The following is taken from a special Mother’s Day message. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page. This sermon was given by Suzanne Higgs, a ministry director at The Southeast Project and an editor/guest blogger for ryanscottcarrell.com.
Moms – we love our kids. We love them so much that it literally, physically hurts sometimes. It’s a strange kind of love that makes us feel more connected to another human being than we ever thought possible, while at the same time creating feelings of disconnect and isolation. Even with our closest friends, we hide the reality of how hard motherhood is.
The current generation of mothers has broken that wall down a bit more. Evidence of the fact that we’re not alone can be found in the growing phenomenon of Mommy Blogs. Witty, cutting, and relevant, it’s easy to see why they are so popular. We identify with them. They make us feel less alone in our angst. They make us laugh, which is helpful since the alternative is often to cry. But the impact of Mommy blogs is often fleeting because they make us feel okay about the symptoms of our circumstances without treating the problems at their heart.
So what makes motherhood so hard? And how do we change that?
Obviously, if I could answer that question, I’d be a millionaire by now and on Oprah or something.
So for this Mother’s Day, we’re going to explore one facet of this. One word – expectations.
I didn’t grow up attending church, so I spent my teenage years wrestling pretty heavily with the concept of God and the idea of faith. By the time I made the decision to believe, I was 19 years old and engaged to be married. I hadn’t grown up with the stories from the Bible that our kids are learning down the hall right now. The Bible was an unfamiliar book to me. And so, as I prepared to become a wife and, eventually, a mother, I decided to see what the Bible told me about those roles.
I knew that there was an appendix-type thing in the back where I could look up a word and find a list of verses that discussed that word. So I looked up “wife”. Listed in order of appearance, I read in Genesis 2:24 that a man should leave his family and become united with his wife. In Exodus and Deuteronomy, I read the Ten Commandments that said not to covet your neighbor’s wife. Not much in the way of instruction for me there.
But then, jackpot. A few mentions of wives here and there but then lo and behold, a whole ending literally labeled “The Wife of Noble Character”. This was going to tell me exactly how to be a wife! Here’s what it had to say:
10 [a]A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
I love lists. Checklists, to-do lists, anything that helps me not only be organized but also track my progress. They’re a bit of an obsession for me. So after reading Proverbs 31, my brain saw this:
Get our food
Keep family well fed
Real estate expert
Good business person
Make own clothes and bed covering
Give good advice
Never sit still
I literally created this mental list that said I had to check all the boxes to be a good wife: a tall order considering the volume of requirements and the fact that I can kill a plant just by looking at it. Right out of the gate, I felt an intense pressure about how to be a good wife. I didn’t look for any other guidance on the topic, honestly afraid of what else I might find. Right out of the gate, I set myself up for failure. For disappointment.
We spend a lot of time here at Southeast digging deeper into commonly read scripture. In order to confront these unrealistic expectations, I wanted to see if I could find a different story. Turns out, I’m in good company.
In an effort to address the lofty standards of Proverbs 31, there is well-intentioned but misguided belief that circles around the theory that it isn’t a commentary on what a woman should do, but rather how she should do it; “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” And while that one verse, removed from context, is true, focusing on that part still misses the point. Still others say that this section isn’t establishing guidelines for women but that the author was writing to remind men about the importance of choosing a “good” wife. Which, of course, still sounds like criteria for how women are expected to act.
So what, then, is the significance of Proverbs 31?
For starters, understand that the book of Proverbs is part of what’s known as “Wisdom Literature”. Along with other books such as Psalms and Ecclesiastes, these were a departure from those books of the Old Testament that covered the Law and the Prophets. They were written in general terms for a wider audience than just the Israelites, and they were a collection of writings meant to create a discussion of what it meant to live morally and ethically. Their very nature was to ask questions that weren’t always answered, and the authors were comfortable leaving them unresolved.
So the bulk of Proverbs, much of which is believed to have been written in part or whole by Solomon, is exploring the concept of what it means to live wisely and to avoid folly. Scholars believe that both the beginning and the ending, including Proverbs 31, were written separately to introduce and then resolve the book. Think of any book you’ve read – assuming the author is even remotely good at their craft, the introduction and conclusion fit with the overall theme of the book.
