I’ve had an ambiguous relationship with the Proverbs 31 Woman over the years.
When I was a baby, my Auntie Lynn gave me a plaque that hung in my room until I left for college. It was beautiful, with a puffy, padded frame covered in peach calico and rimmed with lace. Inside, my name and its meaning (fair lady) were written in elegant letters, and beneath that was a Bible verse: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and on her tongue is the law of kindness.” (Proverbs 31:26) It was one of the most treasured objects of my childhood–along with my Holly Hobbie mirror, my teddy bear, and a toss pillow my Auntie Lorrie made that had a place to hide books.
In the simple logic of a child, I thought that plaque described what I was supposed to be and do. I was named Jenny, therefore I was supposed to be a princess-ey girl who spoke with wisdom and taught people to be kind to each other. I am convinced that the plaque gave me a complex–albeit a good one, and probably exactly what my Auntie Lynn had in mind (princess-obsession aside).
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that my thoughts about Proverbs 31 started to sour. I married at 19, and had my first baby when I was not quite 21, so I was thrust into the adult world, and particularly the world of women’s Bible studies, earlier than most. I was in for a surprise.
Now, I had been used to Bible studies being–well–times when we studied the Bible. At my high school and college, groups of students would get together to read and discuss the Bible, often with the help of a slim booklet from IV Press that helped them think through what they were reading.
But this was not what I experienced in women’s Bible studies. Instead, we studied books by pastor’s wives and small celebrities, quite often having to do with the Proverbs 31 woman, and almost always offering prescriptive suggestions on how Christian women were to live in light of the handful of biblical passages that speak specifically to women. I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that many of these books were more about homemaking than holy living, more about being a wife and mother than about being a disciple of Christ. In fact, many of them didn’t seem to see any distinction.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with most of these books, but my soul began to shrivel under the steady diet of “Better Homes and Gardens” Bible studies. The Proverbs 31 Woman was transformed from the wise instructor I understood her to be in my childhood, to a measuring stick for my homemaking skills, an airbrushed ideal of Christian womanhood.
And I didn’t measure up.
I tried. Oh, I tried. And I always failed miserably. I just wan’t a good homemaker, and no amount of nagging or affirmation could make a dent in my messy, disorganized ways. I wince reading back through my prayer journals–page after page, for years and years, of me crying out to God to make me a better homemaker. Sure, I prayed for my family and friends, but the recurring theme was my failure as a housekeeper–which seemed to imply that I was a failure as a Christian woman, a failure as a disciple.
Looking back from my current vantage point, I’m miffed on behalf of my young self. I was in my early twenties, hundreds of miles from my family and support systems, trying to run a house and take care of an autistic toddler. (Were his crazy behaviors due to my failure as a mother as well??? It seemed likely.) I needed a heaping dose of grace and courage, and I was being given housekeeping tips, with a Bible verse thrown in here and there to remind me that I really SHOULD be doing things the author’s way.
I didn’t need people telling me to put on fresh lipstick and a squirt of perfume a couple minutes before my husband returned home from work.
I didn’t need people equating Proverbs 31:14 (“she is like a merchant ship, bringing her food from afar”) with the need to prepare interesting dinners for my family. (Little Caesars, anyone?)
I didn’t need people telling me how I should be getting up before the rest of my family to cook breakfast, make coffee, and prepare for the day. I was up half the nights taking care of a special needs child. I needed SLEEP, for pete’s sake!
I needed Jesus.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” – Jesus, in Matthew 11:28-30
Jesus seemed like such a better teacher, such a better model, than the Proverbs 31 Woman. And undoubtedly, he is.
But recently I discovered that the Proverbs 31 Woman has been falsely accused.
Which leads me to Part 2 of this discussion.