The “Curse” of Proverbs 31

If you are a woman who has grown up “in the church,” you are probably familiar with Proverbs 31. It is the chapter about a virtuous woman. She is the role-model that is held up for young girls and older women alike. And she is, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” She gets up before the sun, stays up late into the night–always busy, always productive; she never slows down. She never has a bad hair day, never loses her temper, never forgets to pack a lunch or fold the laundry. She never nags, never scolds, never pouts, and never has to raise her voice.

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It helps that she has serving girls to do her bidding, and has her own business. She appears to be independently wealthy and active, yet she has time to raise children who “rise up and call her blessed,” and satisfy her husband, who “lacks nothing of value.”

I would love to say that I am just like that woman. Most days, however, I feel nothing like her. I don’t have money to buy a new field. I don’t get up before the sun and my hands are not eager to work. I don’t make and sell linen garments. No one is running around calling me “blessed” or singing my praises… I can never measure up to this woman. I feel cursed.

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But a closer reading of this chapter makes me think again.

While the woman described in this chapter is a model to emulate, she is not the norm. Nor is she the standard to which I must adhere to “earn” my way into God’s good graces. Indeed, God’s Mercy is the richer and His Grace more precious for knowing that I cannot “measure up.”

Instead of using Proverbs 31 to beat myself up for not being perfect (or using it to discourage or intimidate others), I need to learn from it. Here are a few things I’m hanging on to as I read through it this week:

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  • “She brings him (her husband) good, not harm…” (v. 12) What are some ways I can bring good, not harm, into my home and marriage? How can I listen more, nag, less, be more available, and otherwise show love and care? I won’t be perfect, but I can look for ways to improve!
  • “She works with eager hands..” (v. 13) “She sets about her work vigorously…”(v. 17) I may not be spinning wool or flax in the early light; I may not have serving girls to order, but I have hands and work to do throughout the day. How can I do a better job of seeing chores as opportunities, rather than oppression and drudgery? How can I bring a greater sense of purpose to my tasks? I may not have serving girls, but I have appliances–am I “ordering” them properly by taking care of them, instead of just taking them for granted? And am I grateful for their help?
  • “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy…” (v. 20) What can I do to “give” more–donate, volunteer, provide hospitality and encouragement? How can I keep in mind that during various seasons of life the “poor” and “needy” may be in my own home and family–children or grandchildren needing nourishment and discipline; parents needing care and support…How can I be more available to those outside of my home, or during my work hours? Can I send an e-mail or make a call to offer encouragement? Can I share a recipe with a friend, or invite them to come with me shopping or to church? Can I make time to pray with a neighbor? Can I clean out a closet and donate clothes or linens?
  • “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue..” (v. 26) What a challenge!? What is “on my tongue?” Gossip? Criticism? Complaining? Idle chatter? Do I speak too much? Do I remain silent when I could offer needed instruction, encouragement, or correction? Do I speak with gentleness and compassion? With conviction and truth?
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  • “…she does not eat the bread of idleness..”(v27). Ouch! Everyone needs to rest– even the seemingly indefatigable woman of Proverbs 31! But am I becoming “fat” on leisure time? How much time to I waste on distractions and entertainment that could be put to better use?
  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised..” (v30) I may strive to be an “accomplished” woman– someone who is poised, talented, successful in business and society, with a picture-perfect house and garden, children on the dean’s list or the winning sports team; I can be will-traveled and well-educated, someone who seems to “have it all”–and still NOT be a woman of noble character. God isn’t impressed by my clothes or my achievements; He doesn’t give me credit for being “better” than my next door neighbor, or having the best kitchen on the block; God will not love me any more for being more successful or productive than anyone else. If my house is cluttered, my hair is untame-able, my kids have public melt-downs, and I don’t belong to the “in” club; if my business fails, my car is rusty (or I don’t have one), and my husband and I wear second-hand clothes, God still sees my heart. I can still be a woman who fears, trusts, and serves the Lord– one who is loved, accepted, and even “praised” by the One who matters most!
  • Finally, I can Pray to become a woman/wife of noble character (v.10), striving for good habits, rather than fretting over and wallowing in bad ones. I can trust God’s willingness and ability to transform my life and my attitudes. In fact, I am reminded of a seemingly unrelated portion of scripture from Philippians:

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message)
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I need to spend less of my time worrying about getting things “done”, than getting them done God’s way! I don’t need to fear the “curse” of Proverbs 31– failure to measure up to a model– instead, I need to see the opportunity to become a woman after God’s own heart– one who accepts God’s help and wisdom to become the woman HE wants me to be. I pray that God will give me the chance to develop–and help others–today and each new day.

