A Woman of Impact: Proverbs 31 - November Issue
A Feeling of Futility
We so often feel helpless to make an impact. We wash the dishes, only to immediately see the sink fill up again. We buy groceries, only to eat them all within a day. As one article I recently read about the chore of laundry states: “Even the act of laundering creates laundry, if you wear clothes while you’re doing it. There is no single moment when all possible laundry is done.” Even in the workplace, we can feel like just another cog in the machine that would run without us. It feels like much of the world is arranged in a way that constantly erases our progress. We don’t feel like we make an impact—“a woman’s work is never done.”
So we hang in there, engaged in our Sisyphean task of eternally rolling boulders up various hills, and our gaze wanders over to our ideal woman, the Proverbs 31 wife. And immediately we see she is so effective. She succeeds in clothing her family against the snow. She succeeds in feeding everyone in her household. And not only that—she impacts her community by taking care of the poor. She impacts faraway lands by contributing to their economy, by trading with them. She impacts the government of the land, by enabling her husband to take up a place among the elders at the gate.
The woman in Proverbs 31 exercises her strength to make an impact on those around her. After all, a woman of strength and power is a woman who has an effect. “Give her of the fruit of her hands” indicates that she has, indeed, borne fruit. And her impact is what makes her intimidating! Are we supposed to impact the world as much as she did?
Passivity: A Virtue?
Not only do we feel ineffective, we can also struggle with the idea of an effective woman. Much has been made in other media of the passive roles women are often presented as playing—the damsel in distress, for example, or the princess who must be rescued. Women are presented as the receiver in relationships too: men traditionally ask women out, and men typically propose to them. All of this can add up to the perception that passivity is the characteristic that marks out what femininity is. Passivity can appear to be a virtuous female trait. So we can feel that maybe women aren’t meant to make an impact anyway.
Passivity is something I personally struggle with—I am convinced in my mind that if things do not just happen, they’re not meant to happen. If I ask for something or take action on these things, I can feel that I am actually warping the natural order of things, or rebelling against a cosmic plan—the only things that are meant to happen are the things that happen without me making them happen. This is a bit extreme! There was a reason “needs to take initiative” was written on my report card so frequently as a child! And yet as an adult I know there is no avoiding asking for jobs, communicating your needs, and starting projects of your own. And here it is clear that in Proverbs 31 the excellent wife does not wait for everything to happen to her, or seek step-by-step instructions for everything she does.
She is presented as an ideal because of how she goes out and gets things done. “She brings her food from afar”—nowadays we think nothing of bringing home fruits from the tropics, but food from afar would be more exotic in her day. She “provides food for her household”—literally, provides “prey,” rising at dawn to hunt like a lioness. And as a result, “her lamp does not go out at night.” She can afford to keep her lamps burning all night (Job 18:6 indicates it was a bad sign if one’s lamp was put out).
This ideal woman is an active woman, not a passive woman.
But she does work in the home. Unfortunately, work in the home is often presented as an extension of passivity, a retreat from having an impact on the world. The sheltering walls of the home keep the storms of the world outside, and provide the safety a woman needs to provide a pleasant place for her family. She need not bother about society or economics in her private domestic realm.
However, as you know, in the home “a woman’s work is never done.” This inevitably leads to this reaction: women need to be set free from the drudgery of the home. In this view, women can make an impact, but it’s out in the “real world,” outside the domestic sphere.
But when we turn to Proverbs 31 we find it contrasts with all that—in Proverbs 31, through the home, this woman has an impact that reaches out even into the world. Home is not a retreat, but neither is it a prison.
In other words, you can follow the lead of Proverbs 31, fully embody what it means to be a woman, and you will not be held back from making an impact on the world.
Take, for instance, the realm of economics.
What is striking about Proverbs 31 is how much this passage presents the home as an economic unit of society. She is an excellent wife, but the passage does not focus on the emotional connection she has with her husband. It’s not about how this family is psychologically and relationally healthy. No, listen to the list of her activities: “She considers a field and buys it” and “she delivers sashes to the merchant” and “she perceives that her merchandise is profitable.” She does not act as if business activities are off-limits to her. And the home here is overwhelmingly connected to economics.
This is simply because in her context (and in many other eras of history as well), economics and home life were intertwined. A household had to produce to be able to survive, and so domestic and economic life was not separated in the way we expect today. This illustrates how a household was not a sheltered place away from the world, but it played a role in the broader society and community—and economically, it was one of the building blocks of trade and business.
So this passage’s focus is not meant to say emotional connection or her relationships are not important, but rather it highlights her quality of effectiveness. She uses her position, and what resources she has, to be effective in many spheres: business (trade), society (giving to the poor) and management (directing her servants).
