A Woman Without Fear: Proverbs 31 - December Issue
“she laughs at the time to come...”
Right now, we’re living through times that make us nervous and on edge—and when we look at others around us, their anxieties just feed into ours. We’re, frankly, scared of the future. As one comic illustrating our attitude to 2021 depicts, we’re hesitantly poking open the door to the new year, unsure if we actually want to know what will happen next.
Don't we all need people in our lives that can laugh at the days to come? Someone who strengthens us by example, by personally facing the future without fear? It’s so reassuring to look to others and not be fed by their anxieties, but instead find they have strength we can draw on. We so quickly fall into despair in the face of the storms, and we relate all too deeply with the verse, “for all man’s days are full of sorrow.” (Eccl 2:23). But there is a woman—not a stereotypical emotional, frail, helpless woman—who dares to stand in the face of the storm and laugh. Let the future bring what it wills.
It’s easy to dismiss this fearlessness of the woman in Proverbs 31. After all, she seems to succeed at everything she puts her hand to. She seems to have access to abundant resources, and has no trouble turning them into more security for her family. And we can easily conclude that the reason she can laugh at the time to come is because she has put in the hard work—because she has prepared for every possibility and knows nothing that can happen will touch her.
But this cannot really be the case. First of all, she is a woman who fears the Lord, so she must know her human limits. She must know there is no way to humanly prepare for every possibility. She is not the man in the parable who built many barns for his grain, and felt secure in them, only to die in the night and never enjoy his riches. While prudence is one of her virtues, and while she is wise to prepare her household for winter and so on, this does not mean she feels secure as a result of her own actions. Further, if she is a realistic woman of her times, she must know that no high or rich person is ever secure—she would know how many kings have been deposed through history, and how many fortunes have been ravaged by unforeseen events. If she was a woman who feared the Lord, she must know every moment that God’s provision is his to give and take away.
She does not laugh because of her resources, her success, or her hard work. Her laughter was not a false confidence that she deserves to enjoy the fruit of her hands.
No, rather, her ability to laugh at the days to come is one of her qualities that makes her effective. Just like her “strength and dignity” in the same verse equips her to do her tasks, her fearlessness does as well. If she looked at the general decay and upheaval of the world, she would be discouraged. There is an enormous amount of risk in planting a vineyard, or bearing and raising children, and both grape vines and children die one day even if they flourish for a while. If she looked too closely at the days to come, the broken state of our world would make much of her daily work seem fleeting and pointless in the long run. That is why she laughs at the days to come. They do not stop her. She has confidence not in the state of the world, but in the God she fears, the God who brings her actions to bear fruit. And it is this great fearlessness that makes her effective, not the other way around—it is not her efficacy that makes her fearless.
Right now, many of us know all too well what fearfulness is. Viruses and lockdowns and economic uncertainty and job losses and inadequate access to healthcare and mental health struggles—to mention only a few—have demonstrated that much of what we relied on in our lives is actually not all that secure. I have not faced the worst of it, but I have gone without a job for months while searching for employment. It’s easy to just let your fears toss you around, because who knows what will happen tomorrow?
We never knew what would happen tomorrow, but nowadays we are forced to grapple with the reality of how much we cannot predict the future.
But now that we know how much the future is truly out of our hands, now that we are forced to accept this, we must learn to act while possessing this knowledge. It is possible to act without being paralyzed by the uncertainty we face. We can grow from the examples of others who laughed at the days to come.
Women are often stereotyped as being more fearful. A Google search will turn up endless examples of bible studies about fear for women. One of them reads, “Women in general are created with a nesting instinct, a need for security and stability, and a desire to control our environment in order to create that security for us and for those we love.” It might be difficult to compare levels of fear between individuals, but it’s not unreasonable to conclude that if you are caring for children or other people, you will think about security and stability more strongly. However, stereotypes are not destiny. Female stereotypes are not necessarily inevitable for us. After all, the woman in Proverbs 31 also cares for many people, and has many dependent on her—not just her own children and her own household, but also economic dependents in lands far away who rely on her trades. Yet in all this she manages to strike the balance of building the stability she needs, without being paralyzed by the “what if.”
It is as if she knows the words of Ecclesiastes 11, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.” Ecclesiastes is a book that also explores the futility of the world, but in the conclusion of the matter it emphasizes that our task is to set our hands to the many tasks before us because we do not know which will succeed. The wife in Proverbs 31 does not know what the future will bring, but she does know what she can do in the here and now with the gifts she has been given. She accepts her task in the expectation that God does allow the work of the righteous to take root in some way we do not always predict. We can follow her example and do the same.
Another Woman Who Laughed
If we look to biblical examples and not only to stereotypes, we can note that women are not necessarily associated with fear more often in the Bible—men are just as frequently described as acting out of fear (for example, Abraham acts out of fear when he says Sarah is his sister). And both men and women are continually commanded to fear the Lord. In fact, there is another biblical woman who is held up to us as an example of fearlessness, and that is Sarah in 1 Peter 3. In that chapter Peter says, “you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.”
Sarah was the wife of a rich man—similar to the wife in Proverbs 31. But just like the wife in Proverbs 31, her example is not restricted only to well-off and comfortable women. Her husband, Abraham, was a man who left everything familiar to him to follow the call of God. Sarah may have felt secure in her life in Haran, among her family, and married to a man of status—the Bible does not say. But it does say that she followed Abraham and left this, wandering in foreign lands and living in tents. She was willing to step out into uncertainty because of her faith in what she did not see directly.
