Podcast: The False Messages Facing Women Today (Lydia Brownback)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Dangers of Self-Focus

In this interview, Lydia Brownback, author of Flourish: How the Love of Christ Sets Us Free from Self-Focus highlights the false messages directed at Christian women today, reflecting on the increase of anxiety and depression among believers, the importance of discernment when it comes to the Christian leaders we follow, and the danger of a hyperexamined life.

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Lydia Brownback

This book aims to free women from self-focus and replace it with truth from God’s word about the abundant life Jesus promises them in the gospel.

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Full Transcript



Matt Tully
Lydia, thank you for being here with us on The Crossway Podcast.

Lydia Brownback
It’s great to be here today, Matt!

How Women are Thriving


Matt Tully
As you look at the evangelical church broadly, and women in the evangelical church, and your experiences as a woman in the church, and talking with other women, what are some of the things that you’re excited about? That you feel like are ways in which women are thriving?

Lydia Brownback
When I see women passionate about the truth of God’s Word, and applying that to their lives, and wanting to go deeper in God’s Word, and understand the big storyline of the Bible, that I find exciting. Instead of just going to Scripture for snippets here or there—how to have a better life, how to have a better marriage—women today are getting more and more excited about God’s agenda, his purposes in Scripture. And there does seem to be a movement of that.

Matt Tully
What do you think is behind that?

Lydia Brownback
Maybe it's a bit of a backlash to the invasion into evangelicalism of so much shallow teaching that we’re seeing today. So I do think this craving to go deeper is a reaction to so much of the shallow teaching—it’s not even just shallow, it’s wrong teaching—that’s coming. We see it in books, in podcasts, in articles, in websites, and even in a lot of churches today where God is sort of co-opted, Scripture is co-opted for how to have a better life. And it proves hollow in the long run.

Struggles Women Face


Matt Tully
What are some of the ways that you feel like women are struggling or are getting off track—broadly speaking. We’re generalizing, obviously.

Lydia Brownback
Well, when God is viewed as a sort of divine repairman, women aren’t going to revere him. They’re not going to trust him. They’re not going to understand God for who he is and as a result, they’re going to be fearful and anxious. How can you trust a God that’s just a repairman? And if his whole purpose is to just be there to help us have a better life and he’s kind of in the background unless we need him to come in to solve a problem, that’s not a real God. So if women are taught that’s who God is, they’re not going to really have a thriving faith or a trusting faith. There’s not going to be any joy in their walk with him because that’s a very small god—this false god that people have bought into. So that’s the flip side of this passion to go deeper—this shallowness that has captured a lot of people.

Fear and Anxiety


Matt Tully
You mention, even right there, that some of these ways of thinking lead to more depression, more anxiety. Have you noticed this trend in your own relationships with other women as you’ve counseled them or walked alongside them? What kinds of things have you noticed personally?

Lydia Brownback
Very much an increase in anxiety, in fear, and all the disorders that can go with that. Addictive behaviors, all kinds of things. And I think again it’s because they’ve been taught a god that’s too small. They don’t really know the God who is. They’re existing under this god they imagine. A god of their imagination. And that god is a god who curves us in on ourselves.

I think that’s the problem with so many young women today. They’ve been taught that the answer to life is to look inward, to focus inward. When God’s agenda for us is to get up and out. We are called to focus on him, and after that and through that to love other people. But instead we’re hearing through the self-care movement that the only way to get through life is to focus first and foremost on yourself. But that has the opposite effect. Paradoxically, that’s what’s causing this anxiety and depression. And the more we get stuck on ourselves the narrower our world becomes, and the smaller God gets. And that, I think, is the primary reason why there’s so much depression and anxiety.

Cultural Influences


Matt Tully
As you look at even your own life, what are some of the main influences that you see, or channels of influence, that can tempt women to look at themselves in those ways?

