The Proverbs 31 woman.
When you read those words, what is your first reaction? (If you’ve never read it, go take a moment and read it first.) Perhaps an anxious overwhelm and biting of nails as you wonder how you could possibly imitate her? Or do you swing in the other direction and smirk with pride at all you feel like you’re currently accomplishing?
I fear it’s common for us to hurriedly read through the attributes of the woman described in Proverbs 31 and either make excuses for the descriptions we feel we lack, and/or possibly at the same time, hold our heads high at the ones we can check off the list as successfully doing.
To the woman who does a lot of things…have you ever felt like others tell you that you cannot, should not, couldn’t possibly do all the things and still be living in obedience? I mean, surely true joy and peace do not reside in a to-do list that’s marked off. And if you scroll social media at just the right time, you’ll likely read a labeled Christian post from a well-meaning person expressing their come-to-the-light moment when they put all the work aside to just be. To sit. To rest. And that’s where true joy came.
But perhaps you frowned at that thought. Maybe you dip your toe into the pursuit of leisure on a regular basis, only to feel disgruntled and unsatisfied and bitter. Where is the joy?
To the woman who instantly becomes overwhelmed by Proverbs 31 and doesn’t even begin to do one thing due to the fear that she can’t do all of the things mentioned…have you had people chant the words so often “give yourself grace,” that you’ve echoed the words to yourself, only to wonder what that really means or how idleness and excuses really reflect a life touched by grace? Maybe you read the story of Mary and Martha and have decided it’s easier to throw all work out of the window because clearly Martha had it wrong. Do you hear the contending voices arguing about to-do lists and work vs. sitting and enjoying life, and wonder where the true joy comes even though you aren’t doing anything but still feel aimless?
What I’ve mentioned are two common ditches, I feel. And I think scripture has something to say to us about what we should be and do as women. I think if we examine truth closely, we’ll find that we do have a duty (something to do), and what matters most is how we do it. Not doing it should not be an option.
So before we go any farther, take a moment and identify which ditch you find yourself in most often – do you tend to search for joy in doing all of the things, but find that you’re often living in a bitter and critical spirit? Or do you anxiously do nothing, while worrying about what you should be doing, and instead make leisure your pursuit in hopes that you’ll find joy in “being more present?”
I think there may be a hint of truth in each of those directions, which is why we often find ourselves in one of them, but the pursuit is skewed just enough that either direction leaves us feeling empty, exhausted, frustrated and bitter.
Let’s turn to what scripture says about true joy in order to understand how we live in that joy, and what it looks like.
“But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you” (Psalm 5:11).
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
“For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence” (Psalm 21:6).
“Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts” (Jeremiah 15:16).
Where is joy found? These verses are plain – joy comes from the presence of the Lord! Joy comes from feasting on his Word. Now, I fear that due to cultural popularity, we tend to equate the presence of the Lord with leisure mountaintop moments where we do nothing all day but sit and gaze at the sunset. Can we meet the Lord there? Absolutely! Are those moments gifts? Absolutely! And I treasure them. But if I wait to have joy only in those vacation-type get-a-ways, I’m missing out on joy the majority of my life. Is it possible to be in the presence of the Lord while I’m at work, kneading dough, reading spelling words and French dictation to my children, or disciplining a toddler’s attitude?
Yes, I believe we can! If we fully believe that joy is found in the presence of the Lord, and the Lord has likewise called us to be about his work, then it’s possible to have joy in our work! I think this is what we see in the Proverbs 31 woman. She was busy. She was fruitful. And she did all these things while laughing, while speaking with kindness and gentleness. It’s possible for us to have joy in our work!
John 15 is another chapter I encourage you to sit in and read for a while. Really, John 15-17 is such a sweet portion of scripture with many of Jesus’ words that can help refocus us on truth. In John 15 we learn from him about the value of abiding in him, and how our work apart from him in fruitless, and will be pruned. At the end of this exhortation, Jesus concludes with a focus on joy.
“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11).
What a promise we can cling to! We can bear fruit by remaining in the vine and find true joy in the process. God will bless that obedience!
It’s important to note that this joy is not something we conjure up ourselves…it’s a working of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
We have the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in his presence there is fullness of joy. I can’t repeat this truth enough – we need this reminder!
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24).
So, if we are in the presence of the Lord, abiding in the true vine, and walking by the Spirit, we should be able to see that we have been given a duty to do, and we are able to do it cheerfully!
Now, scripture is clear that our work does not earn us anything, but rather our works are to accompany our faith.
“Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:20-26).
It’s because we believe in Jesus and who he is and what he did, and is still doing, that we join him at work. We are saved for something.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
Yes, we are saved to join God, and it’s not to join him at leisure. It’s not so that we can sit on a beach for the rest of our lives waiting for our ticket to heaven. I don’t have space here, but I challenge you to look at the many analogies in scripture that describe our Christian life with something active – a race, a battle, a fight, a journey. We are to be actively doing something, and that something, while it doesn’t save us, is a result of us being saved!
So, let me encourage you – don’t fall into thinking that leisure is the secret to joyful living. And don’t fall into thinking that simply doing a lot of works for the sake of doing them is the goal. To use an example from Rachel Jankovic I heard recently, there’s a big difference in feeding your family dinner and in feeding your family dinner with joy. Let’s do the work we are called by God to do, and let’s pursue it with joy because we are in the presence of the Lord! He is where our joy can be found, and He is the reason we will get to work in a cheerful manner.
As you think ahead to 2022 and perhaps consider goal setting, let me encourage you to consider what I’ve been learning in my own goal setting prep work. Maybe the main goal isn’t in the goal itself this year. As I look ahead, not much seems to be changing as far as what I’m doing and how I spend my time.
But how I do the things? That is my goal. Cheerful faithfulness. I need strength to do what God has called me to do, and I know that my strength only comes from the joy of the Lord.
“Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength”” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Get to work, sister. But work cheerfully. And this is my prayer for you.
“For seven days you shall keep the feast to the Lord your God at the place that the Lord will choose, because the Lord your God will bless you in all your produce and in all the work of your hands, so that you will be altogether joyful” (Deuteronomy 16:15).