Proverbs 31:10-31. The Excellent Wife. The Woman of Valor. The Ideal.
Without a doubt, this piece of Scripture has become a part of mainstream Christian culture. We’ve got Thirty-One Gifts and Proverbs 31 Ministries, and it’s not uncommon for preachers across America to use parts of this passage to speak to women at conferences or on any given Sunday meant to exhort women.
Can I tell you something? Total honesty, here. The mere mention of Proverbs 31 makes me want to gag. (And I’ve actually spent the majority of this Valentine’s Day weekend throwing up, so that’s saying a lot.)
Judge if you must, but hear me out. I have nothing against these ministries and companies. And more importantly, I love God, believe that I need Him desperately, and value every sacred word that He has spoken. I don’t believe in picking and choosing which pieces of the Bible I want to uphold. However, I can tell you that because of my legalistic upbringing, blazing with fire rather than glowing with grace, certain passages can sometimes feel like they ignite in me the complex trauma response: a feedback loop of fear and anger, from my brain, down my spinal cord, to every part of my being, and worst of all, into my core.
Enter Proverbs 31.
When I first heard this piece of Scripture it was preached at me with gusto from a surely well-intended, passionate man. He was God’s chosen one, a bold leader, and a respected teacher. But to me, he was the Big Bad Wolf.
When he spoke of Proverbs’ ideal woman, he taught that the passage is actually an acrostic poem that follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet.
For the better to remember it, my dear.
He contrasted its description of “her” with Proverbs’ not so admirable women: the adulterous woman, the wayward woman, the unruly woman, the comtemptible woman, the beautiful woman without discretion, and the foolish woman.
For the better to follow it, my dear.
And he convinced me it was God’s command for my life.
For the better to obey it, my dear.
Although I didn’t get eaten by the Wolf, hearing his words made me feel like I was drinking from a fire hose. I was thirsty for God’s word but completely unable to gulp it all down. There was too much criteria to live up to, too many milestones to reach before I was considered a godly woman, and too much pressure to be something that I, simply, was not. Drenched in failure, soaked in my own lack of enoughness, I felt hopeless. I assumed it was me that was the problem. If only I could try a little harder to be godly and live up to this ideal, then I would be confident in the worth that the girls at Bible college already seemed to claim.
In my counseling work, I call this the diet mentality. We force ourselves to follow some manufactured formula for being a more ideal woman. We attempt to eat grapefruit, orange roughy, asparagus and tuna packets with the hopes that changing our relationship with gravity will somehow make us enough. When we fail to follow this formula, however, we look inward, concluding that it must be us. We must be the problem. We are the failure. We are destined to be less than and never enough.
In the same way that it hardly occurs to us to conclude that the diet was the problem (too restrictive, too bland, not nutritionally sound, or not at all appealing), it didn’t occur to me to determine that perhaps this preacher was missing the mark. What if he wasn’t representing Christ with what he preached? What if his interpretation of the Scriptures was wrong? I hadn’t been taught to think critically in this way, only to humbly receive what I was being taught. Naïve. Just like the little girl wearing a hood. Consequently, it was the same time in my life that I was attempting to force my starving body into a size 00 that I was trying to force my undernourished soul into the mold of this “godly, ideal” woman.
So here I sit, more than a decade and a half past being liberated from my thin cage and legalism prison, and I feel a genuine gratitude towards this Big Bad Wolf. He didn’t know that his words would wound my not-yet-fully-developed brain. He didn’t forsee that his Wednesday morning chapel sermon would initiate the threat response system of my pre-anorexic wired mind. But also, he didn’t predict that because of his words, I would develop a passion for making sure people hear the message of God’s grace. And he didn’t, in his wildest dreams, expect me to marry a man who can astoundingly preach the truth of God’s love to His kids, who are, without exception, worthy of belonging.
As for Proverbs 31:10-31, here’s what I’ve learned to be the truth: the verses are not meant to be a list of criteria that a woman must meet in order to be godly. Conversely, they show that when a woman loves God, it is reflected in so many areas of her life, be it marriage, motherhood, work, appearance, finances, character, routine and strength. What a difference that makes! And as far as it being a command: the only imperatives in the entire passage are found in the very last verse. “Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.” The command isn’t issued to the woman herself but instead to those who notice her. Finally, the passage is indeed an acrostic poem, but it was written like an ode. According to Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Jewish men used to recite it to show their love for the women in their lives. Well, isn’t that just the most romantic thing you’ve ever heard?
On that note, in honor of Valentine’s Day, just like Little Red Riding Hood, I will wear red – not to entice the Big Bad Wolf but to remind myself and others that we love because He first loved us. And this love? It doesn’t come because we are adequate. It comes because it is abundant.
And even though I’m not an ode-singing Jewish man, I came up with some silly haikus to celebrate the man who’s been my Valentine for 20 years. Enjoy!
He always hugs me // Tightly with muscles he got // From high school football.
He brings love and laughs // Home and teaches the children // To slap hiney butts.
With grace, faith, and fun // He speaks provocatively; // Truth that God loves you!
Cross fit burpees, // Pull ups, box jumps for days, yo; // Gluteus maximus!
He’s learned to mop floors // Do dishes and give kids’ baths // Never sexier.
God made us to love // And to be loved by His Son // A cord of three strands.
Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!