By Matt Stromberg
Women can be pretty hard on themselves. Perfectionism can afflict all different kinds of people, but it may be especially common in women, and moms in particular. Our culture places an enormous level of pressure on women to be “the whole package”: the perfect wife, a super mom, a career woman, and a runway model, all while keeping an immaculate and creatively decorated home! Many women don’t find that the social expectation of what a successful woman is supposed to be like fits very well with who they are or their goals for their life.
Unfortunately the Church can be the worst offender. Like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, we “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders” but do very little to help them shoulder those burdens. In Christian circles, the unattainable standard of perfect womanhood has a name — if you have been involved in many women’s ministries or frequented the women’s section of Christian bookstores you have no doubt heard this name. She is the “Proverbs 31 Woman” and she comes from our Old Testament lesson for today.
This section of the book of Proverbs is actually an acrostic poem. It goes through the entire Hebrew alphabet, each line beginning with a different letter. You might call the woman described in these lines the “The A to Z woman” because she appears to have it all! She is like June Cleaver, Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Venus Williams, and Mother Teresa all rolled into one!
She gets out of bed before dawn, but she also stays up late getting work done. She is an artist weaving lovely woolen wares, the lady of a large household, an entrepreneur, a laborer, a humanitarian, a mother, and a philosopher. One of my Facebook friends wrote a satirical blog post describing a day in the life of the Proverbs 31 woman’s husband.
It begins: “Got out of bed. I woke up earlier but my wife told me to sleep in because she had everything covered. I have so much confidence in her I just had to roll over and go back to sleep!”
I believe we have been reading Proverbs 31 wrong. Here is what you need to know about this passage.
First, the Proverbs 31 Woman is not a real person; she is an amalgamation of all the good qualities a good wife can possess. It is an ode to the virtuous wife or, as the Hebrew is more accurately translated, “The woman of valor.” It is not a job description or a checklist for women to be measured by. There are any number of fine qualities a woman can possess, but no woman can have them all! God has given each and every one of us unique gifts. He wants us to be authentically the person that he created us to be. That is going to look differently for each of us. We should celebrate the gifts God has given others, but we shouldn’t covet them or condemn ourselves if we don’t share them. Always remember that God’s love for you—the value and worth you have in his eyes—is completely unconditional and not based on your performance!
Second, the Proverbs 31 woman is a personification of wisdom. Wisdom is poetically depicted in Hebrew literature as a woman. In fact there are two female personifications in the book of Proverbs. One is Wisdom and the other Folly. The reader is instructed to choose wisdom and avoid folly.
The language of courtship and marriage works throughout the book as an allegory. Whether we are male or female, married or single, the message of Proverbs is to take wisdom into our home, to share our life with her, to be true to her all the days of our life, and to never allow ourselves to be lured away by the deceitful seductions of folly.
The choices we make for our lives will ultimately determine whether we prosper or come to ruin. The author knows that perhaps no choice is more important than who we choose to associate with. He continually warns against keeping company with the wicked: “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared.”
Choosing the right spouse is of particular importance. It says, “A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm” (27:15) and “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious wife” (21:9). One could just as easily warn against the dangers of choosing a selfish, oafish, or angry husband! As difficult as being single is, it is better to be alone than with the wrong person. A poor choice of partner can fill your life with sorrow and angst.
If we choose to share our lives with righteous and positive people, however, we will be uplifted. Proverbs says, “Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm” (13:20) and “One who has unreliable friends soon comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (18:24).
To this end, the book of Proverbs culminates in a hymn extolling the virtues of finding a wife of strong character: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.”
Here is the catch: any spouse that we choose for ourselves — indeed, any friendship we make or group we associate ourselves with — is going to be a mixed bag of both wisdom and folly. We all fall short. Because we are all sinful, there will always be need for repentance and forgiveness. The question can never be only “How can I find the right companion who will fill my life with blessing?” It always must include the question “How can I be a source of strength rather than of weakness to my spouse, to my friends, and to my community?” Relationships are always a two-way street. Elsewhere the Book of Proverbs tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17)
So is that it? Is Lady Wisdom who is far more precious than jewels forever unattainable by us in this life? It may be that all of us will be a mixture of wisdom and folly throughout our natural lives, but our Lord Jesus Christ is perfect wisdom and he gives himself for the life of the world. If we will receive him with joy, he will move into our home and into our lives and bring us blessing and strength.
None of us can be all things to all people, but he is able. Having ascended into heaven, he fills all things. Every virtue, all knowledge, every good and perfect gift, comes through him.
Using the analogy of marriage, Martin Luther spoke of “The Great Exchange” between Christ and the believer. Imagine if you will that a great prince takes a poor and despised peasant woman as his wife. Everything all that belongs to him, his great riches, his palace, his nobility, is now given to her by virtue of their union. Likewise all that is hers, including her crushing debt, is laid on him. Although they were insurmountable to her, they are easily paid off and satisfied by him. He is the source of our strength and righteousness, and we are made wise by sharing our life with him. We should never seek in others what can be found in him alone. He is the only truly perfect companion for our souls.
Listen to how what is said of Lady Wisdom, the good wife in Proverbs 31, applies to our Lord. He is more precious than jewels, the heart who trusts him never lacks gain, he does us good and not harm all the days of our life, he feeds us, girds himself with strength, reaches out to the needy, clothes us in fine apparel, brings us honor, instructs the simple, speaks with kindness, and always works tirelessly on our behalf. He is to be richly praised! Give back to him what he has given to you and let his works testify of his goodness!
The Rev. Canon Matt Stromberg is rector of St. George’s, Schenectady, New York.