Podcast: The Freeing Reality that You Are Not Enough (Jen Wilkin)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Why Our Limits Are Good

In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Jen Wilkin, author of None Like Him: 10 Ways God Is Different from Us (and Why That's a Good Thing), discusses our God-given limits as created beings. She reflects on why the common refrain that we should look inside ourselves for meaning and purpose is so misguided, how our personal stories and family history impact our view of God, and why embracing our limits in the presence of a limitless God is the only path to true peace.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview

None Like Him

None Like Him

Jen Wilkin

This exploration of ten attributes that belong to God alone reminds us of why our limits are a good thing in light of God’s limitlessness—celebrating the freedom that comes from letting God be God.

What Christian Women Often Lack

01:28

Matt Tully
I want to start our conversation today where you end your book with a really interesting line. You write, “Our primary problem as Christian women is not that we lack self-worth, not that we lack a sense of significance. It’s that we lack awe.” Can you unpack that a little bit?

Jen Wilkin
There's a prevalent style and content of teaching, for women in particular, that falls along the lines of, Oh my gosh. You know what women most need? They need to understand identity. In fact, it's probably the most common topic that I'm asked to speak on when I'm invited to speak at women's events. We are consumed with asking the question, Who am I? And it's not a bad question. It's actually a really important question to ask, but as believers we understand that arriving at the answer to that question comes through a different path than it does for the unbeliever. The unbeliever can spend their whole life trying to understand themselves in reference to the world around them or to other people, but for the believer we understand ourselves in reference to God. When you look at a lot of the typical resources that are being created for women today, these are the messages that are being given to them. Although it's not unique just to women. It's in our worship music now and a lot of other places.

The Lense of Self-Worth and Identity

02:51

Matt Tully
Why is the lens of self-worth and identity the dominant way that Christian women—and men increasingly so—tend to think about themselves and think about their relationship with God? Is that a new phenomenon, or is that something as old as mud?

Jen Wilkin
I can't imagine it's a new phenomenon. What we all want to believe is that we're enough. But what the Gospel tells us is that apart from Christ we're not enough. And in fact, even once we become believers our enough-ness is only rooted in the finished work of Christ. But when we have that sense of, Maybe everyone is going to figure out that I'm a fraud or, Maybe everyone is going to find out that I'm not everything that I put myself out there to be, we're right. We're not enough. We can't do everything that we should do to please the Lord. By the power of the Spirit we can grow in our ability to do so as believers, but the culture wants to tell us, No, you're enough. You're good. You do you. Live your truth. But the Bible is saying something radically different. It's saying, There is a God. He is seated in the heavens enthroned between the cherubim. Because he is your origin, you are obligated to him. You're obligated to obey him. You're obligated to worship him. For the believer it moves from obligation to joy because we recognize the truth of it. But to the unbeliever it's like, Why would I worship something outside of myself?

Self-worship and self-loathing, ironically, are always holding hands with one another. Both of them involve self-focus. Women spend a lot of time self-loathing. You can tell from the way that goods and services are marketed to us. Messages that they are enough are very appealing to them. It's important as believers for us to come to the Scriptures and say, Wait a minute. If I am an image-bearer of the God who sits enthroned between the cherubim, then that's a different way of understanding my enough-ness, so to speak, then what the world is trying to tell me.

Matt Tully
Is that something that you personally have struggled with—or maybe women close to you and your own family or your own orbit? Is that something that you personally resonate with?

Jen Wilkin
Absolutely. I think probably in my case I lean more towards pride than self-loathing. We all have things that we hate about ourselves, but I would say my tendency is to move toward overconfidence or pride instead of to the self-loathing piece. I'm fighting for balance just like everyone else. I need to know that the Lord is actually running the show and not me. A lot of this really depends on your history of relationships with your parents, with your family, or with your spouse that can drive the way that you perceive yourself in relation to everything, which is why we so desperately need a reference point that transcends those. We need that transcendent piece. We need the Lord. But for women I think often it is this other thing. It is, I'm not beautiful enough. I'm not smart enough. I'm not a good enough mother. I'm not this, I'm not that. You see depression and anxiety rates are much higher among women than they are among men. I think we could discuss a lot of cultural and even biological reasons that that's probably the case for women. I think I'm probably not coming at this from the normative space that women do. But as someone who ministers to women weekly, I'm sensitive to it. As someone who has daughters, and a mother, and a mother in law, I'm always around women and we deserve a more glorious vision.

