I was eighteen-years-old when I started getting called “Ma’am.” I was a third-class cadet, having survived the first year at the Coast Guard Academy and arrived at the point where there was a class below me on the totem pole. Now, I am forty-three, and I am often referred to as a girl. When I left the Coast Guard and began working in the civilian realm, the general disrespect for elders and superiors stunned me. So you can imagine how, all these years later, it would rub me the wrong way to be called a girl. It has always seemed disrespectful to me, as though I am not getting ‘credit’ for my life experience. More than once I have noticed that I am referred to with ‘younger’ terms than married women who are actually younger than me. While I know that I should probably be flattered, instead my pride is chafed. I want respect.
And [Jesus] sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”Mark 9:35
My parents have long referred to my sister and me as “the girls,” and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We’ll always be their girls. That people at church sometimes call us “the girls” is a different matter entirely. It has taken me some time to realize the real source of this problem. Recently, it occurred to me that it has nothing to do with disrespect and everything to do with how culture shapes our language. Our culture has stopped using the words that differentiated among single women. Likely, this was a purposeful accompaniment to throwing moral standards out the window. No one refers to unmarried women as maids or virgins anymore because modern culture does not want to characterize people by their lifestyle choices. Is it ironic that at a time when there are more single people than ever, we use the fewest words to describe them? As a writer and communicator, I always want to use the best word possible to describe something. But in this case, my desire for distinction comes down to pride. I want credit and respect for the life I am living. But I am a sinner like everyone else, and God wants me to have a humble spirit. I shouldn’t care about words; my concern should be that my actions honor and glorify God. God intends for me to be a servant, and He wants me to choose to take the last place.
God sent me back to the book of Ruth. I have often looked to Ruth as an example for how to conduct myself because she was single and had a reputation as a worthy woman. This reputation went before her so that Boaz respected her before he met her. When he first spoke to Ruth, and offered her the protection of continuing to work in his fields, this was her response: “Then she fell on her face, bowing to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favor in your eyes, that you should take notice of me, since I am a foreigner?’” (Ruth 2:10) I have always admired that Ruth was loyal, hard-working, and faithful, but I hadn’t paid much attention to her humility. Isn’t it interesting how people with the best reputations are the ones that aren’t trying to promote themselves? Ruth referred to herself not as a widow or a poor person in need, but simply as a foreigner. In doing so, she did not ask for respect or favor or infer that she was owed anything.
When [Jesus] had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? . . .For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”John 13:12, 15-17
Ruth didn’t try to recommend herself by ensuring that her actions toward her mother-in-law were known. Meanwhile, her actions must have seemed extraordinary to the people of Bethlehem because the whole town was buzzing about the young Moabite woman who had come with Naomi. I suspect that most of us, put in Ruth’s situation, would not have made the choice she did. As Boaz pointed out to her in Ruth 2:11, “[Y]ou left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.” In leaving behind all that she had ever known, Ruth also left behind any likelihood of marrying again and of ever having the protection that a father or husband would provide. Ruth chose to seek protection from the LORD, and this also seemed to be known throughout the town. Actions speak louder than words. All these centuries later, we can read about how God was faithful to watch over Ruth, first sending her to glean in Boaz’s field, and then providing for her to become his wife. And the humble foreigner was grafted into the genealogy of the Messiah.
There is more to life than words, even for a writer. Realizing the extent of my pride is just a first step. God keeps reminding me, and I keep falling back into my selfish life. Humility is not an objective that can be sought after and obtained. Rather, we must learn to see ourselves as we are and fall on our faces before our Savior to ask, “Who am I that I have found favor in your eyes?” I need to learn to keep my spirit face-down at the foot of the cross, not because I am seeking a reward, but because that is where I belong.