Comparison is an insidious plague that has burdened women for generations.
Women’s ministries and Bible studies work hard to combat this mindset, but often to no avail – often, in fact, to the annoyance of women who long to be taught more than “God thinks you’re beautiful!”
While attempts to combat this problem are certainly well-intentioned, could it be that our typical women’s Bible studies are not helping because they reinforce the very patterns they are trying to erode?
While the usual heroines of the Bible certainly have much to teach us, do their stories lose some impact because they are often presented over and against other women of the Bible?
What might we learn instead by studying the women who aren’t presented as heroines? Would we be gentler with ourselves and others if we saw how God shows up in the lives of the overlooked?
Let’s explore three well-known stories.
- Leah and Rachel
Leah exists in most of our minds as a side note, which is understandable because that’s how she’s portrayed in her own family’s narrative (see Genesis 29-50).
She was the unpleasant surprise whose husband had to be tricked into marrying her, and she spent the rest of her life striving to earn his affection and respect. But her insecurities and perceived inferiorities didn’t hinder her effectiveness in the story of God’s people.
She was the co-matriarch of the 12 tribes of Israel whose legacy lived on in the Hebrew nation, as evidenced by her recognition in a blessing in Ruth 4:11. Her legacy among her people was not one of comparison with her sister, but one of co-leadership alongside her sister.
Leah was like so many of us who have been scarred by rejection. But her story shows us that our wounds don’t nullify God’s work in our lives.
So, instead of highlighting Rachel and mentioning Leah as a point of comparison, we should emphasize the ways that God works within the complexities of sisterhood.
When Rachel isn’t the star and Leah isn’t the supporting character, we are freed to see God as the hero who uses two flawed but valuable sisters to accomplish his purposes.
- Naomi and Ruth
Naomi is often presented as the sad sidekick who takes a backseat to Ruth’s heroic adventures (see Ruth 1-4). After all, she was the ultimate “Debbie Downer,” telling the townspeople to call her “Bitter” instead of using her name.
However, Naomi’s story outlines the entire narrative. She is the one who is brought from emptiness to fullness, from destruction to redemption. The same townspeople who were told to call her “Bitter” close the story by blessing Naomi and praising God for the new life created out of loss.
Naomi’s story demonstrates that God walks right into our bitterness when we are simply doing our best to survive, and somehow, eventually, brings new life.
So, instead of painting Naomi as the depressing backstory to Ruth’s happily-ever-after, let’s tell the story of two women who fought for life together and saw God’s deliverance.
When Ruth’s marriage isn’t the focal point, we find a much more beautiful story of God’s nearness and redemption in the face of deep suffering.
- Martha and Mary
Martha has been remembered for thousands of years as the example of what not to do. She was the one who thought she was doing everything she was supposed to do, yet somehow still got it wrong (see Luke 10).
But Martha has another story recorded in the Gospels. When her brother, Lazarus, dies and Jesus comes to see the family, she displays a strong faith that speaks to her confidence in who Jesus is and what he can do (see John 11).
Martha is not simply the distracted woman with misplaced priorities; she is also a woman who dares to hope for life when all she can see is death. Her story is evidence that God works in all the spaces where we still have room to grow.
So, instead of holding up one sister as the one who gets it right, we should emphasize how these two sisters followed Jesus in unique ways.
When Mary and Martha aren’t pitted against one another, we see a God who meets us where we are and makes room for all of our strengths and weaknesses.
These pairs of women are too often compared to one another, with one held up above the other. The effects of this type of teaching are seen in our relationships with God, ourselves and each other.
How would it enrich our teaching and our faith if we talked about the ways that God shows up when we are at our least impressive?
Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss these secondary characters or hold them up to their shinier counterparts. Maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to hold ourselves up to the people around us.
If we taught the stories of these women hand in hand with their more well-known partners, we might disable one trigger in the comparison trap that ensnares so many of us.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit their article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.