Testimony

Yesterday at church we were challenged to share our testimony. I have shared my testimony several times, but I haven’t shared it in this space in a long while (if ever), so here goes:

When I was about 4 1/2 years old, I became a big sister. I was excited about this, but after my younger sister arrived, I had a terrible time with jealousy and resentment. She was tiny and adorable, and she had my Dad’s blue eyes (they later changed to a greenish/hazel color like mine, but everyone commented on her eyes, and never on mine). One day, filled with this resentment, I made a rather impulsive decision to poke my sister in the eye with a sharp stick. At that age, I wasn’t completely aware of the danger and damage I would have done, but I still knew it was wrong. I didn’t succeed– my mother caught me in time and got a stern talking-to about what had almost happened. Not wanting to face punishment and Mom’s anger, I burst into tears and said I was sorry. Surely a show of remorse would make everything all right. That’s how it worked on television, and it had worked for me that way in the past.

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But this time was different. Mom was frightened by what might have happened, and unimpressed with my tears. She explained quite clearly that what I had attempted could have ended in disaster, and that no amount of “sorry” would have undone my action. I had to face punishment (probably less severe than I deserved, but it felt awful at the time). She also explained that she was both frightened of and disappointed in my action. She would tell my father, who would also be ashamed of my behavior. Now I was truly frightened. What if Mom and Dad never got over their disappointment? What if they stopped loving me? Not only that, but Jesus had seen everything: He knew what I had been about to do and WHY! I had learned about Jesus in Sunday School. He was kind and gentle and loved all the little children. What if He stopped loving me after He saw what I did? What if I had succeeded in hurting my sister and it could never be made right? What if I said I was sorry, and no one believed me? Even Jesus?

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I can still remember the feelings of terror and shame– that kind and gentle and Holy Jesus might be disgusted with me; that my resentment and anger had separated me from Him, and that I could not “undo” it or “sorry” my way out of it. Certainly, I was coming to realize that He had (through my mom) stopped me from completing my evil plan –WHEW!– but He KNEW that I would have done it. And I wouldn’t have been sorry for my jealousy, or for my sister’s pain in that moment. Not really sorry. I recognized in that moment that I wasn’t a nice person or a good or righteous person. If Jesus loved me, I didn’t deserve it.

Mom must have seen the change in me, because she stopped and took the time to walk me through the lessons I was still learning in Sunday School. We are all sinners, and unworthy of the love and blessing of a Holy God. Yet Jesus came and offered to love us– to love us SO much that He was willing to die to remove the sting and shame of Sin and its consequences. And Jesus’ love is SO powerful that it can take a rotten, sinful heart and cleanse it completely. Mom and Dad could love and forgive me. But it would involve more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” I had to mean it. I had to choose to let Jesus take control of my resentment, and my wrong thinking, and ask Him for forgiveness. In fact, only Jesus can offer complete and everlasting forgiveness! I am not a righteous person; others can see that I am not a righteous person– yet Jesus can see me, not as I have been, but as I can be– perfected through Him! I asked Jesus to do just that– to come into my heart; to live in and through me; to renew me and change my mind and heart to be more like His.

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Jesus Loves ME– this I KNOW
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong.
They are weak, but He is strong!

I had sung this song many times, but now it made sense to me in an entirely new way. That was over 50 years ago, and I must admit that I have had moments of failure and embarrassment; times when I have chosen my own will and emotions over what I know to be right. I have had moments of doubting whether Jesus could still love me after things I’ve said and done. But time after time, I come back to that simple truth that Jesus, for reasons I cannot explain or fully understand, Loves Me– He Really Loves Me! His offer of forgiveness isn’t phony or conditional or limited. Not because I deserve unconditional love or a thousand “second chances.” Simply because HE LOVES ME!

