I wrote a personal blog the other day about my struggle with academic idolatry over the years (you can read it here). I explained how I’ve dug myself into a pit of perfectionism and pride since high school that God has been painfully – but benevolently – pulling me out of. More often than not, He does this by putting me in circumstances that prevent me from doing as well as I’d like to in my academic endeavors.
I think there’s something I should clarify, though: His discipline in this area has never made it acceptable for me to give up on diligence. It forces me to recognize the futility of working hard for the wrong reasons and enables me to taste the joy that comes with rightly-motivated effort (even when that effort goes unrewarded). But it doesn’t make me exempt from hard work as a whole.
Over the past few weeks as I’ve pondered this, I have been convicted about the instructions within a certain passage in Scripture that I simultaneously dread and adore. I know there are other women out there who feel the same way. The “Proverbs 31 woman” has received her fair share of attention throughout history, and in our own time there is a never-ending list of books, ministries, podcasts, and so on that focus on her example of excellent womanhood. Sometimes I am in awe of her. Sometimes I don’t like her much at all.
Whoever she is, and regardless of whether she was a real person or not, we know she embodies some daunting expectations. And I don’t know about you, but I tend to avoid daunting expectations like the plague.
What used to torment me about the woman in Proverbs 31 is that her lifestyle seems not only unattainable, but miserable. Even if I could identify with her example I often doubt that I would be happy. I’ve wondered how on earth she functions with no more than what seems like a power-nap’s worth of nightly sleep; or how she can catch her breath when she spends her waking hours crafting goods, selling them, buying necessary supplies, preparing food for her family and maidservants, and helping in the cause of the poor.
How did she have time to even bathe? When was she intimate with her husband? When did she bond with her children? Some women look at her example and think, “Forget it. That’s just impossible. I would go insane if I lived that way.” We treat the passage like it made it into the Scriptural canon by mistake.
In the moments when I foolishly entertain such a mentality, I choose to live according to the lies telling me that diligence is far too difficult and unrewarding to justify pursuing it. Can you imagine what things would look like if we consistently treated other virtues in Scripture with this same stubborness and selfishness?
The fact of the matter is that idolatry of comfort and gratification is no more honorable than idolatry of busyness and personal glory. We don’t kill one sinful tendency by shifting to its opposite sinful counterpart. The antidote to prideful perfectionism is not idle indulgence; and the fix for me-centered work is not less work, but rather Christ-centered work.
And what’s interesting is that the woman described in this passage is rewarded and praised for her work after all (v. 31). When we make the promise of praise and reward the end goal of our work or demand it in some other self-centered way, we may be given it eventually, but it won’t be satisfying or fulfilling. It loses its profundity. We render it cheap by making so much of it; whereas if we work with the purpose of glorifying God and treat our duties as tools of His grace, we actually produce excellent work and we come out of it with lasting joy.
I’m starting to appreciate the description of the Proverbs 31 woman more and more as I begin rooting out the seeds of idleness in my heart. Of course it wounds the flesh to see that the kind of strength, diligence, and dignity she exhibits requires her to pour herself out. It requires less time spent in pointless indulgences. It requires an outward focus on what might benefit those around her, even at the cost of herself.
But isn’t this is what it looks like to live out the gospel?
In our culture’s glorification of individual fulfillment, cheap happiness, personal comforts, and the pursuit of luxury, we’ve neglected to celebrate the beauty of humble diligence – and it is wrought through self-denial and discipline. As long as we fight against this pattern, we will look at passages like Proverbs 31 and see nothing but a life of exaggerated drudgery and miss the immense beauty there.
So we cannot afford to dismiss this passage. We cannot afford to choose the path of comfort and idleness – because if we aren’t laying down our lives for the sake of better and more eternal things, then we aren’t honoring the call of the gospel of Christ.