Grace Sufficient for Little Women

Scan your social media and you’re apt to see it. Better yet, scan the faces of the women you see and meet and converse with and you can sense the weight of it behind their eyes. Women stagger under the feeling they are not enough, bombarded with daily reminders about how inadequate they are, incapable of achieving purpose or attaining perfection. Despite the explosion of the empowerment industry—or perhaps because of the streaming images of women who are able to “have it all”, ask any woman you know if there is something they feel is missing and she will say yes.

Christian women feel it, too. Not far into a day of spills, calamities, questions, lost moments, and delayed expectations, this sense of deficiency grows and swells from deep within us. We ask ourselves, “Am I the right one for this job? Am I a good enough mom? A good enough homemaker, homeschooler, wife, person? Am I enough?” Again and again we go back through the choices we’ve made, the life we veered away from. Other moms seem to make better choices. It’s hard not to be envious when you scroll through their social media feeds and see the vacay photos, the craft day photos, the snuggle-on-the-couch-day photos. Even their whimsical “we had a wreck of a day” photos depict a better handle on life than mine.

Into this ethos and pathos comes Greta Gerwig’s newest film, Little Women.There are a lot of things I like about this version. I won’t share any spoilers, and really, it would be impossible—after all, the story has been well known for over a century now. This isn’t a review so I’m not here to give a grade on the production, but what really captured my attention with this particular adaptation of the story is Gerwig’s intentional artistic direction to emphasize empathy for the struggles the characters face and how that perspective resonates with a significant portion of the movie’s new fanbase.

Most women within a certain age range devoured this endearing book as children or watched previous versions of the story on the screen, and many of us aspired to be Jo, Louisa May Alcott’s adventurous, daring, imaginative, fearless—and sort of autobiographical—March sister. The tomboyish 9-year-old me envisioned my future self writing stories, defying bullies, proving that being a girl didn’t mean lace and dainties and marriage, and going off to a big city to experience a life that would seed authentic—and successful—authorship. Gerwig herself is quoted in Entertainment Weekly, “As a girl, my heroine was Jo March, and as a grown lady, my heroine is Lousia May Alcott.”

Florence Pugh as Amy March, Meryl Streep as Aunt March

On the other end of the sister spectrum is Amy, who has always been depicted as spoiled, pretentious, and affected. She announces early in the narrative, “I want to be great or nothing.” Upon adulthood, it appears she’s landed greatness: the world is her oyster. She is on her European tour, attends glamorous balls in elegant dresses, and dabbles her afternoons away in her private Parisian painting studio, but she cannot escape the shadow cast by the success of her big sister. Despite the trophies she’s accumulated, she is not satisfied, feeling very dearly the sting of being a merely mediocre artist in a city of artistic grandeur.

And how many of us have felt like Meg? Wondering if the choices we’ve made were based on mere romanticism, wispy hopes and aspirations drifting away with every year of financial struggle, hard domestic labor, and isolation, while caring for young children and weary husbands. Regret piles onto the burden of guilt for every doubt or thought of resentment, and still we wonder if the best outcomes always happen to other girls.

Emma Watson as Meg March

Beth, dear pure Beth, is limited in her ability to realize her dreams the way her sisters had. Her health precluded it, being one of thousands of women of the era who perished too early in life due to any number of causes, but easily traced back to the oppression of the age. “I’m not like the rest of you,” she says when she knows she’s dying. “I never made any plans about what I’d do when I grew up; I never thought of being married, as you did. I couldn’t seem to imagine myself anything but stupid little Beth, trotting about at home, of no use anywhere but there.” We assent when Jo calls Beth her conscience and says she is the best one of them all and affirm the bitter unfairness of life.

Eliza Scanlen as Beth March

Each of the sisters has flaws to overcome—Jo’s temper, Meg’s envy, Amy’s selfishness, and even Beth has shyness to conquer. Alcott’s moralistic upbringing is reflected in the letter Mr. March writes home to his daughters (while he is doing his duty as a Union Army chaplain): “I know they will remember all I said to them, that they will be loving children to you, will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully that when I come back to them I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my little women.” In the book, the girls are tasked with this mission to root out their flaws and overcome them. ​

Perhaps one reason this version is fast becoming a favorite among adult women is that Gerwig casts the villain “out there” instead of employing Alcott’s internal struggle. Oh, yes, Jo agonizes over her temper and Meg repents of her jealousy, but ultimately, both are exonerated from guilt, for it’s the demands, the expectations, the discrimination and bias, tradition’s suppression and society’s artificiality, all this is what holds us back. Her perspective of the trials of the sisters reflects our own angst and distress over whether we make a difference in this world—or at least in the little spheres we inhabit. We are victims of our own circumstances. Gerwig knew exactly who her audience would be, and she would have us recast ourselves as heroines of our own stories. 

I admit that in a way I find Gerwig a kindred spirit. I sympathize with what my sisters are going through. There are the scars of a pit in my stomach that still feels the ache when young women weep about finding their way through the maze of acceptance and achievement. I want to comfort them and the moms who just can’t face another day of failure and inadequacy and the friends who detect that the pressures their daughters are facing are merely repeat seasons of their own experiences. I believe Gerwig’s intentions are not malicious, and perhaps even admirable. I believe she cares about our feminine cohorts, but it is an insidious scheme to promise women that validation of the heroine and erasure of the sense of duty will fix their inability to achieve perfection.

