Mary and Elizabeth: The Different Ways that God Works

From the playground to the workplace, we demand equality. It’s only fair, right? And politically, we should demand equal treatment. The political movements over the last few centuries that have fought for and won equal treatment for increasing numbers of people were right.

But there is a danger in this: many of us demand to be treated equally by God. We think, “If God grants someone an easy life or a life where she achieves her dreams, then it is only fair if God grants me an easy life or give me the opportunities I need to achieve my dreams.”

But the Bible does not teach that this is the way God works. God doesn’t deal with everyone equally. And I’m not making a simple point about sinners being treated differently than Christians. Even those who follow God and are faithful to Him don’t receive lives that are equally as easy or comfortable.

This point pushed itself into my mind as I studied the first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke. In the opening chapter, Luke tells about John the Baptist’s father finding out that he and his wife were going to have a baby. Then Luke turns to tell the Annunciation––when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she was soon going to be pregnant.

What is different about these women? Didn’t God work miraculously in them so that they would have children––Elizabeth with her husband after she’d gotten too old to have children, Mary to have a child while still a virgin?


Elizabeth was old and unable to have children. Zechariah and she had no children. Despite having been upright and blameless in the sight of God. And her barrenness was a source of her shame. In that culture, it was believed that if a couple was childless, it was the wife’s fault. And the barrenness was believed to be the result of sin.

So Elizabeth’s childlessness was the source of her shame and her pain.

But God worked in her life to remove that shame and pain. He blessed Zechariah and Elizabeth with a child.

God took away her disgrace. God worked in her life to decrease her shame in the eyes of the culture.


Mary was a young, virgin girl who was engaged to marry Joseph. Within a few months (the betrothal period lasted about a year), she would be married and begin her life as a wife. Perhaps she had thoughts about having kids. Maybe she was excited about getting married and starting a family.

Regardless of the details, she likely would have a picture of her future life. God was about to wreck that picture.

Then God sends the angel Gabriel. He tells Mary that the Holy Spirit is going to overshadow her and she will conceive a child. Mary is going to become pregnant as a virgin. And she’s going to become pregnant while she is still engaged to Joseph.

Notice what this would mean for Mary. People in Nazareth would assume that she had sex before she was married. Joseph might assume that she had sex with another man. We know from other stories in the Gospels that people viewed Jesus as an illegitimate child.

Today, we have some derogatory terms that describes what people in Mary’s day would have thought about her: “slut” or “whore”. That’s what people would have assumed about Mary.

Here is a young girl who wasn’t looked down upon and who hadn’t shamed her family. She’d done what was expected of her and stayed sexually pure. But now God’s miraculous work is making it appear that she’d been sexually impure.

God’s work in Mary’s life had brought her shame in her society. She had not had shame, but God’s work brought it.

What Does This Mean?

Compare Elizabeth and Mary. The former had shame in her society but God took it away through His mighty works. The latter did not have any shame but God’s work brought her shame in her society. The former had wrecked dreams (of having a child), while the latter had dreams (of a marriage and family life accepted by her community) that God wrecked.

God used both Mary and Elizabeth to fulfill His promises and to glorify Himself in their lives. But He did it in two different ways. There are two reasons why this is a vital point for Christians to learn:

  1. If Christians do not realize that God works differently in each of our lives, we might falsely expect things from God just because other Christians have them.
  2. When your faith in God or God’s work in your life causes wrecked dreams or others to look down upon you, don’t think that’s a sign you’re doing something wrong.

I hope you are open to God’s work in your life, even if His work in your life is different than His work in someone else’s lives. Sometimes that means He is going to ask things of you that He hasn’t asked of others. Be ready.

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