In Proverbs 31, we come face to face with a multiplicity of courage-giving images. It’s filled with strength, words spoken in love, and thoughtful and courageous actions.
At the crux of the poem is the phrase “a wife of noble character.”
Rachel Held Evans, who does an incredible job speaking about Proverbs 31, points out that the phrase, “wife of noble character” (in Hebrew, eshet chayil), is best translated as “woman of valor.”
Valor is the picture of strength and gumption – a person digging in her heels and holding on for the ride. A woman who not only expresses courage but gives it.
Our problem often begins when we read Proverbs 31 prescriptively, as something we should do or accomplish. But this text wasn’t written as a to-do list.
The anxious “Type A” part of us wants to know how it looks to be a man or a woman. Just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.
I fear we love fences and boundaries because they make us feel safe. But Proverbs 31 does not present tasks to emulate or an individual to model; it’s about wisdom, strength and courage.
Growing up, I thought Proverbs 31 was restrictive and confining. I bought into the domesticity-centered interpretation, but it was a small arena in which to run.
However, the nature of wisdom literature would prevent us from reading Proverbs 31 as a lifestyle to accomplish. Instead, Proverbs 31 shows us a way to live.
The arena is blown wide open. And we’re free to run.
The text rattles off a litany of daily activity, but the activity is not central. It highlights the movement of women in the community and the home, and each task is done with purpose.
Purpose is not limited to huge projects or publicly recognized endeavors. Purpose isn’t found in any task or role; purpose is a way of living.
If purpose is a way to live, move and breath, then what was limiting and small about Proverbs 31 becomes liberating and infinite.
There is nothing we can’t do with purpose. And we, as the church, need to hear that our value is not based on the culturally ranked importance of our work, whether staying at home or working outside the home.
Our value comes from our connection to God.
Proverbs 31 gives us images of a strong woman, a resourceful woman, a woman who thinks and acts and isn’t threatened or anxious. A woman who is present, who moves with wisdom and speaks with kindness.
She works hard and embraces responsibility. She’s thoughtful. She’s a risk-taker. She’s more than an observer; she’s a doer.
She moves with foresight and seizes opportunities. She gives, serves and loves. She does what needs to be done, and her life benefits those around her.
She contributes to her world. It matters that she is on the earth. Sometimes she does that through laundry, and other times she does it through medical school.
Love with courage. Serve your world with strength. Speak out of a living union with a God who created you. Do it wherever you are.
Because when you move, breathe, love and speak, you can shatter walls. You can change the world. And you do this not as one completing a list, but as one who moves with intrinsic purpose.
Let this poem motivate you to do what God has made you to do. Let it bring deep meaning to mopping, child-raising and working at the bank.
Let it free you to live not for the home or the corporate world, but for the one who made you in the first place.
Then, we can be instruments of courage to our spouses, our neighbors, our children, our co-workers and our world.
Christina Gibson is a graduate of Truett Theological Seminary and lives in Dallas with her pastor husband and two children. She works as a fitness instructor and personal trainer, and is a member of First Baptist Church of Richardson, Texas. She blogs at The Roundabout Way, where a version of this column first appeared.