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And He Loves You, too! Right now, right where you are, just as you are– He Loves You! Whether you’ve never known that, or been sure of that, or whether you’ve had moments of doubt because of something you’ve said or done (or left undone or said)–Jesus Loves You! And He wants to give you a New heart and a New Life– one that is free of lingering shame and fear; one that is eternal and filled with joy and peace!

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That is my testimony. That is what I know from experience to be true of God– more true than anything else in the world.

Resent, Relent, or Repent…

We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.

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There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.

Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”

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But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”

If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.

Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.

Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.

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It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.

But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!

Jacob’s (Third) Dysfunctional Family

The Bible is not a series of stories about super heroes, though it is often taught that way in Sunday School. Instead, it is the story of ordinary, flawed and hurting people who encounter a Holy and Majestic God. Jacob is one such person, and nearly half of the book of Genesis revolves around Jacob’s families– his parents and brother, his father-in-law’s household, and his own wives and children, extending to his grandchildren and even great-grandchildren.

Jacob grew into a man of great integrity and wisdom–a man of power and influence, wealth and consequence. But he was far from perfect, and his family caused him no end of headaches and heartaches. From the bickering and rivalry of his wives and their servants, to the violent clashes of his many sons, Jacob knew very little peace.

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It is important to note that, while the “God of Jacob” protected him, blessed him, and gave him a new name, He did not make life smooth and comfortable for him. We are not given great insight into Jacob’s parenting style, but we know that he had a favorite son, Joseph, and that his favoritism caused resentment among the others . Unlike his own father, though, Jacob interacted with all his sons, giving them each responsibilities and training them to work together. On his deathbed, he had blessings for each son that tied in to his strengths and weaknesses. We know that Jacob was highly respected by his sons, and that in the end, they did not disperse and lose contact with each other, but lived together in the land of Goshen in Egypt– even after the time of the famine that drove them there.

Even in a family of blessing, there will always be some level of dysfunction, struggle, hardship, and pain. Favoritism, discord, envy, resentment, unforgiveness– it all starts in families among flawed people living in a fallen world.

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So often, we try to present ourselves and our families “in our Sunday best”– we want people to be impressed by our show of piety or “good manners” or “problem-free” family life. We pretend that we never argue, never harbor bitterness, never have tantrums or meltdowns or sarcastic “episodes”. God is not looking for picture perfect families…He is looking for families who are honestly and earnestly seeking Him.

Surely, after his encounter with God, Jacob changed. He was a better man than before. But he was never the “perfect dad”, the “perfect husband”, or the “perfect man.” And his family wasn’t a model of decorum and harmony. But God did not turn his back on this dysfunctional family. He did not disown Jacob or cancel all the blessings He had promised. Instead, he solidified the promise he had made to Jacob’s grandfather and father, creating in Jacob’s sons the twelve tribes that would make up the nation of Israel. Just as Jacob’s family wasn’t perfect, the nation of Israel was never perfect– it still isn’t. But God has chosen to pour out His grace on imperfect people throughout history– it’s His specialty!

If you are experiencing disharmony or even angry clashes with family members– take heart and hope from reading about Jacob’s trials and triumphs. Remember to take your pain, resentment, hurt and worry to “the God of Jacob.” God was with Jacob through all his many struggles, including the heartaches of “losing” his favorite son, losing his beloved wives, suffering during the famine in Canaan, having to move to Egypt in his old age, and watching his sons struggle with their own families and trials. Out of each struggle, God brought renewal, hope, rescue, and promise. And remember, God will not abandon you (or your children) because your family experiences disharmony or you have wayward family members. Others may pass judgment on appearances, but God sees the heart– He’s in the business of fixing that which is dysfunctional– not promoting those who hide behind a “perfect” facade.

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Jacob’s family was not perfect– but they were perfectly poised to show God’s power, protection, and grace!

Repent, relent, or resent?

