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How Can I Compete with Mrs. Proverbs?

Donna Morley

Several years ago when I began writing, my friend Glenda said, “Whatever you write about, don’t mention Mrs. Proverbs!”

Laughing I asked, “Why not?”

With a seriousness that surprised me she said, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about her! She’s perfect! What woman can ever compete with her? All Proverbs 31 does is make the average woman feel guilty. How can we ever measure up?

Thinking for a moment, I replied, “Well, we hear about Christ every Sunday, and no one can ever measure up to His perfection.”

Glenda said, “That’s different. Men and women in the body of Christ strive to live the Christlike life. Everyone understands how difficult it can be at times to imitate Christ. For some reason, although we fall short of His example, we are lifted up and encouraged. But when I fall short of being the Proverbs woman, I feel like a failure. And the only encouragement I’m given is information on the latest craft seminar, as if I need some skill at doing something in order to be like her. I want to scream every time I hear how that lady was able to sew, make things and then sell them, buy land, and buy food from afar. What is she–Wonder Woman? When I read Proverbs 31, I’m asking myself, along with the writer, “Who can find a woman like that?’”

Glenda ended with, “Unlike Mrs. Proverbs, no one is going to praise my works.”

After getting off the phone, I thought a lot about what Glenda said and decided she had a point. Many of us think that we simply can’t be as industrious, as godly, as perfect as Mrs. Proverbs seemed to be. On her own she bought a field. And she did more–she planted a vineyard, helped the poor, clothed her family with scarlet, and worked late into the night. Because of her works, she was praised in the gates (Proverbs 31:31).

Do you ever feel like my friend Glenda, that you simply can’t compete with all that? What should we do about this dilemma? Wouldn’t it be great if we could sit down with Mrs. Proverbs for a little chat and share with her our true feelings about how difficult she has made things for us ordinary women?

A Chat With Mrs. Proverbs

Interviewer:Mrs. Proverbs, how does it make you feel, knowing that every Christian woman, single and married alike, strives to be like you?
Mrs. Proverbs:Women need role models. It’s a God-given desire. I’m flattered.
Interviewer:The difficult part about having you as a role model is that you appear “so perfect.”
Mrs. Proverbs:We know the only perfect one is God. I have my struggles and shortcomings. You just don’t read about them.
Interviewer:Despite your humanness, you seem like a “super-woman.” Many of us believe it’s impossible to accomplish all the things you did.
Mrs. Proverbs:It’s kind of you to point out that I was industrious. I did work hard because of my concern for my family. What Christian wife or mother today doesn’t have the same concerns? And what single woman isn’t as hard-working? Though modern women may not be doing exactly what I did, they are doing things I didn’t do.
Interviewer:Well, with all due respect, many women, unlike you, aren’t given the opportunity to see that their work is profitable (v. 18). Therefore, they feel quite inadequate.
Mrs. Proverbs:When each day came to an end, I did consider my work as profitable, and I had no second thoughts about how I spent my day. How am I any different from all the many other women who can go to bed without regrets about how they spent their day? They too, should feel that their day’s work was profitable.
Interviewer:That’s a good point, but let’s take this one step further. You are shown to be a businesswoman. There are many women who feel inadequate to make things, sell them, and run a home business.
Mrs. Proverbs:I would like to make two points in regard to your comment. First, the proverb says I did those things “in delight.” The issue isn’t the trading and selling. It’s in doing the things God calls us to–with delight. In doing so, a woman will be doing the business God gave her, just as I did the business He gave me. Secondly, I did make money to help my husband. Not all women can do that. To feel that they must do exactly as I did is misleading. The underlying issue here is that I was a helper to my husband, in my case, by making money. Other women help meet their family’s goals by living frugally.
Interviewer:You are making yourself sound as if you are much like the Christian women of today.
Mrs. Proverbs:That’s right. You see, we can all be proverbial women in our own right. I say this not based upon what we do but upon who we are.
Interviewer:But much of Proverbs 31 is about what you do.
Mrs. Proverbs:Today’s woman is caught in a trap that I never had to contend with. It’s called “the performance trap.” So much of a woman’s sense of worth in your culture seems to be wrapped up in what she does, and she is judged by that. Having a career or a successful ministry appears quite significant, whereas being a wife at home or having a job that is “not worth talking about” makes a woman insignificant by your society’s standards. I just don’t understand this. No wonder so many women desire to change who they are! No wonder many feel so insignificant!
Interviewer:What do you suggest for women of today?
Mrs. Proverbs:I suggest that they live life at the bottom. The bottom is the place of humility, where we are free to regard the spiritual success of others as more important than our own. It’s where we can never feel threatened by the abilities and talents of others. It’s a place that saints of the past have occupied, where great rewards are found. Those who live at the bottom come to discover that it’s really living life at the top.
Interviewer:Any last words?
Mrs. Proverbs:Yes, it’s important for each woman to realize that God has given her a specific personality, talents, and giftedness–a unique beauty–that can be used to fit into His plan and accomplish His will. Real change–and may I include true significance–comes from the inside out.
Interviewer:Mrs. Proverbs, thank you for your time and helpful insights. You are absolutely right about the emphasis in my society on what people do rather than on who they are. And that focus really is a trap.