Lydia Brownback
Wow. Well, like never before we’re being bombarded with material to read. We have the internet, we have articles, and we have websites. And so many of these are Christian—or they claim to be Christian and evangelical—and they offer how-tos left and right. So if you have a problem you just have to go to one of these sites and search, “my relationship’s failing” or “I’m unhappy” or “I’m depressed, what do I do?” and you’re going to find all kinds of answers—“6 Plans to a Better This or That.” Then what happens is women will try these things and when they don’t work, they say, Well, maybe I read it wrong, maybe I need to find a different one. And they go look for a different article.

But what they’re not being directed to are the truths of Scripture, which are going to take them out of their own problems. That is the answer.

So all of these resources that are billed as “Christian” today, they have that label on them, but they’re not really, truly Christian. But of course, how can these women know that? How can they know? How can they know good teaching from bad teaching, true from false? That’s the problem—so much of what’s billed as evangelical, as Christian, as sound, just isn’t.

The Role of Social Media


Matt Tully
It’s interesting—you talk about just all the messages coming at women—it seems to me like part of that dynamic is the rise of social media, and the Internet more generally, where there’s just so much being passed around all the time. There’s so much that can be said by anybody and then shared very easily and very quickly. Do you see social media playing a unique role in this trend that you’re seeing?

Lydia Brownback
Huge! I think those who have the biggest social media platforms are listened to most. They’re the ones who are retweeted and reposted, and whether their teaching is sound or not, their soundness is based on their popularity. So there’s an assumption that if they have sixty million followers and they’re retweeted twenty-five times a day and they have thousands and thousands of reposts, then what they’re saying must be true.

You see this crossing denominational lines. It’s not just tied to any one group or church or anything. It’s social media, someone’s popularity there seems to be a measure of their soundness. And that’s such a mistake because sometimes the most sound people are not getting a lot of hits. They’re not very visible. And so we need discernment to say, What is this popularity due to? Why is this person so popular? And not just assume they’re popular because what they’re saying is sound.

Filtering through the Noise


Matt Tully
What advice would you give to a woman—or man, for that matter—in terms of filtering through the noise and trying to be as biblical as possible in what they’re consuming?

Lydia Brownback
The best way is to marinate in Scripture, all the time, every day. The more of it we know we develop discernment that we can apply to the grey areas. People say, Scripture doesn’t address everything. Well, it really does. The more we’re immersed in it and it’s shaping us, the more we’re going to understand how the black and white applies to the grey. We’re going to get a taste for how the Bible works out in those muddy areas of life that Scripture doesn’t seem to speak to. So the more we’re in Scripture the more we realize it does address every single thing, and we develop a taste for how. Even if it’s not spelled out in black and white, if we are immersed in Scripture, we will be able to make black-and-white application to the grey areas of our lives.

So there’s nothing new—there’s no new technique, there’s no new formula. It’s what it’s always been: Scripture. It’s the fellowship of God’s people, it’s prayer, and it’s sitting under sound teaching, and getting advice on where that is to be found. And if we’re not sure about something, we run it by somebody: an elder or a pastor or someone whose walk with God we really respect.

Viewing Oursevles through Others’ Eyes


Matt Tully
What impact do you think social media in particular has had on the way that women have come to view themselves and think about the way others view them?

Lydia Brownback
We’re always measuring ourselves against other people. So when you go to someone else's social media page and you think that’s their life, right? It’s no different than the Christmas letters that we all get, and that many of us send, that highlight the wonderful things that happened to us this past year. But no one’s Christmas letter, no one’s Facebook page, is their life. S

Think about these beautiful photos we see—we don’t realize the number of takes that someone took to post just that right picture. We see all these beautiful family scenes of people on a beach vacation, but we don’t realize the huge fight the family had right before that photo was taken or the fight they’re going to have five minutes later. So all we see is this “perfect” life. And we look at ourselves and say, What’s wrong with me? I don’t have that.

Social media skews reality. And if we look at it all the time, of course we’re going to think something’s missing! But no one is truly their Facebook page. No one is truly their Instagram. No one is truly their Snapchat. It’s not real.