Her relationship with her husband is significant as well. It says, “the heart of her husband trusts in her.” As I mentioned in the last issue of this newsletter, it does not mention her consultations with her husband, and while she must’ve made her plans in dialogue with him, it does not look like he micro-managed her or told her exactly what to plan next. As an ideal woman she clearly cannot contradict the New Testament advice to wives, and so she demonstrates that submission and passivity are not the same thing. Rather, it seems her husband trusts her with everything he has, and allows her to do what she thinks best with it. He sits among the elders governing at the city gates without distraction.
Her husband’s trust reminds me of the various parables of Jesus where a master entrusts all he has to tenants or servants. Unlike the bad tenants in Matthew 21, the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 takes all she has been entrusted with and returns the benefit to the family. Unlike the servant who buries his talent, she put what she has been given to use, even to the economic risk of buying fields and vineyards. She readies herself for difficult action—again, paralleling a heroic poem—to do what must be done for her household’s success.
This woman is entrusted with much by her husband, but we’re all entrusted with gifts whether or not we are married. We may have a boss who needs to trust we will carry out our responsibilities. We may have employees (as she had servants) who depend on us. One commentator on this passage points to Lydia of Thyatira in the New Testament, and how she used her business gifts. Through her effectiveness she was also able to help the church. And no matter who we are, we are entrusted with gifts from God, gifts that God does not intend us to bury, but rather to use to his glory.
So a woman working in the home can see her work bear fruit, and she can see that impact spill over into the world. This contradicts the idea of the home as an isolated unit, adrift in the suburbs, unconnected to the bustle of the real world. Her specific context is in the home, but she is active through it, not confined in it. While in a modern world with increased specialization and separation of many areas of life, our effectiveness might look different than hers, we can be encouraged by her activity in so many spheres. And we can also be encouraged that the productive work of the home is not necessarily isolated to the home, but can have a larger impact. Woman’s work can contribute to the financial stability of those around her, and the well being of the poor, and the economy of her community.
A Woman Who Fears the Lord
A second striking thing about this passage is that she is described as “a woman who fears the Lord,” and yet it does not mention a single detail about her worship practices. It does not say she rises early to have a “quiet time” of devotion to God. It does not describe how she tells her children stories of what God has done for his people.
No, rather it goes into detail about mundane, everyday tasks—earthy activities that require the use of her hands, such as weaving, planting and sewing. Historically, interpreters have been puzzled over how task-oriented her excellence is, and wondered why there is no mention of more standard forms of worships such as prayer or ascending to the temple. She is an excellent woman who fears the Lord, so why doesn’t it talk more about her relationship with the Lord?
It becomes less puzzling when we resist seeing life divided into the sacred and the secular, between pure worship and daily life. Work flows out of our faith. It is our mundane daily tasks that display our faith as much as our organized worship. And it is our tasks that point to God’s glory, demonstrating the goodness of the world as it should have been in the beginning, where work was not futile, and where our labour so clearly shaped and built up the world.
When we accept this, we can see that religion is not restricted to verse 30, but it is part of every verse of the passage. In a world that frequently makes us want to shout, “meaningless, meaningless” as we toil, the Proverbs 31 wife demonstrates that she has hope. She has confidence that if she casts her bread upon the water, she will see a return from it. In other words, she does not shrink back from work because she sees the futility all around her, but she focuses her eyes on the God who gives meaning to all things, including her daily work.
I don’t know about you. Maybe you are trudging through the tedium of living—scrubbing and eating and toiling and sweating, and doing it all again the next day. It’s hard when your effectiveness isn’t obvious to see. It doesn’t help when so much of drudgery doesn’t feel like worship.
But God sees every single thing you do, and he promises you that your work matters. “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Rom 8:28) We have hope that futility will ultimately be a lie.
This leaves the question—are our accomplishment to be measured by hers? If we do not clothe our families in scarlet, or if once in a while we leave the dishes undone, are we condemned by this ideal woman?
In the first place, an ideal is not a rule. An ideal is not like the Law given by God on Sinai, from which the slightest deviation could bring punishment. Rather, there are many ways to live out the potential God put in you, and this ideal demonstrates one way. Especially in our increasingly complex society, we’re not required to be active in all the same spheres she is active in, and even more so since many of these things are not conveniently centered in the home.
And when it comes to the Law that God gave on Sinai, that was a Law that Christ fulfilled for us—we are not told to now reach for a difficult ideal and be condemned if we do not fulfill it. Christ has set us free from these rules! And now, to live in our freedom, we can look to ideals to see the broad scope of what we can do. A woman can be effective in God-given freedom: work is not futile, and neither is she doomed to passivity in the home or beyond it.
Christ didn’t only save those who succeed. Christ saved you so you have the freedom to use what has been entrusted to you. This can be intimidating, it can be a little scary.
So next month we’ll explore more about what Proverbs 31 reveals about fear.