The Performance Trap

What is significance from the inside out? Perhaps we can understand this concept better by looking at its opposite–significance from the outside in.

One day while boarding a train en route to a celebration, Ella Wheeler (later ella Wheeler Wilcox) heard someone crying. She turned and noticed a woman dressed in black. Approaching her, Ella asked what was wrong and came to find out that the grieving woman had just lost her husband. Ellas’ remaining time on the train was occupied with listening to the woman and trying to comfort her as best she could.

That evening while getting ready for her joyous event, Ella looked at her own beaming face in the mirror and suddenly thought about the sorrowing widow. At that moment, she came up with the opening line of her poem Solitude: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone...”

Little did Ella know when she first put those words down on paper that she would have to fight for them the rest of her life. A man by the name of John A. Joyce produced in 1885 the second edition of his book A Checkered Life, based on his own personal reflections. In that book he wrote a poem titled “Laugh, and the World Laughs with You.” It was identical to the poem Ella claimed she had written,

Ella challenged John Joyce to produce evidence of his authorship, offering to give $5,000 (then a sizable amount) in his name to any reputable charity of his choosing. All he had to do was prove that Ella was not the actual author of the poem. John Joyce refused her offer.

Years later, perhaps as a parting gesture, Joyce had the first two lines of the disputed poem engraved on his tombstone, where it has been since 1915, in Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

It’s no surprise that Ella Wheeler Wilcox wanted to defend her claim to this poem; her integrity was at stake. And if she is to be believed, John Joyce spent his life trying to cash in on her success–a worldly success that was all too fleeting.

While Ella was well known in her day, as evidenced by a contemporary article about her in the Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1889), few people know of her now. Far less do we know who John Joyce was.

It’s understandable that most of us wouldn’t know or think much about the successful people of a century before us. But what about those over the centuries who are still remembered as great?

In Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony stood at the coffin of Caesar and said, “...yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world; now lies he there, and none so poor to do him reverence.” The once-feared and all powerful Caesar, whom Romans literally worshiped as an incarnation of God, was in a moment cut down to the stature of ordinary mortals, his body reduced to a crumbling relic of history.

Cemeteries are filled with faded relics. They give mute testimony to whole lives caught in the performance trap–people wanting to be “somebody,”

 pursuing notoriety, fortune, and respect. Yet all of those glories are now reduced to the barest line on a tombstone. Absent from that final remembrance of their lives are even their most cherished accomplishments. Tombstones, as we know, never read:

Trudy Thompson 1932-1999

Top Amway Salesperson from 1985-1990

Home displayed in Better Homes and Gardens, Spring Issue, 1996

Drove a late-model Lexus

And whatever material possessions the deceased acquired get scattered; no hearse ever pulled a trailer. No matter how high people climb in life, they all end up six feet below the ground. One thing matters: Did they leave anything besides a weathering grave marker? Did they do anything of eternal value? To what extent were their lives a true success?

What is your estimation of a successful life? I am sure God rejects many of our opinions on the subject. In His estimation, human standards are foolishness. All too often our view of success is determined by the wrong things. For instance, many believe that the significant life consists of what we do outwardly. Aren’t we often judged by that? Because we are, we can make the mistake of believing that our worth is based upon our accomplishments.

Are You In the Trap?

Prior to becoming a Christian, I based my worth on the approval I could gain from others through my appearance, and I tried to prove myself by the things I did. Since junior high school I had an interest in nutrition and pursued a career in it, planning either to work in a hospital or to do research. While in college I met the president of a cancer research firm and told him of my goals and desires. He handed me his card and invited me after me after graduation to give him a call (recently I stumbled across that twenty-three-year-old card!). I was thrilled and a bit prideful.

