"Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates."
What woman has never felt the weight of guilt press on her shoulders as yet another women's group or Bible study or retreat or book or blog post projects "The Proverbs 31 woman" as the picture that needs to be hung on our fridge and taped to our bathroom mirror in order to remember all the things she does and how we should strive to be like her?
Who doesn't want to be excellent, precious, trustworthy, a happy worker, diligent, business savvy, strong, industrious, generous, compassionate, fearless, a good helpmeet, dignified, classy, wise, kind, and prepared?
But we hear that list thrown at us over and over and we measure our worth against all these things the mysterious woman is, and we slowly sink into our chairs knowing we'd be grateful if just one of those things could be said about us without laughing or crying.
Sure, we can project any image we want. Social media is a great place to show off what we do and the beautiful home we have made. We can comment and pat ourselves on the back for the healthy food we make for our family or the way we teach our children. But what most of us know, not-too-deep inside, is that we (and every woman like us) feel like a failure in so many areas that if we want to make it through another day, we must take hold of the one good thing we accomplished that day and make sure everyone knows about it.
Now before you roll your eyes and think this is another "pretending to be perfect" social media rage, be assured it is not. Although I loathe many things about social media, I also love many things and because of the domino effect in life, I can truly say Facebook has changed my life for good in many ways.
With that said, let's get back to the heavy guilt of the perfect woman we we should emulate. She is wrapped in a pretty pink bow everywhere we look—inside our pretty pink Bibles and our pretty pink how-to-be-a-great-wife-and-mom book and our pretty pink "Bible" app telling us we are beautiful and precious. This woman may laugh at the future, but I want to laugh her right off the stage of every woman's heart.
It's not that her performance isn't praiseworthy. Clearly it is. But my issue with this woman performing on every stage and in every areas of our guilt and inferiority complex is that she makes it look so easy, so reproducible. We read about all her virtues and we are told to be like her and we resolve once again to dress like her, think like her, act like her.
But regardless of how motivated we were yesterday, today we see just us in the mirror and we smack our heads on the shattered glass of imperfection. All the while, this woman we have never, ever met rises in fame and fanfare as we continue to see how big she is and how little we are.
But you know what? This woman needs to be booted off the stage.
Maybe not forever, perhaps she'll return as an encore, but until we see what life on the stage is really about, and until we see the reason she's able to perform as she does, she needs to be tucked away in our pretty pink stash of pretty pink women's Bible study notes.
We think this lady is saying, "Look at me!" But she's not. In reality, she isn't speaking at all. King Lemuel behind the curtain, speaking into the microphone with his deep voice saying, "Look at her heart, but hear my voice." But his words fall on deaf ears and her heart on blind eyes.
"...because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand" (Matthew 13:13).
The beauty of her perfect act and the words of his perfect narration are missed because while we are trying to record every word our pretty pink phone, the king stops speaking and we are left to a silent show we didn't even see and we try to base our performance off of. We are left feeling so undone that we leave before every getting to see the end of the show—the part where the narrator and the Proverbs 31 dancer both step out on stage for the curtain call—and the audience realizes that the dance we so admired was a fraud. Sure, she dances a beautiful dance, but what we could now see which we refused to see before were the puppet strings of the narrator, of the one who wrote her story. With a look of dismay, we then realize that this woman isn't all we thought and hoped her to be. What we have to understand is that if her master steps away or is pushed away from this woman, she will collapse into a heap on the floor. And then she is no better off than we are.
I have mentioned in the past that as part of my daily Bible time, I first read a Proverb, the chapter corresponding to the day of the month. With today being the 31st, the dancing woman on the stage and I meet again.
But I don't feel dread anymore. I don't feel guilt anymore. I've kicked her off the stage of my life and instead entered through the ripped the curtain in order to see and hear the secrets of her dance. I now see that she is controlled not by her own goodness, but by a man behind the curtain who controls her every move and makes each step beautiful.
"Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
Give her the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates."
Oh dear women, do you see that we are missing the point? I plead with you, know this: as we admire this woman on the stage from afar and as we resolve every day to do what she does and step where she steps, we walk further and further from the truth of the source of the great grace by which she dances.
Charm is deceitful.
Do you know what charm means? It means "the power or quality of giving delight or arousing admiration."
If this woman arouses your admiration with intense power coming from the thrust of every women's ministry tactic I have ever seen, know this: she isn't to be admired or followed—it's deceitful! Her dance has nothing to do with her and everything to do with the one holding the strings.
All those qualities you see in this woman and that you want to see in yourself are deceiving if you are simply growing in admiration of all the good she does, and and ignoring the means by which she does it.