A Challenge Facing Christian Women

06:48

Matt Tully
Would you say this is the root challenge facing Christian women today? Would you put it in that kind of language?

Jen Wilkin
I think it's rooted in my favorite topic, Bible illiteracy. I think that when we withhold the actual Bible from women and instead give them books about the Bible that are driving messages, then they aren't ever even given an opportunity to consider this transcendent God. So I think it's been a problem that's been around as long as there have been humans. But it looks a particular way at this particular time.

Matt Tully
You seem to be hitting on something similar when you talk about the verse that has impacted your life the most, which was Psalm 111:10. Can you recite that verse from memory and then explain why that verse has had such a big impact on you?

Jen Wilkin
It says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps. 111:10) I remember being in my early 20s and thinking, Man, I want to live a life of wisdom and wondering, But what does that mean and where does one start with that? One day while reading—I was doing one of those go through the Bible in a year things where you bounce from the Old Testament, to the New Testament, to the Psalms—and I hit this in the Psalms and I was like, Well, that is unexpected. I would have thought that the adoration of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom, that the love of the Lord, that the joy of the Lord . . . fill in the blank with any coffee cup idea that you want.

Matt Tully
You're not going to see, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” on a towel or a coaster or something like that.

Jen Wilkin
Not only that, but how often do we even talk about the fear of the Lord anywhere? We have our favorite things we like to talk about concerning the Lord and they're usually the snuggly things. And so I think this gets back to what you were saying earlier—you were asking, Is this a thing that's unique to women in this time period?—and again, I think the current emphasis problem in the church is a low view of God. We only want God near. We want Abba daddy God. We are not sure what to do with the God who thunders from on high. And so coming across this verse—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—it's like, If I want to make a beginning at wisdom it has to begin with this. I remember sharing this insight while teaching in rooms of women and women we coming up to me and saying, No, no, no. Perfect love drives out fear, Jen. Perfect love drives out fear. We don't have to be afraid anymore because we're children of God, and so perfect love drives out fear. Well, you can't just get rid of it. It's not just Psalm 111:10. It's in the Old Testament lots of places and actually, it's in the New Testament also.

How Fear and Love Can Coexistt

09:47

Matt Tully
So how would you respond to that? That's true. There is a sense in which perfect love does cast out fear. That's a Scriptural truth as well. So how would you respond in that situation?

Jen Wilkin
Instead of picking our favorite, I think we have to ask how those two things live together. The fear, of course, is being referenced in Psalm 111:10 and when we speak specifically of the fear of the Lord we mean the right reverence of the Lord. I want to say, Oh, it's not a trembling fear because perfect love casts out the fear of rejection, but I don't actually think that that's what we see in the Scriptures. If you look at the end of Hebrews 12 it says, You haven't come to scary Mount Sinai, you've come to joyful Mt. Zion. Then it ends with, Worship the Lord in the fear of holiness, for our God is a consuming fire. He's still a consuming fire at the end of Hebrews 12! We have to make sure that we are living the Christian life in a place that acknowledges that the one who is near is also the one who transcends, and he is worthy of our worship. He is not level with us. He is not on the same level with us. That changes the way that we pray, it changes the way that we think, and speak, and act because we understand that the consuming fire that was coming for us apart from Christ is no longer; but that is still the God who we worship.

Two Extreme Views of God

11:23

Matt Tully
Do you think there's a sense in which there is a bit of a pendulum swing effect going on where in previous generations God was viewed as distant, and hard, and cold, and maybe he was just kind of always angry at us? There was just this distance and a lack of warmth and now we have swung in the other direction where he is very close and very near. He just loves us.

Jen Wilkin
Absolutely. It's interesting because I think it trickles down into the way that earthly fathers think about fatherhood. I think about my grandfather and my great grandfather and what their parenting style was compared to my own father's and my husband's because you see among parents now—and even younger parents now—high, high relational value on parenting. In fact, to the place that in many cases rules have fallen by the wayside. Rules are seen as tearing down relationship instead of enabling relationship, which is really what rules are for.

Matt Tully
I've seen that. I have young kids at home and there seems to be a strain of parenting philosophies that are very much like that. Don't say 'no' to your kids because that's going to—

Jen Wilkin
Jeopardize relationship.

Matt Tully
—stifle their creativity, stifle their own self-expression. That's interesting how those earthly relationships can even feed back into how we view God.

Jen Wilkin
Absolutely.