Shortly after that conversation, my ego got even more puffed up when I was selected to be part of a special dietetics program with an internship at a renowned hospital. Having such an internship on my resume was for me like going from the minor leagues to the major leagues in baseball. This was “big stuff !”

Even before the internship, I was already working in a hospital. I was amazed and delighted over the respect I gained from others. Though the job wasn’t anything worth writing home about, as a twenty-one-year old I felt I had proven myself to those who thought I would never amount to anything. People who didn’t know me seemed to think I was important as I walked the floors of the hospital, wearing my white jacket and carrying a clipboard full of information.

I think any one of us can be viewed as important but for all the wrong reasons. People seemed to view me as somebody because of my lab coat. Maybe others consider you important because of the material possessions you have or the diplomas on your wall, the prestigious school you attended, your career or your spouse’s work, the things your children are doing, or some famous person you know. Possibly you are in the ministry limelight.

Maybe others consider you to be somebody because you are making your job, your goals, or your connections sound a little more important than they really are. Maybe you yourself base your sense of importance on one of these outward things. Or perhaps the opposite is true–you’re a bit disappointed that there’s nothing tangible that makes you look important to people. If so, you are just as entangled in the performance trap as the person who has found something external to base her identity on.

There are many reasons why some of us can end up having an unnecessarily low view of ourselves. Let me just say here that when we strive to be someone we are not, or we want to be known strictly by things that are external to us, we are seeking acceptability in the wrong way. This path has no forks, and it’s all downhill. What can get us on that downward path? For one thing–a fear of failure.

Fear of Failure

In the classic movie Michelangelo, the pope expresses the unspoken thoughts of a lot of people. Reflecting over his life, he said to the great artist, “It’s a sad thing to strive all your life only to realize at its end that you’re a failure.” Imagine–someone who has the attention, even the admiration, of millions can still feel like a failure.

What could make us feel like a failure or at least fear we’re a failure? There could be many causes, but I think the most common one is that we focus on ourselves, which makes us want to see something tangible that will make us feel better about ourselves or make others think better of us. For instance, when I was first asked to speak to a group of women, I wanted to say no. Why? Because I thought I would fail. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I knew I wouldn’t be as polished a speaker as other women they had heard. The Lord convicted me on this, showing me that I was focused on myself rather than on the women I needed to serve.

Focusing on ourselves can give rise to some pretty awkward behaviors. For example, we can become perfectionists. Such people are unwilling to fail–whether at work, with house-cleaning, in appearance, in promptness, in hobbies and skills, and many other things. While it’s good to strive for a job well done, perfectionists will do whatever possible to avoid the low self-appraisal they would experience should they fail.

Sad to say, extreme perfectionists will likely put their standards of perfection upon their children. Because the parent mustn’t fail, neither can the child. Imagine what this does to the child who must go through life thinking that in order to gain the parent’s acceptance, he or she has to be perfect in everything. That’s impossible. Later as a grownup, this person will become overly discouraged in times of failure because of associating his or her identity with performance. What a burden to carry always needing to be perfect in order to gain acceptance from others, always depending on that acceptance to confirm personal worth.

Avoiding Risks

Then there is the woman who won’t take risks. If this is your tendency, you know all too well that you are willing to be involved only in those things you are good at doing. Risk-averse people, however, limit their service to God; they limit the role they could have in this life. They are afraid to try new things, fearing the disapproval or criticism of others should they fail.

Taking sensible risks isn’t the same as jumping into something without thinking it through. Christ showed us the importance of prudence when He said, “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish...” (Luke 14:28-29).

It’s wise to think through our actions, but it’s wrong for us to shrink from doing something good based on the opinions of others. To have a right attitude toward risk we simply have to realize that even our efforts to accomplish good cannot control all the outcomes once we start something. We cannot be absolutely sure how something will end. Just realize that you may be keeping back some beautiful gifts from others if you won’t take reasonable risks. Think of the hidden talents you may find as you step out, or of how much more you will be used by God as you consider His will more than your reputation–and of how much more fulfilling life can be when you refuse to fear failure.

I recently listened to a nurse talk about her experiences in working with dying patients. She said that the majority of them shared one regret. That is, they lamented that they had lived with a fear of failure. They came to realize that their fear had kept them from doing many things in life. If we are consumed with a fear of failure or feel down over a past failure, we are not only kept from doing a variety of things in life, but we are kept from fulfilling God’s significant plan for our lives.