Augmenting Reality


Matt Tully
There are apps on Instagram now that allow you to actually edit your face to make your eyes a little bit bigger, or your lips a little bit bigger, or change the color of your cheeks. What kind of effect do you think that has on women, and younger women in particular?

Lydia Brownback
Well, they’re going to despise themselves for what’s real and they’re going to want to hide what’s real. But if you don’t have to share what’s real and you share something fake, what happens when in real life when you encounter those people? It’s basically saying that who you are isn’t sufficient, that the way the Lord made you isn’t enough. Even going beyond that, it’s basically saying, I have the right to define myself. But it’s an illusion, because however you're presenting yourself on social media is not the real thing.

Home Decor and Comparison


Matt Tully
So another way that people can struggle with self-consciousness relates to their homes. That got me thinking about this Japanese author, Marie Kondo, published a book a number of years ago that’s taken the world by storm in the years since—The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Now I believe she has a Netflix reality series where she goes into people homes and helps them to tidy up and get rid of stuff. So that show has just kind of taken off. What are your thoughts on the popularity of that show and that book, and does that tell us anything about this drive toward self-consciousness?

Lydia Brownback
I think it does, actually. Our homes are just as much an expression of who we are as our physical person, right? So in one sense, I think this tidying up is great because they say, A cluttered home is indicative of a cluttered mind.

Someone I dearly love is a clutter bug, and it’s hard to find space to move around in their domain. But I love to have a clutter-free environment. And I’m a little obsessive about it. I mean, I want my glasses in my cupboard in descending order of height and I want them just so.

So there’s a balance there. Some of it is psychological—I think it’s serene to have a uncluttered home. But when it comes into the self-consciousness, I think it comes down to motive. Why? What is your motive? If you’re doing it to create an environment that’s pleasing to others in the way of giving them pleasure and loving them, then it’s a wonderful thing to do. And if it’s helping you have more mental clarity by not having clutter all over the place, that’s a good reason to do it. But if it’s to impress people with your home, then that’s the wrong reason.



Matt Tully
Alright, so let’s move on to self-improvement. You talk about how we are called to die and not improve. What do you mean by that? I thought we were called as Christians toward sanctification, which is this gradual loss of sin and gaining of Christ’s righteousness in our lives. So what do you mean by that?

Lydia Brownback
If you think about what sanctification is, it’s not us becoming a better us. It's us diminishing and being transformed into the image of Christ. Think about what Jesus said, “Whomever would come after me must take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it. Whomever would lose his life for my sake will save it.” This is the language of diminishing of self.

Reshaping Language


Matt Tully
Some of it is even the language that we use. That can have an impact on how we’re thinking about what this process looks like.

Lydia Brownback
Yeah, I think it is the language. And that’s some of the problem today. What are we hearing that’s shaping how we think about this? Words matter. People say, Oh, we can be loose about our lingo. We’re too hung up on theological Ts crossed and Is dotted and all that. But it matters. A lot.



Matt Tully
In light of what you just said about the danger of being preoccupied with self-improvement, what would you say is the right way to think about goals and resolutions as a Christian?

Lydia Brownback
If we think about it in terms of discipleship, it comes down to the end goal, right? There’s nothing wrong with pursuing good goals with resolutions. But what is the reason? Why are we doing it? What’s our end goal? Is it ourselves, or is it the Lord?

Having the Right Motivation


Matt Tully
Yeah, it strikes me that so much of the key is our motives and our heart behind why we’re doing the things that we’re doing. And that requires a God-centeredness that we can’t just manufacture on the spot—getting back to what you said earlier about being saturated in God’s Word and letting that direct the way that we think.

Lydia Brownback
Yeah. You know, we’re not supposed to think better of ourselves, or even worse of ourselves. We’re just supposed to stop thinking about ourselves at all! And that’s what this whole death to self we’re talking about is. It’s self-forgetfulness. You know, we’re so oriented on our bodies and our hearts and our minds, and even on our growth in the Lord. We’re so curved inward.