The Effect of Earthly Fathers

12:55

Matt Tully
What was your dad like and how do you think that might have influenced the way that you approach God?

Jen Wilkin
It's had a massive influence on the way I think about the Lord and I think it's one of the reasons that I don't deal with the self-loathing piece as much as I deal with the pride piece. My dad was a really great mix of relationship and rules. I think he understood how those two things worked together really well. I think he fell into that generational sweet spot between the aloof parent and the overly relational parent. He always treated me as though I had a mind that was worth developing. He always treated me as though my opinions mattered. I have four brothers and I was treated like one of the pack.

Obviously there are differences in the ways that we treat daughters and sons, but in terms of my ability to think, and to reason, and my sense of humor—all of those things—he treated me as someone that he saw, and valued, and wanted to be around, and enjoyed being around. It's impacted my marriage, the kind of man that I married, and certainly made the idea of God as Father something that was appealing to me. I know that for many women that's not the case because they have very difficult stories with their earthly fathers. So it's a huge gift. My parents divorced when I was eight, so there were a thousand ways that this man could have not gotten this right. And he persevered.

To the Fatherless Woman

14:32

Matt Tully
What do you say to women who don't have fathers who are like your dad, who didn't model that authority and love in a godly way?

Jen Wilkin
The thing with our earthly families is we so very much want them to be the families that we know they should be and they just aren't. Whether it's a father who failed you, or a mother who failed you—or it could be any range of family members—this is why it's so important for us to hear the words of Jesus in the New Testament when he says—gosh, Matt, you're making me cry in the podcast—when he says, Who are my father, and my mother, and my brothers, and my sisters? It's the one who does the will of the Father. He points us to the true and better family, which is the church. I think that obviously God is the ultimate Father, but within the family of God—the church—we often find ourselves placed mercifully in proximity to those who are spiritual mothers and fathers and spiritual siblings to us in a way that our natural families weren't or couldn't be. And it's a massive gift. I think it's a sign of the in-breaking Kingdom.

God’s Infinite Nature

15:52

Matt Tully
This whole conversation is just another example of what you're hitting on in the book, just pointing us away from ourselves, ultimately. Even if God gives us other Christians who can be those mothers and fathers to us, we're all imperfect. If we look inward and are turning towards ourselves rather than to something transcendent, like you've said, we're ultimately going to be disappointed. One of the attributes of God that you focus on—I believe you start with it—is God's infinity, as another way of saying God doesn't have limits. Why do you think that's an important attribute, or quality of God, that we should start with when we think about who he is?

Jen Wilkin
If you want to talk about the otherness of God, that's pretty much the starting point because everything that we know starts and ends somewhere. Everyone that we know starts and ends somewhere. Everything about us is an expression of a limit. To then see God as free of limits begins to orient us rightly to him to understand that he is worthy of worship. The most basic answer to the question, Who am I? for every human being is, I am a worshipper. And so when we try to understand—which is beyond our understanding, but we're able to understand in part—that God is not bound by time, and he's not bound by a physical body, and he is not bound by space, and he is not bound in his knowledge, or in his wisdom, or in his rule, all of the ways that God is not bound, and that we are bound, then we have to dig a little deeper and say, Well, why am I limited and God is not limited? Is it because of sin?

That's what we think in our head, Well, that must be Genesis 3. Genesis 1 and 2, where everything was gonna be awesome, I was probably going to be unlimited. But then you start looking at it and you're like, No. Actually Adam and Eve were created in the image of God, but not as God. They were created with physical bodies which were limited—they could only be in one place at one time. The idea of rest is in the creation account. They needed to rest. Their strength was not inexhaustible. There was food given to them, so they needed to eat to sustain their energy. They needed to reproduce themselves. There are all of these things that you begin to see, Oh wait a minute. The reason that limits exist for humanity is because God designed us to be limited. Then we can begin to ask, What lessons might we learn if we reflect on the fact that God is limitless and I am actually limited by design? Maybe those limits were given to me so that I would turn to the Lord in them.

Sin’s Effects on Our Limits

18:50

Matt Tully
It's so hard for us to even think about those limits—you listed some of them—I think in part because they're all stained with sin in our lives today. It's hard for me to think about my need for sleep even without just thinking about the ways that we rebel against God. Sin just colors everything about our existence today, so I think it's hard to contemplate those things.