The king wants you to understand what you don't see. You think you see true beauty because of all this woman's admiring fans throw themselves at her and encourage you to do the same. Just get on the stage, they tell you, perform like her and you'll get the applause. But what you don't see, what the king wants you to know, is that apart from Him, she can do nothing. So instead of gazing at her, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus who authored and perfected her dance and who authored and will perfect our faith.
"A woman who fears the LORD is to be praised."
The applause we long for — the trust, delight, and praise of our husbands, children, and community—isn't achieved by getting on stage and trying to dance this lady's dance. You'll be booed off the stage, with your own guilt and shame leading the angry crowd.
If you want real praise, the king tells us, don't fear the crowd; fear the king, the LORD.
As Christians, we love to throw around phrases we really aren't quite sure the meaning of. Go ahead, try it. Without looking anything up, define glory, justification, propitiation, and thelight of the knowledge of the glory of God. See. Most of us use words without understanding their meaning. It's like the English words on a street sign in our town in India that said, "Toe away zone." Go ahead, think on that. I'll give you a sec.
So we must ask, what does it mean to fear the LORD? Books can and should be written on it, but suffice it to say that the fear of the LORD is a healthy and right awestruck I-have-no-words wonder and disbelief that you have access to and are standing in front of something so grand and majestic and powerful. We don't fear the Lord. We are like the ignorant child C.S. Lewis speaks of who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
To fear Him is to shudder before Him — not in angst or terrified anxiety but in assurance and awestruck wonder.
Have you ever seen fans at a concert (or on social media) that give an I'd-give-anything-to-just be-close-enough-to-touch her pledge? When a groupie sees their favorite star, it doesn't matter what else is going on around them. Their idol walks past and their eyes follow, vowing to make the glimpse last as long as possible. All of a sudden the things these fans had just been thinking about and the importance of what the person next to them was saying, all fall away as their jaw hits the floor and renders them speechless. You're in awe and at least for the next few moments, you think your life will forever be changed.
That is the kind of fear that the Biblical writers have in mind when they speak of "the fear of God." It isn't a cowering oh-He's-so-scary kind of fear. It is an awestruck oh-He's-so-magnificent feeling of humility and wonder. In fearing God, you cannot describe the depths of the gratitude you have for the grace that allows you to be in the presence of someone who makes all the bright and shiny and pretty pink things of the world grow dim because in His presence is fullness of joy and in His hand are pleasures forevermore.
If you languish in sight of all the glitz and glam of the Proverbs 31 woman and the thought that despite your best efforts, you will never be like her, I have the solution: I know what it will take to get her back on stage, with you dancing right next to her.
But when she comes out, don't watch what she does and try to imitate it. Instead, step behind the ripped-in-two curtain and beg the One holding her strings to use His power and provision and creativity to make you dance the same dance, or better yet, a dance choreographed just for you, featuring your personal gifts in the spotlight of His peculiar glory and the peculiar grace given you through faith.
Let's use another word picture to see our problem and confusion more clearly. I always tell my children that if we want to understand something complex, such as a math problem or a sentence diagram, don't sit there all day being frustrated. Instead, use a simpler problem with smaller numbers or a simpler sentence with fewer clauses and do those first. Then, take notice of the principles and process you used successfully and then apply them to that which is more complex. That's why I love visual examples, both to be seen with our eyes and understood in our minds. They take something intimidating and makes it approachable.
Imagine you see a woman with the perfect body you have dreamed of. She's about your height and her frame is a medium build like yours, and so you look at her in awe and and wonder, wavering between "I could look like that" and "I could never look like that!" She has the waist size you dream of and the gorgeous hair style you love but don't think you could ever pull off. And then, there are those arms. Thin, tan, and toned. Oh my! If only you could have those arms, nothing else would matter you think. She has what you want. In one decisive moment, you decide you just have to have those arms.
In deciding—and resolving—to have those thin, tan, and toned arms, you make a quick decision: run after her. You run her direction as fast as you can, you push everyone else out of the way, and you grab hold of those muscular-yet-feminine arms you envy so much. You push closer and closer, your arm to her arm, begging and pleading and believing that if you try a little harder and position yourself just so, her arms will magically become your arms.
Do you know how ridiculous that would be? Can you imagine the humiliation you would feel when you stopped to see everyone in the room staring at you, wondering what got into the possessed woman who is yelling and screaming about some arms she wants that belong to someone else?