And Sarah is also famous for her laughter. It is a different kind of laughter than the laughter of the wife in Proverbs 31—she laughs at the idea she will bear a son at ninety years old. She laughs with cynicism about what the future will bring her. And yet, when she does bear a son, she faces up to her previous disbelief: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me... Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children?” (Genesis 21: 6-7) She may not have originally laughed out of fear, but she certainly had laughed at the thought that God would bring the goodness he’d promised her. But this laughter later turns to the real laughter of joy when God confirms she really can have confidence in him in every area of her life.
She laughed like we sometimes laugh, in disbelief that the future will bring anything good. She laughed in contrast to the fearless laugh of the wife in Proverbs 31, the wife who laughed out of a confidence in the goodness of God. But God graciously turned her laughter into real joy for her and those around her.
We Might Fail
Still, we can’t help but wonder—why don’t we have more biblical examples of women failing? What about a woman who places all her trust in God, pours out her heart to him, and still feels like she falls short? In our lives, we stop and start many things, and fear that many of these things were a waste of time: Why did I start that degree that I ended up quitting? Why did I work two months at that job and get laid off? Why did I start that business that went broke? Or that relationship that ended? We conclude there’s no use in trying. Recently, while reading the parable of the talents in Bible study, one of my friends remarked, “I wish one of the servants had actually failed—had actually lost all the money his master had given him. Because they all succeeded, we can agree that the servant who buried his talent was wrong. But what most of us are really afraid of is losing all the master’s money.” And we can feel the same when we look at women in the Bible like the wife in Proverbs 31, and Sarah, wife of Abraham. These are not examples of women who lost it all. Where is the woman we feel like, the woman who is ground down by life and who has tried and tried and just can’t seem to make progress?
Let’s back up a bit first. The gospel message is not based on our success or failure. As Christians, it’s always a difficult balance when we encourage each other to “do” something. Encouraging action always brings the danger of legalism. So when I look back over what I’ve written so far—that Proverbs 31 can encourage us as women to use our strength and capacity to impact the community around us, without being held back by fear of failure—it can so easily slip into the idea that we must do this if we are Christians.
But what I intend is to open our eyes to the broad horizon of opportunity that exists for us. I intend to push against the idea that Proverbs 31 is limiting. But what I do not intend is to lay out a new path for salvation. We know Christ’s actions are what has brought us our salvation, and not anything we do (or anything another human, even a human as virtuous as the wife in Proverbs 31, can do). So everything we do, following in the example of Proverbs 31, are actions that flow from our joy, from the joy of being blessed with capacities and resources by God, and wanting to learn how to use them throughout his creation. Hopefully this removes the sting of judgment from any failure we may possibly experience. Our failures and weaknesses are not what define us—we do not have to overcome them to be saved. But we are saved, so we can act in spite of our fears and flaws, and exercise the full range of opportunity God has put before us.
Because of this freedom, we can work. We haven’t been guaranteed to never fail, or to never make mistakes. All we have is the instructions in Ecclesiastes: “Cast your bread upon the water...” We have the knowledge that we need to go forward, we need to live our lives, and we need to intentionally put one foot in front of another instead of being tossed about. It’s risky. It’s terrifying. But we have the reassurance that God’s plan never fails, and that he uses our actions in ways we would never plan, or imagine, if we planned the story of history ourselves.
One reason there are not more examples of failure is because there are no failures in God’s plan—God promises he will turn all things to good. “For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11: 6) We recoil at that, because so much in life is not good. However, in the very same chapter that this reward is promised, Hebrews 11, it makes clear that throughout all of Old Testament history believers did not receive what was promised (Christ). If you look at each of their individual lives without any sense of the bigger picture, you can conclude their hope was in vain because they worked for a goal that never came to fruit. But the chapter makes clear that in the end the blessing was even greater—they, with us, would be made perfect through Christ. We know we are a success, not because of what we’ve done, but because God’s plans succeed in the end.
The parable of the talents illustrates that God knows what we are capable of, and he will provide us with the opportunity to use it. We would prefer to know and see the return ourselves. But we cannot let our preference for knowing and seeing the fruit we bear to lead us to refuse to act unless we know what will happen. Then we would be burying out talents.
In conclusion, the fearlessness of the wife in Proverbs 31 can inspire our fearlessness. And to be inspired by her, we will need fearlessness. After all, much of the reason she is intimidating is because we might fail to live up to her example. It’s easy to look at ideals and decide we shouldn’t try for them, that they’re ideal and not realistic. Ideals can be terrifying to reach for. But she demonstrates fear does not need to hold us back. She offers her fearlessness as an example that we can draw strength from. And she offers her laughter as an example of the joy we can have in our work as we face the future.
“The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.”
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I wrote a bit longer this week, so I have only one "recommended read" for you! It's the Christmas season anyway, so I hope you spend some time enjoying the holidays in one way or another! This piece is a meditation by Tim Challies on the fear of God, and it provides another perspective on fear: I Fear God and I'm Afraid of God.
If you're interested in short fiction, I just released a new novella, Paris in Clichés, this month.
Want more? Read Part 1 here: Who's Afraid of Proverbs 31?
Part 2 here: A Woman of Strength.
Part 3 is here: A Woman of Impact.
Part 5 is here: What She Is and Isn't.
And do subscribe! Don't miss the next issue :)