I began reading my wife’s copy of You Who? only after she shared comments from the online critics who were savaging it. A good encouraging review won’t necessarily sell me a book – I have too many others stacked up already competing for my attention – but when a certain sort of critic just hates a book then my curiosity is piqued and I want to know, “What could have gotten them that riled up?” So I owe Rachel Jankovic’s detractors thanks for getting me started on one of the best books I’ve read this year.
The author’s premise is simple: “Who am I?” is a question everyone asks and most of us answer badly. The most common answers involve our jobs: people will say “I’m a farmer” or “I am a small business owner.” But there’s a problem with identifying with our career: we can lose our job, or retire from it. And who are we then?
Others will identify themselves with their abilities or interests (“I am an artist,” or “I am a surfer”), or in their marital status (“I am single”), what groups they belong to (“I am Canadian”), or in not belonging to any groups (”I am a free spirit”). And many women look for their identity in the roles of wife and mother.
But here, too, problems exist because here, too, things can change: over time our abilities fade and our interests can shift. Over time the country we were once proud of may betray the values we thought it held. And over time even the most loving spouse will repeatedly let us down. Sure, our children can be a frequent source of pride and joy, one week sitting side by side in the church pew, hair combed, shoes polished, lovingly sharing the songbooks, but the next week it’s just as likely you’ll be taking two out at a time, their legs kicking and little lungs giving full vent to their protests in front of the whole congregation. If we find our identity in being the perfect parent, it doesn’t take any time at all for that bubble to burst.
So if those are all wrong answers to the "Who am I?" question, then what’s the right one? Jankovic wants to:
“encourage and equip believing women to see their identity in Christ as the most essential part of them, and to see all the ways that will work its way out in their lives, manifesting itself as strength, dignity, and clarity of purpose.”
Encouraging believers to make Christ our first and foremost shouldn’t be controversial. So why were critics upset? Because they were confused, mistaking Jankovic’s call to God-honoring obedience for some sort of legalistic works righteousness.
There’s a sense in which that’s understandable. Legalism (or works righteousness) and antinomianism (or lawlessness) are a set of paired theological errors. The legalist can’t believe God’s grace is really free, so he wants to earn it by obeying God’s law and, like the Pharisees of old, will even add to and expand on God’s laws. Meanwhile, antinomians recognize that the law can’t justify us and conclude that since we can’t measure up to God’s standard then Jesus must have come to abolish all those pesky Commandments.
These are huge, dangerous errors, but if you speak out against one, it’s inevitable someone will mistake your point and think you are a proponent of the opposite error. And that’s what’s happened here.
In the Reformed circles that this magazine serves we all know we can’t earn our way to heaven, but if we have a tendency to err in one direction or the other then we’re probably more likely to tip in the legalistic direction (just think of all the additional rules we once had for Sunday and how often we heard "dat niet op Zondag").
But in the evangelical world – Jankovic’s target audience – the error is on the other side. In those circles many believe sin is no big deal because, after all, the more we mess up, the more it just shows how gracious God is. Or as the current star of the Bachelorettereality TV show (a self-professing Christian) put it this past month, after she had sex with one contestant and went naked bungee jumping with another:
“I refuse to feel shame….I am standing firm in believing that maybe God wants to use a mess like me to point to his goodness and grace.”
What this neglects is the Apostle Paul’s answer to the question, “Shall we then continue in sin that grace may abound?” to which he gave a definitive, “By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). Of course, we shouldn’t expect solid theology from reality TV. But this antinomianism – lawlessness – is working itself out in the audience of evangelical wives and moms that Jankovic is speaking to.
There we find that the false identities some Christian women are adopting, are giving them reasons to disobey God’s call to faithful, mundane, day-after-day obedience. A mom who finds her identity in her abilities will ignore her children in favor of her career aspirations. Or if she’s made herself the center of her world, then she’ll have every reason to skip the laundry folding and partake in a little “me time” instead. And if her kids become her identity, then neglecting her husband to give the little ones more attention can be spun as downright virtuous.
That’s what it can look like, but as much as these identities promise us meaning and fulfillment, they never deliver. Jankovic wants us to understand we were made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Our identity is in Christ. We were made to worship. That’s our identity: God worshippers. And His people give Him glory by doing the good works that He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10).
Does that mean folding laundry is the key to pleasing God? Well, God might be calling you to get at that pile of clothes and, if so, then you should obey. Then that is how you can glorify Him. But the kids' homework might be a more important priority, and then that unfolded pile can also glorify God as you, in loving obedience, help with homework instead.
I am not a mom or a wife, but this book was a help to me too. There wasn't all that much in here that I didn't already know but it served as a much-needed reminder that I am not what I do. I’m at that stage of life where joints are giving out, and it’s more obvious now than it has ever been that I am no athlete. Before I read You Who? that was getting me down. But there is joy to be found when, instead of finding my identity in my athletic ability (or lack thereof) I bow my knee and ask my God and King, “How can I honor You?” When I make Him my focus, then it turns out I’m still able to throw a ball far enough to play with the three kids God has given me to raise and nurture. I can't glorify myself anymore in my athletic endeavors, but in playing with the kids He's given me, it turns out I can glorify Him. I can still, in this way, do what I was made to do. And instead of being depressed at being able to do less, I can be content knowing God isn’t concerned with the declining volume of my output.
But, as Jankovic notes, He does demand everything I have to give. If that sounds like a lot, of course, it is. Jankovic emphasizes obeying God in the day-to-day grind, making every moment about Him. We're not going to succeed at that, but when we understand what Christ has done for us, and how we are His, then we will want to try. And in trying, we will glorify Him. In failing we will also glorify Him. And we can glorify him, too, in repenting and then, secure in what Christ has done for us on the cross, going to bed assured of forgiveness and getting ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
If I’m not making this sounds exciting, then that’s a good reason for you to pick up You Who? where Rachel Jankovic says it a lot better. And if you are excited, well, what are you waiting for? You're going to love You Who?
I’d recommend it for any study group, women or men, and if your group is interested, then be sure to check out the study group e-book that you can download for free here.