Proverbs 31 Woman

Proverbs 31 Woman: The virtuous woman or “wife of noble character,” as described in chapter 31 of the book of Proverbs. She is praised for her strength, industriousness, homemaking, and fear of the Lord. (For the full text of this scripture, click here.)

That was the summer they voted me the “most marryable,” the counselor boys of Camp Timberlee, and it sounded like victory, felt weighty and lovely, like the crown of a pageant winner.

I was seventeen.

But we were those who had chosen that rocky road of sexual abstinence, and we were zeroed in on marriage, aware of it in a way that other seventeen-year-olds cannot be.

We were busy compiling lists of things we wanted in a mate. Somewhere along the line, this had become a Thing in the surging evangelical youth culture: cherry-picking qualities and features and personality traits you want in a future spouse, and hanging them all on one unfound person.

For the woman, Proverbs 31 provided a premade template. A wife of noble character who can find? The scripture said. She who works with eager hands, who wakes before the dawn lights on the earth to provide food. She who is vigorous and strong, who sells fields and makes clothes and who never turns out the light. She is worth far more than rubies.

I was seventeen, intoxicated on the idea of love. I wanted to be the treasure; I wanted to be found. So I learned to mold myself into her likeness, this woman in this chapter.

I learned that “noble character” had to do with the way I held hands with my young campers as I herded them from one activity to another, hauling their stuff in my green Jansport backpack. It had to do with my body, thin and strong as I cleared the trays from our table after meals.

In the mornings I rose earlier than everybody, showered alone in the fluorescent bathroom, and then walked up the gravel path to the dining hall. I read my Bible; I learned to carry the weight of godliness.

*

I come from a long line of people-pleasing women. From “I’ve got it! You sit down.” From, “Put your wallet away!” and a “No, I’ll do it.” I come from handmade noodles, rolled from scratch in the middle of the night. Hands turning arthritic from all this doing.

It is in my blood, this desire for perfection, to do it all, to do it right. It is deceiving. It feels so much like holiness.

At night, my husband asks me to come to bed, and then he asks again after he has showered, standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at our kitchen where I am still busy.

“I’ll be along,” I say, and I will be…around two in the morning, when the cookies have been made and the kitchen has been scoured and the freelancing projects have been done and the last load of laundry is banging around in the dryer.

She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. I am tired, but I am still going. I crack open another Diet Coke. With one ear, I listen for the kids in the monitor as I write another case study, pin another craft to sew, add a few things to my grocery list. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.

I am too busy to lie in the holy dark with my husband, to listen to the rhythm of his sleeping breath, to feel the generosity of rest. I am awake, I am strong, I am opening my arms as wide as I can.

I am so busy watching the affairs of my household that I almost miss the first time my little boy puts on his own shoe.

Somewhere, a voice says Beloved. Says, Be still. Somewhere, the voice is saying I am Love, but I am busy, I am doing it all, I am proving my worth, and all I hear is the sound of my own hurried breath.

  • http://www.simplelivinginc.net Neal Brower

    Psalm 127:2 – Life verse for the “not-so-proverbs-31-woman”:
    It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved EVEN IN THEIR SLEEP.

    • Addie Zierman

      Love this. Thank you.

      I struggle with the way Prov. 31 underscores our own drive to perfection and the undercurrent in the evangelical culture that praises performance rather than heart.

      I’d be interested in your take on the passage (being a pastor and all). It seems like a passage that people (women particularly) internalize at such a literal level, using it to add all sorts of pressure. What do you think the “life-giving truths” in this passage are? How can we learn from this passage without turning her into an evangelical version of the Barbie doll?

