The pressure we women place on ourselves is unbelievable, and usually self-inflicted. At least, this is what I have observed – and experienced. So many Christian women that I have met are burdened with secret feelings of failure and inadequacy. How do we typically deal with these feelings? (Why, with busyness and competition, of course.) If only we could do a little more, take on just a few more responsibilities, then maybe it would be enough. Too often we pursue this stressful lifestyle in the name of biblical womanhood. The infamous Proverbs 31 Woman is often the standard of measurement that fuels our quest to be not just ‘an excellent’ woman, but The Most Excellent Woman. I write this as a confession, not a judgement. What Bible-believing woman has not, at one time or another, compared herself to this woman (and all the others that she knows) only to find that she can never possess all of the attributes she desires? Or perhaps worse, that she pronounces herself as having arrived at this title because she can match up her actions to those described in Proverbs 31. Let me release you from this hamster wheel – you can never be this woman because she is not real.
Before you dismiss me as a heretic, let me explain. When approaching Scripture, everything must be taken in context. This passage is in fact, a proverb and a parable. This is the advice of a queen speaking to her son to advise him of the kind of woman who is worthy to be a princess. It is critical to note that this is a description of an imaginary, ideal woman. On the practical side, we must first admit some clear differences between this ideal woman and ourselves:
1. I am not an archaic queen. I have no staff at my disposal and no servants to do my bidding. I am one woman, and while there are many things that I could do well, I cannot do all of them. I cannot meet every need, so I must prioritize the needs that are truly my responsibility.
2. The balance between work and home are much different than they were in ancient times.
Women in this time period (roughly 1000 years before Christ’s birth) were not expected to pursue careers outside the home, but rather to contribute responsibly to the needs of the household as best suited their family. I once heard a strong, albeit frazzled Christian woman exclaim, “I love staying home with the kids, but you know, the Proverb 31 woman worked, so I feel like I should get a part-time job.” While a job may be exactly what your family needs from you, do not seek this based on poor interpretation of Scripture. The woman described by the queen was simply one that worked hard and went slightly above and beyond as she took care of the needs of her family. The jobs listed are examples that would have been contextually relevant to describe a woman who was not afraid to work hard and was driven by a healthy appreciation for her responsibilities – not a woman seeking notoriety or self-promotion.
So, should the Proverb 31 Woman be dismissed as a pointless fable? Of course not! Like all Scripture, this description serves to teach us timeless truths that God intends for us to apply in our lives today. So what do we take away from this passage?
1. Being a good wife is a noble pursuit. Nothing pains me more than to hear people today downplay their calling when they say, I’m just a stay-at-home mom, or I just want to be a wife. Do not miss that being considered excellent in these areas is both rare and valuable. God not only ordains it and blesses it, He equips you to excel in it!
2. Hard work is, well…hard. There are no short-cuts in life. Being a hardworking woman actually takes real hard work. The image portrayed in movies and magazines of the professional/cup-cake baking/perfect housekeeping/philanthropist/always romantic mommy extraordinaire is not a reality. Real life always runs on basic opportunity-cost. For everything you choose to do, there is something else you can’t do. We must learn to see past what everyone expects us to do and discern what God has entrusted us to do in a given season of our life. Each season brings new sacrifices, new challenges, and new joys. But keep in mind, that we are learning more about God all along the way as we strive to follow Him.
3. Make room for ministry. One of the greatest dangers I see in women today is the obsession with bettering ourselves. Our narcissism has been elevated to new levels as we compare ourselves to other women – literally every few seconds through social media and make-believe competitions. As a result, women are consumed with improving our bodies, our social calendars, our kid’s achievements – our image in general. So why are we more stressed and less fulfilled than ever? Simply put, we were not created to be so focused on ourselves. You may say, ‘But I live for my family – my kids’. This may be true, but if you view your family as a representation of yourself and your hard work, you are still missing the point. There must be some arena in our lives where we are focused outward and upward. We are here to show the love of God to a dying world, not just to be the ‘best’ woman on the block.
4. Evaluate the effect your lifestyle has on your family. This may be what women miss most about the Proverbs 31 passage. This woman’s life-style of work, ministry, and responsibility may limit her free-time and social calendar (not-necessarily bad things), but it does not create stress in her home. Her family is blessed by what she does, not distressed. When you get to a point where the most common phrase in your home is, ‘hurry-up’ – there might be a problem that needs addressing. Nowhere does it say that the woman described does all these things at once. Personally, there have been times in my life when I have worked and times when I have stayed home. Then there have been times when I have worked from home. There are times when I serve in multiple arenas in ministry, and times when I say ‘no’. As we learn in Ecclesiastes, there is a time for everything under the sun! Doing everything at once means doing nothing wholeheartedly. This inevitably leads to burn-out. There is great wisdom in a woman who learns to say, that’s not what God is calling me to do right now.
In a nutshell, I have learned that I am not called to BE the Proverbs 31 woman any more than you are. But I am called to study God’s Word and apply it to my life as He directs. Instead of competing, comparing, and coming up short-handed, let’s commit to work hard, minister freely, evaluate our actions, and above all, seek Godly discernment from the Author of Scripture rather than the opinions of others. Maybe then, we can truly know what it means to receive the ‘fruit of our hands’.