They’re right to bring up one question though: what is this “enough”? Who or what defines it or its parameters? Is it what is good, or beautiful, or successful, or worthy, or wanted? Who determines these qualities? Who measures perfection?

According to the Scriptures, no one is enough, and the One who sets the standard requires perfect obedience.

We are hopelessly inadequate. Because of our garden legacy, we are born with sin already rooted in our hearts, and we cannot satisfy God’s demand for perfection. This endless aspiration for something that can’t be attained is a waste of energy on low-hanging fruit. Very, very low-hanging fruit. 

It’s in our nature to gravitate toward injustices against our sensitivities. We’re obsessed with figuring out how to feel better about not being good enough because it’s what our self-absorbed souls are inclined to do.

Except as new creatures in Christ, our gaze should be on our steadfast Lord and God. He fulfilled all promises to restore and reconcile us in the midst of this mess of a broken creation, and he does so through the gift of his son, Jesus, who took the penalty for our iniquities and transgressions and sins, so that we might receive forgiveness, a forgiveness undeserved. We have this Christ as our treasure, and when he presents us as his chosen and beloved bride, we are perfect and spotless before the throne. He says,

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). 

In my weakness he perfects his power. But hey, let’s keep looking at how sad I am today because I can’t get enough limes to make me popular at school (a la Amy)—or my social feed to look as good as someone else’s.

God alone knows what is good, and what is good for us. He alone knows what makes a beautiful path for each of us, or how strong or weak our faith will be, or whether we have reached the measurement of “enough”. His wisdom has our good and his glory in view. Meg’s discontentment fuels her coveting and envying all those around her. I did that last week when I compared the success of another writer to mine, assuming I know better than God what this journey should be for me, as if I am owed that which I see others have or enjoy, as if I deserve better because there is something inherently better about me than she. God is not keeping anything from me, and in his trustworthiness, he supplies in perfect timing the best gifts for me. But I didn’t let that truth get in the way of a good rant that fed my pride and diminished a fellow sister in Christ.

Saorise Ronan as Jo March

Paul pleaded with the Lord to take away the thorn that harassed him, but in time he saw that it was one of the Lord’s many gifts. Immaturity prevents us from seeing that God leans in to work over time in small, mundane people feeling inadequate and insufficient for the task at hand. Skills are wanting; we don’t want to hear what others recommend because it’s just too hard or unfair or belittling, but patience and trust show that in our weakness his strength is revealed. We are called to obey and grow, and he determines the pace and the path. As Matthew Henry says, “Duty is ours, but the events are God’s.” We tend to want to skip over the lessons learned through this sanctification process. We want the end results now. We want a magic wand to wave over the dirty dishes and the moral failings and conjure up perfection. We don’t want to hear the blunt critique that might require growing pains as a new writing voice emerges. Duty is akin to self-denial. Both deposit ingredients of sorrow and trial and lowliness into the stew, and holiness is nurtured and seasoned under the watchful eye of our heavenly Father. 

Sin is subtle and it looks differently for each of us. You may be an Amy, or a Meg, or a Jo, but regardless of which sister you think you identify with, each of us can find ourselves deluded by the shiny allure of sin’s promises. JC Ryle wrote: “What would you expect? Sin will not come to you, saying, ‘I am sin.’ It would do little harm if it did. Sin always seems ‘good, pleasant, and desirable,’ at the time of arrival.” In sin, we yearn and strive for the low hanging fruit of acceptance through our own achievements because the truth about our iniquities is an offense to us, the fact that we need Jesus is abhorrent to us. 

Through his power, we are strengthened through suffering, we acquiesce to self-denial, and we delight in duty when the glory and grandeur that is Christ is right in front of us. All of God’s work is done in the wilderness, in struggle, in persecution, in weakness, with thorns in our sides, from the margins where the outcasts dwell​—Gentiles, women, slaves. This is where Deliverance finds us.

Emma Watson as Meg March, Saoirse Ronan as Jo March, Florence Pugh as Amy March, Eliza Scanlen as Beth March, Little Women, 2019

Every one of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women need this Jesus instead of moralistic self-actualization, and each one of Gerwig’s March sisters need his probing light into the darkness of their hearts rather than more debate about who is to blame for their troubles. 

​So, my fellow women—little women; weak women; broken, tired, hurting, and insignificant women—lay down your yearning and grasping for perfection, and don’t settle even for adequacy and sufficiency in yourself. Any attempt at being your own heroine rejects Christ and denies the fullness of his grace in you.

Who or what do you revere and serve? The idol of a being more, being best, being perfect? Or God who is working through the circumstances of your weaknesses and not enoughness and inadequacies to shine gospel glory and power over all the messes and brokenness, redeeming us and gathering us to him and into the kingdom for the final display of his majesty and perfection—not ours. Let’s focus our gaze on Jesus and not on the low-hanging fruit of unattainable perfection. He will enlarge our treasure of joy and contentment if we see him for the gift that he is!


This post was developed from notes used for a talk at our church’s MomsConnect group on 1/14/2020.

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