Ahhh, yes. The Proverbs 31 woman. The Holy Grail of biblical femininity. She is the Wonder Woman of Scripture, the unstoppable female juggernaut who conquers life with little or no difficulty. No woman has inspired more books, ministries, blogs, conferences, devotionals, mugs, feelings of guilt, and self-loathing than her.
In the early years of our marriage, Jen felt burdened by Proverbs 31. She felt unable to live up to the pristine example of womanhood on display in that chapter. The shadow of Proverbs 31 hung over all that she did. So we sat down and talked through what it really looked like to be a Proverbs 31 woman.
Proverbs 31:10–31, as with every other passage in Scripture, needs to be interpreted in light of its context and authorial intent. In other words, we need to read these verses as the author originally intended them to be read. To quote me in junior high school: “No doi.”
So, what is the original intent of Proverbs 31?
First, it’s a poem of praise to an excellent wife. Verses 29–31 say, “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all. Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”
Proverbs 31 is not a moral checklist for us husbands to use as a grading sheet for our wives. Rather, it is a checklist of ways we can encourage and praise our wives. When Jen does good to me (verse 12), which she constantly does, I can encourage her that God is at work in her life and praise her for how she is responding to God’s work. When she does the hard work of finding good deals on clothes for our kids (verse 21), I can shower encouragement upon her. When she makes a killer meal, I respond with gratefulness.
Husbands, listen up: if you are using Proverbs 31 as a diagnostic godliness checklist for your wife, you are misusing the passage and hurting your wife. These verses are not a cattle prod for a husband to use to goad his wife toward godliness. These verses are a springboard for a husband to shower encouragement on his wife. If you’re using these verses as a checklist, read them again and let them serve as a swift punch to the throat.
So, does that mean the moral qualities espoused in Proverbs 31 don’t matter at all? Of course not. But we need to think carefully about what it means to really apply these verses.
Proverbs 31 are principles to be pursued, NOT practices to be prescribed.
Take a closer look. Verse 15 says, “She rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens.” What is being described here? A woman who is diligent in caring for her entire family. It is not prescribing a time to wake up, a system of recipe planning, a particular diet, or anything else. The takeaway? A godly woman seeks to be diligent in caring for her family. How that plays itself out will look a thousand different ways in a thousand different families. If a family has special needs, the wife may need to be diligently care for the special needs child while the husband cooks dinner. You get the point. If you want to wake up at 6 AM to bake fresh bread, wonderful. Just don’t do it out of a sense of guilt.
Consider verse 16: “She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” The principle at work here? Prudence. A godly woman uses prudence as she works within the confines of her family income. This verse has nothing to say about who does the budget, who sets spending limits, or anything like that. Those practices, which flow out of the prudence principle, will look different in every family. In some families, the wife will have a better head for numbers and therefore watch the budget. In other families, the husband will be the one on budget duty. But the principle remains the same: a godly woman uses prudence.
One more. “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy” (verse 20). A godly woman is generous toward those in need. That’s the principle. This verse doesn’t mean that a woman needs to knit sweaters for the homeless or serve in soup kitchens, good as those things may be. It just means that a godly woman looks for ways to bless the needy. That’s it.
When we turn Proverbs 31 into a checklist to be rigidly followed, we crush the women in our churches. After all, the woman described in Proverbs 31 never sleeps! She rises early and her light doesn’t go out at night. If a woman tries to literally follow all that is listed in Proverbs 31, she will crash and burn.
I want Jen to be a Proverbs 31 woman in the sense that she is seeking to obey the principles laid out in those verses (and she is—heroically!). But I don’t want Jen to be constantly haunted by the sense that she isn’t measuring up to God’s commands. That isn’t how God wants Proverbs 31 to function in Jen’s life.
And what if you find yourself not even close to the principles described in Proverbs 31? Remember: you’re a great sinner and Jesus is a great Savior. God doesn’t love you because you’re superwoman; he loves you because you seek to obey every principle and practice Jesus taught. You can rest in that.
Stephen Altrogge is a writer, pastor, and knows a lot about Star Wars. Find out more at The Blazing Center.