Consider how the world worships success–or what it calls success. Many of the great prophets–Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah–would be classified as failures if we were to look at their lives with a worldly point of view. These men saw little or no fruit in their endeavors. Elijah not only saw little fruit, but toward the end of his life on earth, he was depressed (his enemies wanted to kill him), and he was very much alone (1 Kings 19:10,14). What did the Lord do? He didn’t allow Elijah to sulk or feel sorry for himself. God didn’t allow the prophet to focus upon himself at all. Rather, He gave Elijah a command (1 Kings 19:15-16). This helped him get his mind off himself and back onto others so that he could continue to do the ministry God had called him to.

For us it is the same. We will never be imprisoned by a fear of failure, or even feel like a failure, if we keep our minds off ourselves and on the work the Lord has for us to do. You might be wondering, “Will I see success in my endeavors?” No one can predict. It is God who decides who will see the fruit of their work and who will have to wait until heaven. But it is possible for every Christian to be successful by following the advice God gave Joshua.

Remember when Joshua had been given the command to take the place of Moses and lead the rebellious and grumbling Israelites into the promised land (Joshua 1:1-4)? This would be no easy task. Joshua was in direct verbal communication with God, but this is not what would keep him from failing. What then would be the key to his success? Saturating his mind with the Word of God. God told Joshua he was to stay in it and meditate upon it continually: “...then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (Joshua 1:8).

Being in the Word is God’s simple formula for a successful life. That’s because it is the foundation for obedience–born of a renewed mind–transformation from the inside out (Romans 12:2). And since obedience to God meets His criteria for success, we can have the confidence that our lives are successful in the truest and best sense regardless of how things appear. To the extent that we are deeply transformed by the Word, our lives will have practical significance in God’s eyes. So a woman of the Word never fails and needn’t ever feel like a failure. Incidentally, it’s when we are away from the Word that we focus upon ourselves and develop self-centered thoughts, such as fears of failure.

Being in the Word does something else for us. It reminds us that we don’t have to be the “best” in the eyes of others.

I Don’t Have To Be The Best

While we want to be all we can be for the Lord, we don’t have to be the best in other people’s eyes. In Galatians when Paul was being accused of preaching a cheap form of admission to God’s kingdom, he replied, “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?” (Galatians 1:10). When Paul and some others were being accused of improper conduct, he said, “We speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4).

Pleasing God is all that counts, and to be acceptable to others, we don’t need to perform. For instance, our sense of who we are when we are with our guests doesn’t depend on our being the world’s best hostess or cook. We can think of ourselves as being loved by God and valued apart from the cooking (or anything else we are attempting to do). As long as we base our acceptance on God’s acceptance of us, we can work as hard as we like to be a good cook. If we never reach perfection–so what? Perfectionism is just one type of bandage to cover a wounded ego.

Our identity is based on who we are before God, and that is a matter of who we are in Christ. We do not have to be successful in terms of the world’s standards; nor do our husbands or children. Nor do we have to be pleasing to others in order to gain a healthy sense of worth.

Christ addressed imbalances in this area. For instance, clothing meant a lot in ancient times. Because everything was handmade, finer clothing was expensive, while burlap was the cheapest material one could wear. So people’s economic status was very obvious . Christ challenged those who worried about their apparel and what others thought of them. He compassionately asked, “Why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-30).

By pointing to the lilies, Jesus was assuring the people of His day and us today that we can trust our need for clothing to a gracious God. Because our wardrobe is His provision, we need not be embarrassed or concerned with the opinions of others.

Among the religious leaders of the day, concern over human opinion led to a far worse problem. They were notorious for seeking honor from men. They loved respectful greetings in the market -places, the front seats in the synagogues (Luke 11:43), and places of honor at banquets (Luke 20:46). They even used their prayers as a way to impress people (Matthew 6:5). Jesus revealed that it was their focus on man that caused them to reject Him: “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?” (John 5:44).

When we focus on what others think of us, we are seeking approval from them rather than from God. And when we fear human opinions, there are consequences. For instance, in Christ’s day, fear of human opinion discouraged people from coming to Christ (John 9:22), and it kept believers like Joseph of Arimathea from openly admitting that they followed Him (John 19:38; the wrath of the Jewish leaders could have cost him his life).

We cannot serve two masters; we cannot serve God and human opinion any more than we can serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24). We must choose whom to please. As the expression goes, we have to play to an audience of One.