Feeling Like a Failure


Matt Tully
But what would you say to the woman who hears what you’re saying and isn’t trying to focus on herself—at least not consciously—but maybe feels like a failure. She just feels like she’s not good enough, can’t do all that she’s called to do the way that she’s called to do it, whether that’s related to being a spouse, or a parent, or an employee. What encouragement would you give to someone like that?

Lydia Brownback
I’d say she’s at a really good place, because we need to get to the end of our ourselves and our own resources, to that place of discouragement, only then will we realize that we need to be driven out of ourselves and quit trying. But it’s not that we give up and despair. Instead we lean into the Lord. And we then find enabling grace to do what he’s called us to do, and what he hasn’t called us to do and then put it off.

He’s going to equip us for everything he’s put in our lives to do. He’s made us, he’s designed us. Think about Psalm 139, “In your book they all were written the days fashioned for me when as yet there were none of them.” And we’re told how he knit us together in our mother’s womb. We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Everything about us, every day of our lives has been planned by God to glorify himself, so we have tremendous purpose. And it’s not to measure up to our own expectations or those of other people . It’s to lean into the Lord and say, I’m too weak to carry out anything and I need your strength.

Think about the apostle Paul’s thorn in his flesh and how when he pleaded with the Lord, I don’t want this weakness. It’s interfering with my life and I don’t want it. It’s hindering me. What did the Lord say to him? No, I’m not taking that weakness away, because my strength is made perfect in your weakness. And then Paul was able to say, Therefore, I will be content in my weaknesses and I will boast in them, my inadequacies. Because when I am weak, then I am strong. It’s all about the strength of Christ. So I think as we recognize our weaknesses, it is an opportunity, and only then are we going to have an opportunity to know the strength of the Lord that we wouldn’t know in any other way.



Matt Tully
Yeah. Let’s move on to self-analysis which seems related to what we were just talking about. So often our desire for self-improvement can come after we’ve spent time perhaps thinking about ourselves, trying to evaluate ourselves. In your book you talk about the hyper-examined life. There’s that common quote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.“ But you talk about the danger of the hyper-examined life. What is that?

Lydia Brownback
I think the hyper-examined life is where we’re constantly looking inward to figure out where we should go outward. We look at our feelings, we look at our emotions, we ask ourselves, Am I happy today? Am I happy in my job? Am I happy in my marriage? Am I being a good mom? How’s my mood? We’re examining our inner life in order to structure our outer life. That’s being hyper-examined. We’re taking our spiritual temperature and our emotional temperature all day long, and we use that as a barometer, as a guide for the directions we should take.

A lot of women enter into or exit relationships based on nothing except how they feel at any given time. They change jobs, they change churches, they do all kinds of things because of how they feel. But we can’t use our feelings as a barometer for our lives. It’s not reliable. I think Scripture does call us to examine ourselves, but for what end? We’re called to consider our ways. We’re called to take stock of things, but it takes us out of ourselves. It’s not like, How do I feel? It’s, Am I loving the Lord? There’s such a difference. So I think the more we curve in and try to assess our lives based on our feelings, the more muddled we’re going to get.

Rightly Handling Our Emotions


Matt Tully
What would you say to the person who hears that and it sounds to them like you’re saying, Your feelings don’t matter. Your emotions don’t matter. You just need to think more rationally How do you personally balance the value of your emotions and your feelings, but not let them take control?

Lydia Brownback
God is the one who designed us to feel things. We’re meant to feel the ups and the downs, because he made us feeling creatures. So it’s not that our emotions don’t count. They count a lot. But they are tools to drive us to the Lord.

