When Life and Beliefs Collide

My dog-eared first edition that I just read for the 4th or 5th time!

Leading a recent zoom book discussion on When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference by Carolyn Custis James reminded me why I have given away and recommended this book more than any other.

This book contains three main themes: All women need to be a theologians but tend to avoid it, knowing God equips them to face the disappointments life throws at them, and that women are the strong helper—the ezer kenegdo—that the church needs.

Illustrated through the stories Mary and Martha of Bethany, Carolyn James declares that our theology (which she defines simply as knowing God) makes all the difference in our ability to handle life and serve others. She goes so far as to say:

Knowing God is a woman’s highest calling and her most pressing need. What we know of him, whether it is a little or a lot, is all we have to hang on to when the storm hits and we are being pulled into the downward spiral of worthlessness, despair, and defeat. It is also what energizes us as we tackle the task before us—as mothers, daughters, wives and friends. 1

James argues that Mary of Bethany is the first great woman theologian who desired nothing more than to learn who Jesus was. His invitation to her to learn of him in otherwise forbidden male spaces is a summons to us as well.

Then we feel her disappointment when Jesus doesn’t come on call to heal her brother. As she wrestles with who Jesus is and why he doesn’t answer her first request, we can identify with her. When her faith comes full circle and she anoints Jesus for burial, we want to imitate her absolute confidence in him.

Jesus invites Mary (and her sister) to think more deeply about him and know who he truly is. As her theology grows, Jesus “frees her from the incessant need to understand exactly what he is doing before she places confidence in him. And she discovers that he can be trusted in the worst of circumstances, that no matter how chaotic and hopeless things appear, he is good and nothing is beyond his control.”2 We too can conclude as Mary did, that God does all things “for our good and for his glory.”

In the final chapters, the author explores how our knowledge of God affects our relationships and our ministries. Just as Mary is an ezer-helper to Jesus, all women are:

A valiant warrior conscripted by God, not to fight against the man but to fight at his side as his greatest ally in the war to end all wars.3

Initially, this book confirmed that I needed and was allowed to have a deep knowledge of God. And understanding what being a strong helper meant was life changing.

The trials I experienced in Indonesia and in my personal life forced me to take a fresh look at the Scriptures and adjust my theology to match his word. As I did so, I internalized the truth of James’s words:

No matter what the challenge or adversity, my ironclad conviction is that God is always good, is always on this throne, is always working, always knows what he is doing and that his love for me never stops.4

How can you become a better theologian? How can you get to know God better?


Father God, I want to know you like Mary did. I want to sit at your feet and be your disciple. I want to have strong theology so that when the trials of life come, I can reconcile the God I know with the world I see.

1 Carolyn Custis James, When Life and Beliefs Collide: How Knowing God Makes a Difference (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2001), 168.

2 James, 110.

3 James, 187.

4 James, 138.

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