We must remember that our worth is given to us by God alone. Rather than focusing on what other think of us, we can focus on:

The love relationship we have with God (1 John 4:9-11),

The forgiveness we receive from Him (Colossians 2:13-14),

The eternal life He has given us (John 5:24),

The fact that He lives in us (Colossians 1:27; Revelation 3:20), and

The truth that we are fully accepted by Him (Colossians 1:19-22).

When I am focusing on these truths, I find I don’t need to be in every way like Mrs. Proverbs; nor does my husband have to be like Mr. Proverbs, who was well known because he had a high position (Proverbs 31:23). We don’t need to measure up to anyone else or gauge ourselves by what anyone thinks in order to have a proper sense of worth.

My goal is to be like Christ, and I’m sure it’s your goal, too. Because of our love for Him, we can strive to be like Him. And with God’s help, we can be godly women like Mrs. Proverbs–without the burden of trying to gain a sense of significance from what others may think about us.

How wonderful it was when I surrendered all my pursuits to the Lord, including those things I had been trusting in to give me a sense of significance. In the process of giving it all to God, I made a great discovery. When we shed that outer shell something wonderful happens. The Lord changes our desires.

A Change in Desire

In what ways did my desires change? I began to have an insatiable interest in the Bible and anything else pertaining to growth in Christ. Nothing could distract me. I remember being in a university library and stumbling across Charles Spurgeon’s Lecture’s to My Students. I should have been studying organic chemistry; instead I spent the entire day reading that book. I couldn’t put it down. It was that day in the library that I started to think that perhaps God was changing my deepest desires.

Another change, a dramatic one, was that I no longer cared about trying to prove myself to others; I wanted only to please God with my life. There was such a sense of freedom in this. About a year later I went to Central America as a short-term missionary, and I was offered the position of dietician in a Honduran hospital after completing my degree. While I was tempted to finish my education and take the job (which also offered a lot of opportunities to share the Gospel with patients), accepting it as a way of feeling significant was not even a thought.

In due time my interest changed completely from nutrition to Christian Education. I still remember the reaction of one Christian when talking to him about my newfound pursuits. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Are you kidding? Why in the world would you walk away from all your previous education and hard work to major in a degree for Sunday school teachers?”

Knowing this guy wouldn’t understand, I simply replied, “I am now in God’s will rather than my own.”

All he could do was shake his head and say, “I just don’t get it!”

Other people, too, didn’t “get it.” My boss at the hospital had told my coworkers that I had gone “completely nuts!” But I understood what God was doing. While He was freeing me from the performance trap and what it brought–a false sense of importance–He was testing me as well, seeing whether my first love was Him or nutrition. As I’ve come to see, the performance trap can lead us to loving what we do more than we love God.

When we come to love God more than anything we do in life, we discover that it doesn’t really matter what we accomplish in our own strength. What matters is what God accomplishes through us, whether that impresses people or not. His will is certainly better than our own. And part of that will, as we “live and move and exist” in Him (Acts 17:28), is to help others, rather than ourselves become successful–successful in finding the Lord, successful in growing in Christ, successful in whatever God has called them to be and do.

Some women have asked me if I’ve ever been tempted to get back into the trap–especially as it involves the ministry. I have been able to respond that I haven’t–only because I constantly examine my ambitions, making sure they never become misguided.

Misguided Ambitions

We’ve all been taught since childhood that ambition is a good thing. And it is. A teacher can’t help a child who is satisfied with getting low grades. That’s the purpose for motivating children with spelling bees and other drills–some of which give out prizes. We want to challenge our children and we ourselves want challenges in life too. That’s how the Lord gets some of us up and going.

But some of our more ambitious goals may actually be unrealistic and unattainable. These goals can create distractions or consequences that keep us from our main priorities. How do we keep ourselves from being misguided? By discerning our motives when we are about to begin a new venture:

What are my reasons for pursuing this goal?

Do my actions seem to be self-serving?

Is this pursuit based upon wanting the affirmation of others,

to prove something, or to gain a sense of worth?

Will this pursuit sever my daily dependence upon God?

If the Lord wanted me to change directions, would I?

Asking questions like these has helped me stay out of the performance trap, and I am truly thankful for that. God has helped me unload that heavy burden.

He emptied my hands of my treasure store,

And His covenant grace revealed;

there was not a wound in my aching heart

But the balm of His breath had healed.

Oh! Tender and true was the chastening sore

In wisdom that taught and tried,

Till the soul that He sought was trusting in Him

And nothing on earth beside.