Jen Wilkin
I think perfect humanity is something that we haven't spent a lot of time thinking about. Perfect humanity means perfect submission to perfect to limits. But what we're dealing with is imperfect humanity, with imperfect submission, to limits that we can't even really trace anymore. We've forgotten where they are. So even something as simple as sleep: well, the reason that I want to stay up until 2 a.m. doing work or staring at my phone instead of going to bed is probably a sinful one. But I've forgotten that it's a good boundary to go to bed. That is actually a boundary line that falls in a pleasant place for me if I would seek it out. And so instead, I think that the boundary is the problem which is pretty typical human nature. You know what the problem is? It's where you drew the line. It's not with my behavior.

Knowing Our Limits

20:04

Matt Tully
That picks up on one of the main threads in how you think about these attributes of God, specifically ones that we don't share with him, is our problem comes when we try to assume those attributes ourselves and don't recognize the inherent limits that God has placed on us as good. Can you elaborate on why that is the crux of the issue?

Jen Wilkin
That was the turning point for me in this discussion when I first discovered the incommunicable attributes—the ones that are only true about God. I thought, How come no one's talking about this? This feels really important! But I wasn't really sure why it was important. The more time that I spent with them the more I began to realize we talk a lot about the idolatry of loving someone in the place of God, or trying to imitate someone else instead of God. But the problem with the incommunicable attributes is that we actually are trying to imitate God in a way that we are not designed to imitate him. At first I would have said, I can't be omniscient, so I'm just gonna worship God for being omniscient. But then I began to realize, No, I have a bigger problem. It's not just that I can't be omniscient, it's that I actually really want to be omniscient and I'm finding ways to make myself feel as though I am omniscient on a regular basis. The obvious example here is the smartphone.

There was even an ad campaign for one of those phones when it first came out that said, All-seeing. All-knowing. I'm like, Okay first, that's a creepy ad campaign. But second, do you hear the appeal? Who doesn't want that? I don't want limits. I want to think that there are no limits on what I can know. I do want to think there are no limits on my location. So FaceTime. Well, that really appeals to me because that means I can live in one place and I can feel like I'm maintaining a relationship. Or maybe the classic example would be social media in general, which gives you the sense that you can maintain basically an infinite number of relationships with people without being in an infinite number of locations. You get this false sense of, Oh, I know all of these people. Well, only God is not bound by location in a way that makes possible for him the ability to maintain relationships with as many people as he wishes. And so social media mimics omnipresence by making me feel like I can have proximity to all of these people when I actually don't.

Our Desire for Control

22:50

Matt Tully
As you think about the list of God's incommunicable attributes —I believe you focus on 10 of them in the book—is there one that you feel most tempted towards trying to take for yourself?

Jen Wilkin
The one that I think is the most convicting to me is—well, I'll give you two—sovereignty, because I want to control people. I think that's a pretty common one, but at the point that I was writing the book my kids were entering into the years of parenting where you have to pull back on the controls and you become a consultant. I was not loving that. I knew I needed to do it and I was operating according to the schedule, but in my heart I did not want to let go. You know that Find My Friends thing? I thought, I can track my kids. I can know where they are all the time if I want to. And that makes me feel omniscient and omnipresent in a way that I did not want to turn loose of. So I would say that one—sovereignty—and I guess I rolled omniscience and omnipresence in there as well. I think the biggest one for me overall across my lifetime has been immutability. I hate change. I've jokingly said that it's because I'm like God, because God does not change. But there's nothing more ubiquitous to the human condition than change.

The fact that I hate it shows something about something going on in me. Again, it probably has to do with that control issue. Not only am I prone to not wanting anything in my circumstances to change or in my relationships to change, but also in my heart. What I write in the book about people who, when confronted with their sin, say, Well, that's just who I am. I can't change. How do you think I come up with a good example like that? Oh, that's right. Because it's me looking in the mirror. That impulse to say, Listen, this is who I am. You just need to take me on on my own terms. If it's a sin problem, then it's not who I was intended to be. And if the Spirit dwells in me, then it's not who I might become. To aspire to immutability or to try to embrace immutability as a human being is to deny the power of the gospel to change us from glory to glory.

God’s Sovereignty

25:30

Matt Tully
You save the chapter on God's sovereignty until the end of the book and you make a point of highlighting that. Why did you do that?

