there was a second, even stronger reason why I didn’t want to put this one down.

It was summer in Oxford. My family had returned to England principally on business, but also to enjoy again this old city and the people there whom we had come to love and who commanded such a big part of our family history. My husband, Frank, was teaching summer school at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Our daughter, Allison, was brushing up on her British vocabulary and refreshing early childhood memories of England. I was checking on Oxford clients for my computer software business. On a personal level, I was also swerving around one of those sharp bends in the road that are so common to a woman’s journey and that at least in part sparked my sudden interest in the book.

Miracle in Blackwell’s Bookstore
The miracle had to do with my husband. After delivering his morning lectures, Frank left the Centre, hurried along Oxford’s narrow back alleyways, and turned onto historic Broad Street, which by now was swarming with tourists and traffic. A block or two of crowded sidewalk, noise, and exhaust fumes brought him to his destination. Leaving the hubbub behind, he shoved open the door and disappeared into the quiet serenity of Blackwell’s Bookstore. Friends who were traveling in the UK (and were unaware of the threat this might pose to our family budget) had arranged to meet him in this book lover’s paradise, arguably one of the best bookstores in the world. As it turned out, he was thirty minutes early, and they were running late. So while Oxford and I went blithely about our business, my husband was savoring a leisurely browse through endless rows of books with a credit card at his fingertips.

Few people would be able to withstand the force of such temptation. If you have ever known or happen to be a person with a passion for books, you will understand. But miracles still happen, and nearly two hours later my husband reemerged from the bookstore with a single book tucked under his arm, the book I now held in my hands, which he had purchased for me.

That miracle alone would have been enough to excite my interest in the book. But the question posed in bold letters on the jacket intrigued me even more. Is God good for women? Here was a question that had quietly nagged at me for years and was resurfacing in the changes I was experiencing at the moment.

Life after Oxford
During our Oxford years, when my husband was in doctoral studies, I formed mental pictures of what life after Oxford would be like and longed for that day to come. Once his D.Phil. was firmly in hand and we were stateside again, we settled our daughter in school, bought a house, found a church, and put down roots. Everything was going according to plan. What caught me off guard, however, was the fact that this eagerly awaited phase brought a sense of loss to me that triggered a whole new wave of soul searching I had not anticipated. Post-Oxford, I entered a new period of reflection and discovery—about God, about myself, and about God’s mission for his daughters in the world.

Perhaps the most significant change (one we expected and actually aimed for) was that for the first time in our marriage I was no longer the main breadwinner. My work, which had been our bread and butter during seminary and in Oxford, was no longer what was keeping us financially afloat. While helpful to our family, my income wasn’t essential anymore.

This wasn’t the first time (or the last) that my circumstances would unsettle me and stir up misgivings about where I fit into God’s purposes. Did I still have important contributions to make? I wondered if God, in any sense, was counting on me to build his kingdom, or if it was enough for me to help launch Frank to do important kingdom work. Were my efforts now less important—even dispensable—because I am a woman?

At one level, my callings as a wife and a mother were deeply satisfying. But my daughter was growing up, and I could see my days of mothering were numbered. Furthermore, my husband, while believing that his work and mine were deeply intertwined, never believed his profession was the answer to questions I was asking about God’s calling for me. So did I have a calling?

The book Frank bought for me was a timely reminder that I wasn’t the only woman wrestling with such questions. In fact, these are actually old questions that have resurfaced in women’s lives during every generation. In no time, I was pouring over the pages of my new book to see how British women from a variety of backgrounds and professions answered the question, “Is God good for women?”

In Good Company
The women I met inside the book all faced situations that caused them to question God’s goodness to women. Remarkably, as they made their way in a man’s world, their struggles and the obstacles they encountered didn’t embitter them or hold them back. The firm conviction that God is good for women fueled their courage and freed them to invest their energies to fight the battles he called them to engage in. In the end, God used them to make a difference in a lot of lives.

One woman founded the first European hospice for AIDS sufferers, ministering to patients and grieving family members and (when opportunity presented) giving the gospel. A police superintendent, after witnessing appalling crimes on the beat, used her clout as a high-ranking police officer to influence British politicians to enact laws improving the treatment of victims of rape and domestic violence. One of the twelve started a fashion consultancy to design and make well-fitting, easy-to-manage, stylish clothing for disabled people that gave them greater independence and lifted their spirits.

Their efforts made the world a better place for a lot of people and painted a larger picture for me of the big things God is doing through his daughters today. Yet, although their conclusions about God were encouraging, the consensus of twelve or even twelve thousand women about God’s goodness, while offering hope, in the final analysis, simply wasn’t enough. To rest on opinions in matters of such gravity left me dangling in a wind of changing circumstances that too easily could blow one way today and the opposite way tomorrow. I needed something more.

The real breakthrough in my thinking came when I discovered that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of God’s goodness to women. In fact, this ancient book treats the subject openly and with surprising candor. Suddenly I had my finger on a biblical text where God’s love comes under fire within the context of women’s lives. Remarkably, he not only affirms his love for his daughters in radical and earthshaking ways, he does so within a patriarchal culture that unapologetically relegated women to second-class status. What is more, against that backdrop, God casts a vision of breathtaking proportions for how his kingdom is moving forward through the efforts of women—ordinary women like most of us. I found the good news (gospel) I was looking for in the Old Testament book of Ruth.

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