Proverbs 31: What She Is and Isn't

Welcome! I'm Harma-Mae Smit and this is my monthly newsletter diving into topics of faith. This is the fifth and final part of my series on Proverbs 31 (Part 1 can be found here). You can subscribe by clicking this link.
Secondly—I will be taking February off! I plan to do some research for the next series. You are always welcome to submit topics, though I cannot guarantee when I'll get to them!


The Conclusion of the Matter

Now we’ve reached the end of our series looking at that ideal Proverbs 31 woman. And now might be a good time to step back and look at the whole passage, to think about what this ideal is and isn’t. For instance, if we did manage to achieve this level of ideal, and we did somehow manage to imitate the Proverbs 31 woman perfectly, what would that mean? Would we then be perfect people? No. It is clear that even if we followed her example perfectly we would not be sinless in the same way we would be if we could somehow perfectly take on the likeness of Christ. This points to the importance of thinking through the function of this passage—what it is and isn’t.  

Let’s take one last issue of this newsletter to look back at how this ideal woman can function in our lives. As an ideal, she is worth reaching for, and our discomfort with reaching for this ideal is worth examining. These past three issues have examined in detail the characteristics of hers and how they encourage us: her strength, her effectiveness, and her courage. The result of this passage should be to inspire us, and for us to inspire and encourage each other, but in order to do that without stirring up feelings of inadequacy in us, let us summarize once again how Proverbs 31 can be used without softening or minimizing the ideal she represents.  

I have argued all along that Proverbs 31 is an ideal. But I think it’s wrong to use it in the place of our ultimate ideal, Christ—to say if we fail to reach her ideal, it is only because we humans need Christ. It is true to say that because of all our failings, we need to look to Christ. But I don’t think we should lay out a series of human ideals, and tell each other that if we fail to live up to these ideals it is the same as failing to live up to the ideal of Christ. In other words, we cannot interchange our ideals, substituting any of them for Christ, as if they were his equals—as if we could attain perfection by following any human ideal. And I have seen Proverbs 31 explained in this way, explained to mean it only exposes our failings and points to our need for Christ, and nothing more. I would argue that rather it lays out an example of someone who already accepts her need for Christ (she “fears the Lord”), and who puts that understanding into action.   

It is possible to have more than one kind of ideal. There is an ultimate ideal which we fail to live up to, and which points us to our need for a saviour. But there are also ideals which are more like signposts on the journey. We strive to go where they’re going, not because we’re after salvation, but because they know what we know about salvation, and they demonstrate a way to live it out. 

Why do we shy away from encouraging each other to aim for the ideal in Proverbs 31? Why do we often recite excuses—we're not meant to be like her, we’re only meant to see how far from her we are and turn to Jesus. Or, as we saw in the first article in this series, resort to making fun of her: she’s a little too perfect, and no one likes perfect people, so it’s fine to feel uncomfortable with her. Or by emphasizing the differences between her and us: she was a rich woman of status, and so if you aren’t you don’t need to worry about her much. We tend to present her as a kind of inhuman being that is impossible to try to be like, rather than a human possibility. We don’t show any kind of enthusiasm for the picture she presents. 

I think we turn to these types of minimizations of this passage, and justifications of our feelings of discomfort, for two reasons. We are uncomfortable with this passage because we feel her example might be limiting. And we are uncomfortable with this passage because we feel her example, though a human example, is unreachable. Sprinkled throughout the previous issues have been counterarguments to these points, but let’s pull them all together here.   

A Limited Ideal? 

Let’s first look at this fear of limitation. We have already discussed how sometimes the ideal of Proverbs 31 is conflated with Christ, to the point where the implication is that we ought to be as much like her as we can be, and when we fail we need to look to Christ as our saviour. This kind of conflation implies that there is only one ideal for women. If there is only one ideal, that is limiting! But if Proverbs 31 is a human example, a human ideal, then we can have more than one ideal at the same time. She is more similar to the list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, despite not being a historical person, than a rigid ultimate ideal which cannot be deviated from. You can be encouraged by her example, as well as your mother’s, for example.  

