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Recently I attended a seminar where we were given the opportunity to test our skill at a variety of physical and mental challenges. The intellectual tests were sort of fun, but the physical tests were much more difficult for me.
One in particular nearly did me in. I tried six times before I finally succeeded, and then only by the scantest of margins. When it was over and I was catching my breath, I felt like I was back in school, trying to do fifty sit-ups to get an A in Physical Education but only getting to forty-nine. I was sure everyone could see the label FAILURE plastered across my forehead.
Just then, one of the guys who had succeeded on his first attempt came up to me and told me how much he admired my courage.
“Courage? What courage? I failed six times,” I said in bewilderment.
“You came back the seventh time,” he said. “I don’t know that I could have kept coming back and continuing to try. That took a lot more courage than it did for me to do it once and move on.”
I was stunned. I had never looked at courage in that light before. What I saw as six failures, he saw as six steps of faith. I thought I had barely succeeded. He thought I had succeeded before I finished.
So what does my experience have to do with Elizabeth, Anna, and so many other women of the Bible, both named and unnamed? Reading about some of them in Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan’s Bible study, Women of the Gospels, Missionaries of God’s Love, prompted me to reflect: Although I found my challenge extremely difficult, I knew it was doable because I saw others doing it. These women, however, were pioneers facing new challenges and blazing new paths of faith and trust.
No Instant Champions. Elizabeth had a baby in her old age. Anna lost a husband at an early age and lived the rest of her life as a childless widow in a society where childless widows didn’t survive. The Samaritan woman hid behind the shame of her sexual excesses. Because we view them and the other “women of the Gospels” through the lens of history, we see only their success: We see baby John in his mother’s arms, Anna rejoicing in the temple, the Samaritan woman boldly appearing in public. We skip over the days and even years when they picked themselves up and found the courage to keep going. We tend to view them as instant champions of faith.
But their real courage was not in the final pages of their stories. As the man pointed out to me, it was in the showing up over and over.
In her book, part of the “Keys to the Bible” series from The Word Among Us Press, Getty-Sullivan encourages us to take a deeper look at these women and examine them, not from the winner’s circle where we normally view them but from the place of the struggle that ultimately led to their triumph. We are nudged to experience Elizabeth’s disgrace at being childless, Anna’s poverty at being without family, the Samaritan woman’s loneliness at being an outcast. Only after we experience their pain do we get to see their breakthrough, their success.
“You Kept Trying.” Combining insightful questions, background information, relevant quotes, and extra reading along with the Scripture passages, Getty-Sullivan’s book is unique in its focus on the women Jesus encountered . . . and changed. As she says, “No woman encounters Jesus and goes away unchanged or unconverted. Every woman who is said to have met up with Jesus responds with faith and is portrayed positively.”
What’s particularly interesting is that Women of the Gospels doesn’t present the stories of the two women we associate most closely with Jesus—his mother and Mary Magdalene. Rather, it deliberately looks at other women, sometimes even those who go unnamed, who faced challenges in their lives but were ultimately victorious through their encounter with the Lord. Getty-Sullivan explains that she takes this approach because “we are necessarily limited in our selection of which women to focus on, and we could not do justice to these very prominent disciples of Jesus.” However, I think there may be another reason: It’s not always the famous, the well known, or the prominent who inspire us.
Back at the seminar, I was still catching my breath when a woman came and told me: “I watched you. And because you kept trying, it gave me the courage to keep trying, too. Thank you.”
Once again I was stunned. I had thought I was working at my exercises in obscurity. I suspect the same may be true of the women in this Bible study. They had no idea that what they were doing was going to have an impact on generations of people for millennia to come. They just thought they were doing what they had to do at the time.
Challenge to Grow. Ultimately, the purpose of any Bible study isn’t merely to retell the stories of Scripture. It is to create change in our own lives by helping us to look at the familiar words in a new way. That’s what Getty-Sullivan has done. She shows us that “patient endurance” will “bear good fruit” (Luke 8:15) and that continual perseverance is the real key to lifelong transformation.
Intended as a six-week study, The Women of the Gospels is one of those books that challenges each of us to “leave behind our fears and doubts, our hesitations and obstacles” to spread the gospel through both our word and example.
After all, we never know who might be watching us! n
Woodeene Koenig-Bricker lives in Oregon. She is the author of Simplify Your Life (Our Sunday Visitor).Click here to purchase "The Women of the Gospels."