I’m revisiting Jonah today.  The book of Jonah is a fascinating study–it’s just four short chapters, but they are packed with messages that inspire, convict, and encourage. More about Jonah here…

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At the beginning of the book, Jonah is sent by God to preach disaster to a city steeped in evil and violence.  Nineveh was an ancient metropolis of the Assyrian empire, located near modern-day Mosul, Iraq.  The people of Nineveh had been responsible for attacks against Israel, and it is believed that Jonah may have lost family members in these attacks.  Now God is sending him into the “belly of the beast” to preach judgment and doom.  Instead of following God’s command, Jonah tries to run away and gets swallowed by a big fish.

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This is the part of the story with which most people are familiar– Jonah and the “Whale”.  But this covers only the first quarter of the story!  Inside the fish, Jonah prays.  It is a beautiful prayer of praise and acknowledgement of God’s might and power to save.  This is not the sniveling coward of chapter one, but the great prophet he could have, should have been.  God gives him another chance and this time, Jonah is faithful to preach the message God sends– forty more days and He will wipe out Nineveh.

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But something unexpected happens.  The people of Nineveh hear Jonah’s dire warning– a lone voice calling in the streets with a gloomy message– and they repent.  From the least to the greatest, they cry out for mercy, they fast and mourn and do a complete about-face.  Just as God saved Jonah from the fish, He relents and saves Nineveh from destruction.  Jonah’s enemies get to live to see a new day!

The Ninevites repented, God relented, and Jonah resented.  The last chapter tells of Jonah’s temper tantrum in the light of God’s mercy.  God even sends him an object lesson in the form of a gourd vine.  The book of Jonah ends abruptly with God’s last statement.  We never read Jonah’s response; we never find out if he learned his lesson a second time or not.

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Even with its abrupt end, the book of Jonah teaches about three important responses:

  • The people of Nineveh repented.  When faced with judgment, they humbled themselves and called for mercy.  They received it.  In spite of their former violence, idolatry, and wickedness, God sent them a warning, and He extended the grace and mercy they did not deserve.
    • Two words of warning here:
      • 1) Their response was immediate, sincere, and dramatic.  That makes for an exciting story, but repentance sometimes comes over time and quietly.  God knows if our repentance is real.  It is not our place to judge someone else’s conversion or apology.
      • 2)  In the case of Nineveh, their repentance was short-lived.  God eventually destroyed the city and the Assyrian empire.  Just because we have a moment of sincere regret or keenly feel a need for mercy doesn’t mean that God has an obligation to extend mercy or to withhold judgment indefinitely.  Grace is a gift, not a negotiation!

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  • God relented.  God listens, ready to extend His grace.  He does not punish us as we deserve.  He does not mete out immediate judgment without hope of redemption.  God sent Jonah with a message of potential doom to Israel’s sworn enemy in the knowledge that they (EVEN THEY) would repent.  God sent dozens of prophets to the nation of Israel warning of doom and exile, and they mocked and even killed the messengers!  God is patient, loving, and kind.  But He is also just– evil will not be forgotten or left unpunished.  God will relent, but He won’t retreat, back down, or surrender.

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  • Jonah resented.  We don’t know if he stayed resentful, or rediscovered gratitude for God’s grace to Nineveh or to himself, but we are left with a picture that Jesus echoes in the story of the prodigal son.  Jonah is like the older brother who worries more about his brother’s misdeeds than his brother’s soul.  How many of us who have experienced grace sulk and pout when we see others enjoying their first delightful taste of it?  Do we stamp our feet at God when he sends us to bring the Gospel to people we have written off as uninterested in or unworthy of it?  Do we resent being corrected and humbled by a loving God?  Do we worry and fret over our creature comforts as Jonah worried over his gourd vine, while others live without hope, food, or shelter?

Three words, so similar in spelling and sound, but so very different in impact!

Lord, I pray that my repentance would always be immediate and sincere; that I would see others, and their need for your grace, through your eyes of compassion; and that I would not resent your goodness and patience toward others.  Thank you for your patience and mercy toward me, and may I give the same to those who need to see Your face.  Give me the wisdom to trust you and obey, even when my flesh would run away.  May I see the gourd vines and big fish in my life as your gifts.

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