In other words, she doesn’t exactly set the pattern for all women. After all, it is interesting to remember that this particular passage in its original context was not given to a woman (as a kind of lesson), but rather to a man. This is a passage from the lips of a mother to her son, King Lemuel. Its direct application is less about what women ought to be like, and more about what future kings ought to look for in a wife. So in its context, it is not presented as a direct command to women: “Women, be like this, and only like this.” It is far more similar to a virtuous woman like Mary, which women can draw encouragement and inspiration from. Does it give direction on what a godly woman can look like? Yes. It is definitely not wrong to apply it in this way, and to look for direction from this passage. But the case can be overstated: for example, by saying, “This is what God says to women.” It is not a measuring rod for determining the exact amount anyone falls short of the standard of being a woman.

At the same time, don’t forget what we discussed in September, about what the advantage of having the Proverbs 31 ideal is. “When we need a picture of a woman exercising female traits and positively affecting the world around her as a result of being a woman, we can look to Proverbs 31. . . Having examples can be freeing rather than limiting, because we see how different lives than ours can be lived.” While we are not limited to following her as the single female ideal, we should inspire each other by pointing to her example, as we would point to other Christian examples. We shouldn’t be uncomfortable in helping each other to strive for this ideal. 

Another way she is sometimes seen as limiting is that her example is seen as narrow and confining. One aspect of her I have not discussed in depth is her roles as wife and mother. This is partly because I do not have a ton of advice to offer about those roles, as someone with no experience in them. But it is also because the traits in her that we’ve explored so far can be developed in women of all walks of life. I don’t think you necessarily take on specific roles and therefore become the Proverbs 31 woman, but rather that you can develop Proverbs 31 traits and use them in your roles, including and especially in the roles of wife and mother since these have the most direct descriptions in this passage. 

But remember, there is another “virtuous woman” described in the Bible. We previously discussed the story of Ruth, and how she was known as a virtuous woman by Boaz long before she ever became a wife and mother. She was, in fact, both poor and a foreigner. Therefore her example demonstrates that while many of us may face obstacles in life which make us very different from the wife in Proverbs 31—we may be poor, or struggle with mental or physical health, or face social stigma–but even in those circumstances we are not barred from being “virtuous women” as Ruth was. Proverbs 31 is not applicable only to women with the right advantages in life. It is not meant only for women who take on specific roles. And this is encouraging. 

An Unreachable Ideal? 

Second, she achieves so much. She achieves so much. We do feel judged when reading the descriptions of her activity and comparing them to our own accomplishments. She feels unreachable. 

First of all, remember that we described this as a heroic poem about a woman—do men despair because they have never slain a dragon? But a man encouraged by stories of dragon-slaying might like to be the kind of man that could slay dragons, in a different way. This is why I have focused more on her characteristics than on the modern ways to imitate her accomplishments.  

Second, the function of an ideal is not to make us feel guilty and awful for the ways we fall short, leading us to apathy and despair—if it were, then the biblical commands to look to Christ’s example would not only lead to our misery, but to our inactivity as Christians. Ideals are not intended to paralyze us. Still, as humans we struggle to keep this in mind, since we do feel inadequate when we compare ourselves to any standard.  

This is why it is of such deep importance to keep our focus first of all on Christ, with any other ideal in second place. It is through Christ’s strength that we can imitate any Christian example—we are not paralyzed because we know we have his strength. It is Christ who sets us free from standards that condemn us, so we have the freedom to pursue ideals of goodness without guilt. And it is because of Christ that all our efforts are ultimately not failures, not fruitless, not futile. We look to Christ first, and then to Proverbs 31, rather than first at Proverbs 31 to remind us to look to Christ.  

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” 

If we accept this, then what can we imitate from her? Well, this is what this series has been all about! We can imitate her strength, even when we feel weak and fragile (October issue). We can imitate her effectiveness, even when we’re overwhelmed by feelings of ineffectiveness (November issue). We can imitate her courage facing an unknown future (December issue). There are likely more characteristics that can be drawn out of this passage, and more study that can be done—but those are some places to start.  

We can use her example when inspiring and encouraging each other, without minimizing her or justifying why we bring her up. When we face negative stereotypes about women, either from the world around us or rising up inside our own minds, we can remember that these stereotypes are not necessarily true. The Bible, the book of truth, presents us with this woman of power to encourage us.  

I hope this exploration has been encouraging for you, and that you do see your horizon broadened by her example, rather than limited!  


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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 4 is here: A Woman Without Fear

This is Part 5!

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