But isn't that what we do? Just as the woman who wants thin, tanned, and toned arms can't put herself next to the woman with the arms she craves, but instead needs to find the "secret" of diet and strength training, neither can we run after a woman with a 31 on her back, arriving at her side breathlessly, and press our back against hers and believe that the 31 will just rub off on us. It's ludicrous!
The woman who wants to be strong needs to head to the source of the strength: the weight room. And the Proverbs 31 wannabe who wants to be strong needs to head to the source of the strength: a healthy and holy fear of God. She needs to fall to her knees in awe, knowing that nothing else matters now that she has seen her idol, the One she worships.
If you want a 31 emblazoned on your back, don't run after the shirt itself—run after her source of the shirt. Run, but run rightly. Guilt and shame and sin will weigh you down and tangle you up so your feet trip and you stumble. So you need to throw off those weights and run a race that finishes with not a perishable crown but an imperishable crown.
Run to God.
And I don't mean run to God in some abstract way in which you start out fast, start feeling the effects of a lack of training, use a quick mid-run snack of a pithy devotional or a cute inspirational saying on Instagram to give you the energy to keep going. What I mean is before you start the race, first run to the source of the food that will sustain you. The actual source. You want God to speak to you? You want God to show you what to do and where to go? You want God to help you be the woman you shamefully admit you can never be? Then run to God.
God's Word, penned in 66 books by 40 authors on three continents over two thousand years, is the very breath of the God you claim to seek earnestly. You don't want to run out of breath? Go to the source of every new breath. You don't want to fall down famished and dehydrated? Go to the source of the bread of life and the living water.
The Proverbs 31 woman needs her picture ripped off your mirror, and instead you need to do whatever it takes to exchange it with the Words of God, handwritten by Him in the steam on your mirror. You think your world is foggy? Let His words wipe the fog away as you see the message of His love and tenderness and His good and holy perfect will.
Stop trying to be like the Proverbs 31 woman and focus on how to be her. You want someone to aim your affections toward? How about the One who made her all she is?
You wouldn't fawn over a celebrity sighting if you didn't know who the celebrity was. You would watch everyone else go wild and you would stand there wondering what exactly you are missing.
Likewise, if you don't know God, nothing will make your head turn when He’s right there in the midst of the chaos. You’ll hear the praise of others and you'll either stand there looking stupid or you'll pretend you know what everyone is getting so excited about and start screaming uncontrollably about something or someone who doesn't delight you one little bit. In order for the praise to be genuine, you need to know the one on whom it is lavished.
To fear the LORD implies knowing Him. If you know who is He, what He has done, what He is doing, and what He will do, and if you know, believe, and trust Him, then you'll see how awesome He is and how trustworthy His Word proves to be over and over and over. And then, and only then, the fears of the world will be replaced by the rightful fear—awestruck wonder—of God.
It is then that the qualities you are told you should have, written in favorite verses of pink, actually start to become a reality. These 20 verses of guilt-inducing drama, placed between verse 9 and 30, are a weight on women when in reality, they should be a weight-lifter. This Proverb was written as a praise song. Each verse, corresponding to a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, isn't meant to be a prescription for what you should do, but instead be the praiseworthy results of a woman who trusts so much in a God she knows that she is able to laugh at an unknown future, even if it means snow falling in a world before central heat and electric blankets. If you want so much to be like her, go to her Source. Don't press your arms against a strong woman. Don't read about "how to have perfect arms by summer." Go and lift the heavy-but light-weight of all God says He is, and was, and is to come. You’ll find a strength you didn’t know was possible.
The effect of a woman who hopes in God and not in the things of this world will be a woman worthy of praise, whether here good deeds are baking bread in the early morning hours, serving needy children in an orphanage, or cooking dinner for a bunch of sweaty kids and their friends. Those descriptive verses you strive after can't be found—they are made. They are the natural overflow of a woman whose heart and hope are fixed firmly on a God she truly knows and a grace she truly doesn’t deserve.
Do you want to be far more precious than jewels? Do you want to have imperishable beauty that is not in vain? Then hope in a God you know. Only then will you become like that 31 lady (the one who sells linen garments and sashes, not the one who sells cute-but-still-oh-so-functional bags). Once you know that the only fear you should fear is the fear of a great and glorious God, you will become like Sarah who "did not fear anything that is frightening.”
You don't become in order to know. You know in order to become.
And don’t let yourself think this is a potato/potahto semantic issue. This is grace-based theology versus works-based theology.
You don't please God because of what you do.
You dobecause you are pleased in God.
If we mess this up, we mess everything up.
So, kick that 31 lady off the stage, push back the curtain, and see the One who controls her every move. It's in Him we live and move and have our being.