I have a friend—let’s call her P31—who is sometimes unfairly misunderstood. This makes me sad, because she used to be well-liked, even highly respected, by women who shared her faith and her faithfulness, who looked up to her as a role model and who were inspired by her. I was (and am) one of those women.
Years ago, as a new Christian and very busy new mom, I was fascinated by the book of Proverbs and was especially drawn to the end of chapter 31—twenty-two verses that offer a picture of a godly wife, or as my Bible describes this passage, “The Woman Who Fears the Lord.”
Baby Christian though I was, I knew I wanted to be a woman who fears the Lord. As I read and reread verses 10-31, I grew in admiration for this godly woman who used the abilities, gifts, and energy that God gave her to bless her family, her extended household, and her community. P31 and I were soul sisters in lots of ways and she was a great blessing to me as I spent years working out what it meant for me to be a Christian wife, mother, wage-earner, neighbor, church member, and citizen.
I just assumed that everyone felt about P31 the way I did, until twenty years later when I was with a few other Christian women and one made a casual, somewhat negative comment about P31. I can’t remember the exact words, but it was accompanied by a heavy sigh and an eye roll.
Initially, I was confused. Had I misunderstood her intent? Was she actually stating a dislike for P31? Later, I did a little searching online and was shocked to find that I had entirely missed an anti-P31 movement within the church as a whole. The Proverbs 31 woman, much to my surprise, was no longer inspiring virtuous, noble qualities and habits in many of my Christian sisters, but instead was inspiring envy, anger, eye-rolling, frustration, feelings of inferiority, negative comparisons, and more.
This was a totally foreign concept to me. I had never viewed P31 in a negative light; in fact, just the opposite. She had been an inspiration to me for years, throughout my entire Christian walk.
I began to wonder, what was it about her that was so bothersome to people? What I found was simply this: some Christian women compare themselves to P31, and she is too perfect. Rather than seeing this passage as loving praise of a woman who is doing her best to serve her husband, family, household, and community, or as an ideal and helpful example of “a woman who fears the Lord,” some see it as an unattainable list of ways they can never measure up.
So there’s a huge disconnect between how I’ve always read this passage and how it’s sometimes being read today. I don’t really understand this disparity; the best I can do is offer my own view of these verses. Here’s how I’ve read them as I’ve tried (very imperfectly) to be faithful and use whatever God has given me for the benefit of those he’s put in my life (my comments are in brackets):
10 An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. [She is trustworthy and seeks to bring positivity, not negativity, to her marriage. She does not speak badly about her husband to others. Her husband appreciates this and benefits from it; he regards her as the most precious thing in his life.]
13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. [She stays busy, working with her hands and seeking high-quality materials and foods for those she loves—whatever is within her family’s budget.]
15 She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. [She gets up early to make breakfast, and probably other meals, as well. People need to be fed so they can go do whatever it is they need to do that day.]
16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. [She has good business sense and makes use of it for the benefit of her family’s finances.]
17 She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. [This one ought to be relevant in our current era of “strong women.”]
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. [She knows the worth of what she produces. She makes use of the evening hours when needed—this hit home with me because for many years, that was the only time I could get my writing and editing done, too.]
20 She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. [She is not selfish but is merciful to the poor—as Christ asks us to be.]
21 She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple. [She has made sure that people in her house have appropriate clothing for the weather. She also enjoys expressing her creativity and love of beauty.]
23 Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land. [She brings no dishonor to her husband; in fact, those who know her think more highly of him for having had the good sense to marry her.]
24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant. [Working with fabrics seems to be her area of expertise. We all have particular areas where we are gifted, and we can sometimes use those gifts to provide for our household.]
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. [She has prepared for future difficulties as best she can and is satisfied with that. She’s not afraid of the future—just as Jesus tells us not to be anxious.]
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. [This is a worthy lifetime goal. Speaking words of wisdom and kindness, as well as knowing when to keep my mouth shut, are two of the most important, ongoing spiritual challenges of my life.]
27 She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. [See above; a strong work ethic is a very common thread throughout all of Proverbs.]
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed; [In my mind’s eye these children are older, and are openly appreciative of their mother’s efforts throughout their lives.]
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” [We all desire words of praise from our loved ones, and what a wonderful thing for a husband to say to his wife. She is the only one for him, and he lets her know that. Men, take note.]
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates. [There’s a lot of praise here at the end of this passage. Women don’t always get a lot of it in real life and we often worry too much about our “charm” and beauty, but ultimately all of the efforts we go to for others—husband, children, household, community, church, strangers—will be recognized, if not in this lifetime, then by the Lord who sees our actions and knows our hearts.]
If you’re tempted to think of P31 as impossibly and irritatingly perfect, here’s another way to look at it: Is there an older, godly woman in your church who younger women look up to with great respect and maybe even a little awe? Do the words she speaks carry a great deal of weight because of her years of Christian experience and godly wisdom? I know a woman like this, and several times I’ve heard others comment to her how wise and spiritually virtuous she is. She gently shakes her head and with great sincerity she assures them that she is far from perfect. I love my older, wiser friend and I look up to her as well, but I believe her. She is far from perfect.
As is the P31 woman. Sure, she appears quite impressive in her character, skills, and energy level, but surely not in every moment of every day. We see only a panoramic snapshot of her through the eyes of a loving and grateful husband and household, and there’s some hyperbole at work in this passage, as well. But rest assured, she is no more perfect than we are.
I know P31 isn’t real. I know that some contend that she’s merely a personification of the bride of Christ or of Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. I know she’s in the Bible to be an example, an ideal, as we seek to use our particular gifts to serve those around us. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10).
Yet even today, I think about her not just as a woman who loves her family, who blesses others with her gifts, and who is industrious and productive, but as a woman who fears the Lord. I’m especially grateful that she was a mentor to me through some of the busiest and most exhausting years of my married life, because “if she could do this, I could do this.” Yes, by God’s grace, I can do this. Not in the exact same way, of course. And not perfectly. Just to the best of my very imperfect ability.
Simply put, P31 has helped me be a better wife and mother than I would have been without her.
Image by Лариса Щербина from Pixabay