      • Monica

        You don’t know me but we share a mutual friend. I have enjoyed reading your blogs and this one in particular. I am 47 years old, mom of 3 and divorced. Pretty sad considering that “woman” was my model too… for awhile anyway. Until I realized how ridiculous it was to achieve what I thought it was saying and still be sane. I was failing miserably even when I thought I was doing so well. I finally started dissecting it (because I knew I was missing something) and realized that there was no way a human woman could be all that and do all that unless she was a goddess. I think we have all been duped. We try so hard to be what God wants us to be, like what you describe being for your husband, that we don’t hear Him breathing either. I like how you shared what you were missing… the intimate parts of family life. The real parts. I like what Neal was saying… it is a matter of heart and I realized, sometime later in my life, what Proverbs 31 was trying to say had much more to do with the attitude of heart and, to my amazement, never says we are to neglect ourselves either. SHE is part of the household she looks well towards. I keep finding, with all the legalistic things I have believed, that the bible isn’t legalistic, the people interpreting it are… including ourselves. We like to beat ourselves up with the thing. That is because we are human I suppose. But the farther back I stand from these scriptures, the fuller the picture I get and am amazed at all the years I spent misunderstanding the scriptures that are supposed to be comforting and uplifting and gently guiding me. I felt like such a failure until the fruit began to fall. Yes… lots of issues, but what I think of myself and what impression others have of me now don’t match. I didn’t fail so miserably as I thought and God has so much mercy and grace it makes me cry. My kids know I love them and did all I could. They don’t have a perfect mom to live up to. They have a mom that messed up a lot and still, they know I love them. My daughter does things she says she got from me. Good things, and I just shake my head wondering when. My boys respect me even if they are frustrated with me. “They will rise up and bless her” Proverbs says. I thought for sure they would hate me and even as I type this I have tears in my eyes because I know I haven’t deserved anything more; certainly not on my own merit. We have a God of great mercy and grace and that’s where it all starts. It’s Jesus, not our own perfection (as you have discovered). Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love the way you express yourself and the way you respond to other peoples thoughts as well. You are precious (if it’s okay for me to say that.) : ) I am also glad to read what Neal posted.

        • Addie Zierman

          Thanks so much for commenting and sharing a little bit of your story here, Monica. I’m so thankful for the way that God works through our imperfections and creates beauty. It’s so encouraging to hear about how your kids are doing now and the see the ways God’s perfect love has covered so much.

          I heard Rachel Held Evans speak a couple of weeks ago at a conference. She just finished a book on biblical womanhood, and in spending time with an Orthodox Jewish woman, she learned that Proverbs 31 is a poem, usually sung by the men to their wives. She said, “Leave it to the evangelicals to turn a poem into a checklist,” and it felt so true. I’m just now beginning to learn how to live the poem of it and not worry about the checklist.

          Thanks again for sharing. So glad you’re here!

          • Monica

            Haa… I like that. Live the poem of it and not the check list. I will remember that for a long time. : )

  • http://www.simplelivinginc.net Neal Brower

    Proverbs 31 – perhaps the first 9 verses sets a context. A king offers the insights he gleaned from his own mother. It is a song of thanksgiving for the values she gave him in childhood, which now came back to him in adulthood, rulership, relationship, and God chooses these words for us to hear, preserving them as “Scripture.”
    So she begins by warning him of the danger of drunkenness which, besides alcohol specifically, might also include the intoxication of position and power. In any case, she asks him to remember those genuinely unable to give voice for themselves for all reasons. Then he recollects her view of the heart he’s looking for in a woman…perhaps as a prolonged illustration of the kinds of people who look out for others most often and best in day to day life.

    Life-giving Truths:
    1. Excellence is a matter of the heart.
    2. Trustworthiness of heart is better than performance.
    3. Women are incredible.
    4. Wives and mothers are changing the world.
    V. 26 is key because it points back to her heart with the use of the words “wisdom” and “kindness,” and v. 29’s “fear of the Lord.” These, again, are qualities of character and reach further than any or all of the “doing” of the previous verses.
    5. The greatest beauty is selflessness.
    6. Wisdom is its own reward.
    v. 25 is awesome for its matter of factness. I love the quality of the heart expressed here: strength, dignity, a smile. Wow. How simply powerful.
    7. A woman’s integrity is her power.
    8. The woman who doesn’t seek praise will be praised.
    This is coming off the top of my head Addie. I guess my bottom line is that Proverbs 31 is much like the way the Walmsley women offer praise to their parents in letters, on quilts, and framed up in plaques, etc. It is a long list of those kinds of things that have been done and which are deeply appreciated. Our memories are interesting. Selective. Sometimes amplifying. In other words sometimes something happens once and we expand it to be what always was. This chapter might have a tone of that ringing. My mother once made a good cookie, so she is now the most incredible baker in history. That then gets expanded by behaviorally-driven religiously-oriented Christians into a list of specific duties that we can accomplish, thus satisfying our insatiable desire to measure our maturity level so that it compares favorably to our view of others. Since the insides of us rarely match up to what we see on the outsides of others, we are always looking for ways to compete. Its a peace-stealer. Let’s turn our ears away from those lies.
    Maybe more than you asked for, but I love the dialogue…

    • Addie Zierman

      This was awesome. I appreciate the background information and the insight you bring to the table Neal. Thanks for taking the time to write all this out.

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