If you look at all the Psalms and how much emotion comes into play in the Psalms, you realize God wants us to take all those emotions—the happiness and the sorrow and the grief and the anger and the frustration and the discouragement and even despair. Look at Psalm 88: it’s a psalm of total despair and even ends on that note, but it’s taking it to the Lord and pouring our heart out before him. So we don’t use our emotions to guide and govern our decisions. Instead, we use those emotions to say, I’m in a really bad place today. I’m going to the Lord with this. I can’t handle this. I need his help, his guidance, his Word. I need help. So it’s where we go with the emotions. If we take them to make decisions on our own and say, I’m sad. I want to change my life and I want my emotional happiness to be the idol of my life, so if this marriage, this job, is making me miserable, that must mean I have to change it. That's the problem. Right? So instead, how about saying, I’m so miserable and I don’t know what to do. And within the parameters of Scripture I can’t see any biblical option. What do I do? We go to the Lord and he will meet us there. So our emotions are given to us not to debunk them, not to crush them, but to drive us to the Lord for help.



Matt Tully
So in your experience as a woman, and talking to other women as well, what are some of the common areas that you would say women often struggle with self-condemnation?

Lydia Brownback
When they have a sexual past, I think that’s the worst. In my book I use the example of a woman who actually had a child out of wedlock when she was a teenager and then resented that child because of the crimp in her lifestyle it caused for years. So she wasn’t very nice to the boy and he ended up getting involved in drugs, and getting shot and killed as a teenager. And she could never let go of the guilt she felt for how she treated him. This is where the grace of the Lord is so amazing.

I think there’s a reason why we have these women with bad sexual pasts in Jesus’s family tree, you know? We have Rahab, a prostitute. Here she is in Jesus’s family tree and incorporated in there, and other women too? So when we come to the Lord, we’re bringing all that baggage and he washes and cleans us so much that we are made new. The old has passed away, the new has come. And so for us to hang on to what we did before is to either not see how new the new is, or to refuse to accept it. If we feel like we need to pay for what we did, in a way we’re saying what Jesus did isn’t enough and we want to make up for it. Well, here's that death to self again. Let go of that sin, because we can’t make up for it. And we can’t make ourselves feel better by condemning ourselves. We have to let it go. I think that’s the biggest thing. In Christ, not only are we free to let it go, we have to let it go.

Shame and Sin


Matt Tully
What about the Christian who struggled or fell into sin of some kind after they became a Christian. So it isn’t just something from their distant past before Christ saved them and before their life in a local church, it’s something that maybe happened recently and something that they’re very ashamed of. What encouragement would you give to that person?

Lydia Brownback
I’d say the same thing applies. You know what? The Christian life is two steps forward and one back. For all of us. Right? Do we think that once we come to Christ we’re never going to sin again? People can fall into terrible sin. They can backslide. And so the same remedy applies. Once we’re saved, Christ's payment for our sin applies not just for what we did before we were saved. It applies for every sin we’re going to commit for the rest of our lives. We can’t lose our salvation. God knows the sin we’re going to commit in July of 2022, you know?

But I think the guilt can feel worse if we sin after being saved like, How could I have done that? But when we say that, I think we have too high of an opinion of ourselves. We think Well, I’m in Christ. How could I have done that? It’s a failure to recognize that even though we’re in Christ, we still have sin going on. And we need him. Not just to get us in the door, but stay in after we’re in. And so we need his grace and his enabling everyday of our Christian lives.



Matt Tully
That’s good. We so often relegate Christ’s work for us to the past. We don’t think of it as a present and future reality that sustains us. Okay, last but not least let’s look at self-victimization. This feels like perhaps even one of the trickiest and most sensitive issues that you address in your book. And especially in this #metoo movement that we’re living in, where we’re seeing more and more the widespread abuse and victimization that has happened in our culture. How has the term or the definition of the term victim changed in recent years?

Lydia Brownback
This is probably the most sensitive chapter in the book. I’m well aware of that. How we define victim today has changed. We apply the term too liberally, I think. Today college kids need trigger warnings when they hear a viewpoint that they don’t like, and they’re considered victims of something that hurt their feelings.

But a victim is someone who is at the mercy of what someone else does to them. And so in the #metoo movement, these are victims. When someone abuses their authority and harms another, they have victimized somebody.

