I’ve been reading a mixture of things whilst we’ve been away, but have particularly enjoyed the book of Proverbs. So much so, in fact, that I started to write ‘blogs’ based on some of its themes. When I realised it was ‘Marriage Week’ this week – 7-14 February – I thought that the last chapter of Proverbs would make the perfect blog material, being that well-known passage about the ‘Perfect Wife’!
So here I am starting a blog on Proverbs by starting with the last chapter, 31. Some say that the acrostic poem in verses 1-31 of chapter 31 actually sums up the book itself, as it personifies the life of wisdom in this ‘woman’, or ‘wife’ of ‘noble character’.
There was a time in my Christian life when this passage used to get quoted and preached at us women in an incredibly condescending and patriarchal way; this is what we should each look like if we’re going to be a truly glorious wife for our husband. Yuk! It’s because of this backdrop that I generally haven’t enjoyed reading the book of Proverbs, but when I read it for myself seriously again recently, I found it totally different. The Bible is often like that isn’t it? We can get stuck in a way of understanding it that closes it down to us, but one day we read the same thing again, and the Spirit opens up a whole new way of seeing and understanding that is life-giving and helpful.
So when I read through this passage what came to mind more than anything else was all of my friends on Facebook! So many posts are about you guys making things with fabric, baking wonderful meals, looking after your beautiful children through the day and night, trying and succeeding at business initiatives and pursuing great job opportunities, putting husbands first, encouraging them to watch and play sport as well as work hard for the family, and also showing compassion in thought and action for others in many incredible ways. Sometimes you even find time to get to the spa, or do some other relaxing thing. It did make me laugh that the passage even mentions snow, and I am told that there is snow in Aylesbury today!
The reality is that whilst Facebook is great for connecting and staying in touch with people, it only ever gives us snapshots into each others lives, and usually only the good ones, which is fair enough for a public forum. What I realised when I was thinking about it was that actually we’re never going to manage to be all of this ‘perfect’ Proverbs woman at any one time. Between us we can – most days we hit all of these character attributes together. But individually most of us hit only one or maybe some of them at any one time depending on the season of life that we are in.
Sometimes our kids don’t get up when we ask them to, and rather than call us ‘blessed’, might choose a less repeatable word instead. Sometimes, for various reasons our husbands are not ‘respected at the city gates’ — he may be struggling with ill health or unemployed and unable to find work. Sometimes we may be ill and not able to look after everyone else, and so we are forced into having to ‘eat the bread of idleness’ even when we don’t want to. Or just the sheer effort of looking after everyone else saps every bit of energy and effort from us and there is nothing to show for what we do, except perhaps some unruly children and a house that badly needs a make-over.
I think that where this chapter helps us is not in showing us how to be perfect, but in painting an ‘ideal’ scenario, a picture of shalom, which we can aspire to, but not to be made to feel guilty from. Our true strength comes surely from knowing what our strengths and weaknesses are, so that we can face up to them and be open and honest about them with our husbands, and our wider circle of friends. I think it’s great that in a book about wisdom, which was written in a hugely patriarchal society, it’s the woman who has the last shout, and by no means is this a woman who is only defined by her husband. Surely as well, the high point of this passage comes at the end, in the last two verses, which repeats the idea at the beginning in Proverbs chapter 1: ‘charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.’ It’s our respect and love and awe of God (not fear in a negative way) that makes us the most beautiful that we can be. Worshippers. It’s because of this that we love, and serve and honour our pledges to God and humanity.
Steve and I were married for 39 years last month, and to mark the occasion, we have taken some time out for ourselves for a much longer holiday than we have ever had before. It’s been an incredible opportunity, albeit a very privileged one.
We have had time to have fun, reflect on God’s goodness together, talk about important things, mundane things, and enjoy some wonderful sights and experiences. But the main thing for both of us is that we have done it together. It’s not that our marriage would have fallen apart if we hadn’t done it, or that either of us was going to have some kind of breakdown, but it was just that we felt we should take the opportunity, at this point in our lives, to cut out, give each other some time and come back with a new passion and energy for the things that God has called us to do together.
Someone once asked us the secret of our ‘success’, which I think is a strange question, as I’m not sure how you measure that. If I look at our lives I would see achievements, yes, but not success. I said ‘forgiveness’. I think I still would, not because Steve needs forgiving all the time (just some), or glibly in a prescriptive methodological kind of a way, but just as a stance towards one another. Because the reality is that love covers a multitude of sins, and a successful marriage has got to be about working through everything life throws at us – together. I regularly need forgiving and so does he – not necessarily because of what we do or don’t do, but because we don’t always meet up to hopes or expectations. We don’t always agree, or understand each other, but we are always determined to believe in the other and come to agreement even if it’s to disagree. We’ve always determined to work through the hard times until we’ve found a more manageable, or even beautiful place again. That’s why marriage is a covenant, because it takes two to make it work. That’s why marriages break down, because one person breaks their side of the covenant, or the two stop working together. Funnily enough there is a fear element in that as well. We both know that there is a line that we cannot cross for the other to still love us.
I could write a list of things that have nearly made us give up, from silly trivial things to more important things. We have found that through each life stage we have needed to find and make room for each other in a new way – neither of us are the people who we married at 18 and 21! But each time we find each other again, work through the real life challenges that are a daily part of life, and help each other to aspire, with the Lord’s help, to be all that we can be, life finds a new even keel where we can be best friends and allies together and enjoy every day. Really importantly though, we could never achieve this without wise friends and family around us as well.
So it’s not because I’m this perfect wife, or because we have a perfect marriage, or I have a perfect husband, that I can ‘laugh at the days to come’. It’s not because I’m proud or boastful or smug, or feel superior or ‘more wise’ than any one else that makes me stand up and say I am ‘clothed with strength and dignity’. It’s because I am grateful, and in awe, and hopeful, and expectant that the same God that was with us when we came together, and has been with us through the joys and trials of life, will be with us for the next however many years of adventure we have together. For us, this is love, actually! Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!