As the Summer Olympics drew to a close, so too did the angst over Simone Biles’s withdrawal from several of her gymnastics events. After mental struggles left her incapacitated, drawing both criticism and sympathy from the public, Biles finally triumphed on the balance beam, leaving us all with a classic Olympic feel-good story and a sense of closure.
But I’m still thinking about her, in an odd context.
I don’t know much about gymnastics, so I can’t opine on what happened to Biles, except to say that she does know something about gymnastics, and if she thought that competing would endanger her, she was most likely correct. But what really struck me about the incident was her response to all the supportive messages she received: She tweeted, “[They] made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
It saddens me that even a successful, celebrated young woman can feel that her only true worth is in her accomplishments. It saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me. We live in a world that hammers that message into us in all kinds of ways, both blatant and subtle. It’s no surprise that Rachael Denhollander—the former gymnast who fought to take down the doctor who abused both her and Biles—titled her memoir What Is a Girl Worth? She knew all too well that the sport she loved was full of people who could and would make a young woman feel worthless.
And tragically, many of us live in a church that does the exact same thing.
I’ve been reminded forcibly of that in recent days, as author and politician J. D. Vance—a professing Christian—has been publicly lambasting the childless. He started out by announcing that childless people’s opinions are worth less because they ostensibly have no “personal and direct stake” in the country’s future. He then started making the rounds of the talk shows, suggesting that parents should get extra votes on behalf of their children, so that the votes of childless people would count for less. Widely called out for his views, Vance (of course) promptly doubled down on them, sending out e-mails headed “No more CAT LADIES.”
I’ve seen some debate here and there over whether Vance really meant what he said, or was just pandering to his base. I don’t see that it matters one way or the other. What matters is that he calculated that he could get away with saying it, so he said it. And he kept saying it.
A lot of people were shocked by Vance’s blatant cruelty, not to mention his apparent ignorance of how the U.S. Constitution works. I wasn’t shocked. I’ve been informed before, in ways both overt and subtle, that as a childless person, I’m worth less than others. I’ve heard it quite a few times over the years behind the scenes, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before it started leaking like a toxic gas into the public arena.
And I’ve nearly always heard it from Christians.
This is the flip side of the pro-family movement in which I worked for many years, the shadow that so many people don’t talk about or aren’t even aware of. If your main focus as a Christian is getting people to have more children—especially if you go so far as to believe that this is the best way to propagate the gospel—at some point the belief that the childless are a waste of space will creep in.
I wish it weren’t true, and not just for my own sake. I love children, and I thought for a long time that a movement that prioritized and promoted them had to be a good movement. I worked in that movement for so long because I believed it. I cheerfully undertook tasks like reviewing children’s books for family audiences, because I thought it was a good way to help children and their parents.
What I slowly but inexorably discovered was that, for many influential people in this movement, it was not enough to value children and work for their good. If you didn’t have children of your own, you had failed in your life’s mission; you were a lesser person. To use a Vance-ism, you had no real “stake” in things. At one job, I was even told that it made no sense for me, a childless person, to write about children’s books.
I didn’t recognize it at first, but steadily throughout my career, a faint drumbeat was growing louder, a mantra similar to what Simone Biles must have heard when she stood on that competition floor and knew she couldn’t vault again:
You are not enough. You are not enough. You are not enough.
It’s not just in sports. It’s not just in entertainment, or business, or any other arena where competition is fierce and constant. This pernicious message is everywhere around us, floating in the air we breathe. And it’s wormed its way into the heart of the gospel we Christians preach.
Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not saying that the gospel is meant to reassure us that we are enough. I am a sinner, saved only by grace. I am selfish and envious and greedy and prideful and slothful and inconsiderate and deceitful and petty and hypocritical. I know all this about myself, better than anyone else does. That is exactly why I need a Savior.
You see, Christianity tells us that we don’t have to be enough. That’s the whole point. That’s the reason I signed up in the first place—because “Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (I Timothy 1:15). Christ gave His life for us, and His righteousness is attributed to us. None of us has to be enough because He is enough.
So why do so many Christians act otherwise?
J. D. Vance is a politician, not a theologian. But when, as a professing Christian, he brings this dysfunctional and damaging message into the public square, he presents the world with a grossly distorted picture of Christ. Whether his words are sincere or cynical, he is broadcasting the same twisted thinking that pursued me and hurt me all those years—the idea that, because of my childlessness, I’m not enough. Not good enough to make contributions in my field, however talented or committed I might be; not good enough to have my vote count, regardless of my citizenship; not good enough to be valued and respected; just not enough, period.
I said earlier that the world is awash in messages like these. So many are so eager to elevate themselves by finding reasons to tear others down. Christians, of all people, ought to be the ones countering those messages in every way we possibly can. Instead, the J. D. Vances of the world go up to the temple and pray, “God, I thank you that I am not like cat ladies.” And people like me are left feeling like Simone Biles when she couldn’t perform to expectations, wondering if her worth had vanished with her abilities.
All I can say is that I hope that the truth that Biles learned from her difficult experience stays with her. Because I’ve had a long, hard fight to hold onto that truth, and even now there are days when it nearly slips from my grasp. I have to keep reminding myself that no politician, no pundit, no person on any platform with any agenda gets to decide my worth.
It is enough to be made, loved, and redeemed by God. Now if only his people could figure that out.