Jen Wilkin
It's controversial. I don't think it's controversial in the sense that you can't see it in the Scriptures, but it's controversial in the way that we try to understand it. Most people don't give you a place to land between determination and free will. So either we're puppets, or we can do every single thing that we want. I wanted people to have enough of a framework for the limitlessness of God in other aspects before I introduced that concept because I think we often just talk about it on its own. When you start thinking about the sovereignty of God after you've contemplated that he is limitless in his power, and his knowledge, and his location, and on and on and on, by the time you get to sovereignty you're like, Oh! Well, yeah!

Matt Tully
It's another way of saying the same thing.

Jen Wilkin
Yes. It's kind of like, Oh, that kind of ties it all together. How would he not be sovereign if he is all of these other things? And then, I've hung around with Calvinists for a long time. I am one, but I do think that sometimes we have an emphasis problem that can be not very pastoral, but also just not sensitive to the typical learner or someone who's just honestly trying to read the Bible and reconcile these ideas of freewill and God's sovereignty. I always like to remind people who read my books that the Bible is very, very clear that God is sovereign and man is responsible. How those two things work together, I don't know. But I need to find the way to let those two things be speaking to me out of the Scriptures. I think it's a very similar situation to wanting to live with the fear of the Lord and also the deep and personal affection of the Lord as my two reference points. If I lean one way too much or the other way too much, then something's probably going to get out of kilter with my theology. So my desire is to restore to people a sense of you can trust the sovereignty of God and also still recognize that your decisions matter.

Matt Tully
Was there a process of you coming to embrace the sovereignty of God as you do today? Did you always think this way or was there a time when what you just said would have been problematic for you?

Jen Wilkin
I came out of a freewill background, like many people did. I had my cage stage, too probably when I was in my late 20s. I just thought, This was out here the whole time and nobody told me this? And I remember trying to teach on the sovereignty of God in a church where everybody's like, What's happening? Why are we talking about this? I wrote a study on hymns of the church and I didn't really want to teach about hymns—I did a little bit—but I mainly just wanted to wedge my favorite hobby horses, my doctrines, that I was really wanting to indoctrinate people into through this little hymn study. I'm like, Hey, let's come learn about the hymns. Oh, and by the way let's talk about freewill. Let's talk about the five points of Calvinism. And it didn't go well.

Matt Tully
How so? What happened?

Jen Wilkin
Well, you can't just do a hard right turn for a bunch of people who've grown up singing “Just As I Am”, to an invitation every week, and If you died tonight where are you going to spend eternity?, and all that kind of stuff. These are believers who love the Lord. And I think at that point I loved doctrine, but I didn't love the people who I was teaching doctrine to. That changes the way that you present any message and I hope it changes it for the better. It doesn't mean that you compromise the message, but it certainly means that you look for how the message is going to be helpful to them in practical ways.

Explaining God’s Sovereignty to Someone Struggling

29:44

Matt Tully
How would you change how you present something like God's sovereignty—which it is a hard thing if you haven't thought carefully about it, or even if you have, they are truths that strike at the heart of who we think we are and who we think God is—how would you present that to somebody who is struggling?

Jen Wilkin
I think we should understand it as a comfort, certainly. But it's an ultimate comfort. I certainly don't think it's a great topic to bring up when someone is in crisis, unless they want to talk about it. We want neat plot resolutions to our stories and we're accustomed to it. The entertainment industry is happy to give them to us, and novels are happy to give them to us, and so we are shocked when we learn that the sovereignty of God is a concept that stretches from alpha to omega. It stretches from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. When we think about God being sovereign, we want our story to make sense in our 70 or 80 years.

The idea that the sovereignty of God is bigger than my lifetime is jarring to me. The sum total of the decisions that I will make during my lifetime may have a big impact, but probably will be a drop in the bucket in terms of the direction of humanity over Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. It doesn't mean that those decisions don't matter—they matter very much—they just matter in reference to the sovereignty of God. And so I hope to teach those things with care and without soundbites attached to them, which I think can be a real problem of, Oh, the Lord's going work it all out. Well, he may not until three generations from now in my family. Am I ok with that? No. I want to see that now.

But God is not limited by time. He sees the beginning from the end. So there's a lot of comfort in that, but there's also some pressing on us to say, What am I willing to turn loose of that I have loved—that the Lord using all things for good is gonna happen in a time frame that I'm going to get to witness? Maybe it's better if that's not the case. Maybe not better for me in this life, but that I will stand with the saints one day and look back and say, Yeah, that was better.

Matt Tully
Well Jen, thank you so much for sharing a little bit more about your passion to know God and thank you for your work helping regular people to do that and to get to know him better.

Jen Wilkin
Thanks for having me on.


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