Matt Tully
So you’re not questioning the reality of real victims?

Lydia Brownback
Oh, not at all! What I’m saying is, don’t let that define the rest of your life. I speak this as a woman who understands what it is to be victimized. I was molested by a friend’s father when I was a child or a teenager, and there have been other incidents where there was abuse in my life. But I’m not letting that define my present. So I understand what it is to be abused, I want to be sure to say that.

At the same time, today we hear about women, adult women, who choose to have affairs with pastors and they want to be called victims because, Well, he abused his spiritual authority and pulled me in, and I’m thinking, I would be very careful before calling yourself a victim. If you are an adult in this country, you have the freedom to choose to walk away. And so, I think sometimes we want that label because it abdicates our responsibility. So that’s who I’m addressing here partly.

But I do not in any way want to denigrate the fact of real victimization. When people are abused, when they are taken advantage of, when they are mistreated, and when they are even emotionally and psychologically beaten down, coerced into things they don’t want to do, they are victims. That can happen to adults too, not just kids. It’s very real and the scars are there. These wounds can become scars. And if we think about what scar tissue is, it’s still there. It’s present. It’s part of our makeup. But we’re not aware of it every second of every day once the wound has healed.

The chapter is meant to give hope. It’s not meant to wag a finger in someone’s face and say, Quit whining. I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to say, if you are a victim of something, then you don’t have to let that ruin the rest of your life. You can take that to the Lord and say, This happened to me and it was awful and I don’t know how to live a normal life in light of what happened. So I need your enabling to not let that define the rest of my life. And in Christ, that is possible. So I’m trying to inspire hope.

Supporting Victims


Matt Tully
What advice would you offer other Christians, the broader Christian community, as we seek to care for people who have experienced this kind of thing at the hands of another? What are ways that we can support people like that?

Lydia Brownback
I think so much good has come out of this #metoo movement. And even the #churchtoo movement, which is just as prevalent now. And basically the message is, This is not okay. There has been a sweeping-under-the-rug of things, so women have felt ashamed. And know that even back in the seventies, when I was molested by a friend’s father, the way that I was told to handle it at the time was to just bury that and not tell anyone, because the shame would have been mine. Today if he did that, he’d be in prison. But you know what? It was just bury it, don’t tell anyone. And so I was just forbidden to ever go to that friend’s home anymore. That was it. And that was normal because the woman was made to feel ashamed.

So the #metoo movement has made a lot of difference. Now it’s not okay. We look at how these scandals have brought it out. The changes that have happened, even those who haven’t done anything to abuse someone, but they have minimized what’s happened to others. This is a good thing that’s happening. The church is finally recognizing it’s the people who committed the abuse should be ashamed, not those who mention it. So I think it’s important to not be embarrassed about it in the church. I think sometimes we’re so awkward and uncomfortable that we don’t want to talk about it and we don’t know what to say. So if someone put it out there that they’ve been abused, don’t make them feel ashamed. Go to them and just love them and just help them look forward and get up and out of themselves. But don’t make them feel embarrassed. So I do think that the church acknowledging this victimization that’s gone on, it brings it out of the shadows.

Hope for Women


Matt Tully
What bit of hope would you leave women with?

Lydia Brownback
That life in Christ is so wonderful. And that if we get out of ourselves and go up and out instead of in, we are going to find what Jesus meant by “the abundant life.” That’s where it’s found. We see it in Scripture all this joy, all the time, and we kind of wonder, Yeah, that’s great in theory. But I don’t live it. I don’t know it. But self-forgetfulness and focusing on the Lord, it is true! It is there. The Christian life can be a joy-filled experience every single day. And of course it ebbs and flows because we live in a fallen, sinful world. But it can come to characterize us more and more as we are self-forgetful, we’re going to be defined by joy.



Matt Tully
Thank you, Lydia, for spending some time with us today.

Lydia Brownback
Oh, it’s been a great conversation, Matt. Thanks for having me.

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