In the beginning, after literally spelling out the purposes and theme of the book, it jumps into setting the tone for the Proverbs pretty quickly, and in chapter 1 verse 20, we meet wisdom:
20 Out in the open wisdom calls aloud, SHE raises HER voice in the public square;
21 on top of the wall SHE cries out, at the city gate SHE makes HER speech.
Wisdom, from the beginning of the book, is portrayed as female. Now before any of the ladies in the room start elbowing their husbands and giving them smug looks, let me note that folly is also portrayed as a woman. There’s a whole compare and contrast theme that’s created between wisdom and folly in the introduction, which then gives way to the main part of Proverbs which is full of dialogue about what it means to act wisely.
We find Proverbs 31 at the very end of that conversation. Poetry is common in wisdom literature, so it makes sense that Proverbs 31 is, in fact, a poem: an acrostic to be exact. In the original Hebrew, the first letter of each verse spells out the Hebrew alphabet.
This final section is labeled in most Bibles as the epilogue of the noble wife. The phrase “noble wife” was translated from the Hebrew “eshet chayil”. “Eshet” means woman. The translation for “chayil” is a little bit trickier, a little less precise. While the translators settled on noble, other common meanings are God-fearing, strong, powerful, virtuous, honorable, worthy, courageous, and victorious. Those are all great words. But there’s one other meaning for “chayil” that some scholars recommend here, and it’s my favorite of all: wisdom. Eshet chayil. Woman of wisdom. Which, as far as Proverbs is concerned, is wisdom itself. Wisdom as a concept.
These aren’t God’s expectations for women. And they aren’t man’s expectations for women. They’re not even about a “woman” at all.
Proverbs 31 is the conclusion of a story. A literary device in a book that’s purposefully written to leave open-ended questions about the topic. An illustration of what wisdom, as exemplified by the female spirit, looks like in action.
Instead, I know from my own experience, from conversations with others, and from the sheer amount of scholarly commentary on all of this that these verses are too often pulled out and held up as the expectation for how a woman should act. What we find here is that these expectations aren’t just wrong; they cause us to miss out on the amazing reminder about the importance of wisdom that’s found in these verses.
The truth that acting wisely is one of those things that’s easier said than done. That’s why there are so many verses, and entire books, about wisdom in the Bible. We see the same concepts repeated over and over, why we need every reminder possible – because they’re just that hard for us to get right. It’s why Ryan did an entire sermon at the start of the year on “the best question” – in light of my past experience, my present circumstance, and my future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing to do?
Expectations, when they are misguided and misdirected, set us up for failure. But the reality is that even the most genuine of expectations we set for ourselves set us up for failure. Because we’re looking for answers without first asking the right questions.
Just like the Mommy Blogs, expectations aren’t inherently bad, but they frequently point us in the wrong direction or serve as a distraction. We think “If I could just be a better wife/mother/daughter/friend, I would be more content”. We self-care and self-medicate in an effort to quiet our minds and numb the edges of life, but between the noise and the numb, we don’t have the room to lean into the quiet, to figure out what’s really wrong and how to fix it. We fill the spaces of our lives, all the while thinking that someday, we will reach a point where we have checked all of the boxes and we can be at peace. Where we have absolved ourselves of the unsettling feeling of disconnect and disappointment.
This isn’t just a “mom” condition though. I think that maybe moms just feel it more acutely sometimes since their lives are so intricately wound into the lives of their kids, so they feel the weight of not only the expectations for their own lives but for their children as well. But all of us – men, women, adults, children, married, single – we all feel unsettled. We can’t shake the feeling that something’s not right, that something’s missing.
That feeling goes all the way back to the beginning, in the first three chapters of Genesis. God created perfection. No violence, no pain. Perfection. And God had only one expectation for mankind – that we follow Him. But then God gave man the ability to choose. Adam and Eve could have trusted God, followed God, and perfection would have remained. But instead of embracing the wisdom of God, they chose the wisdom of the world.
There is no checklist, no benchmark that we can hit that will bring peace to our hearts when we’re busy chasing the things that the world tells us we need to feel, to own, to be. The peace comes to our hearts when we act wisely and pursue a relationship with God.
In the heart of Proverbs, we find these words:
24:13-14 My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off
Acting wisely, seeking that peace isn’t about making our lives perfect, or never making a mistake. A relationship with God isn’t a switch that we flip where suddenly all of our pain and hurt, our disappointment and frustration just disappear. It’s a shift – in your mind and in your heart – where seeking Him makes things like radical love possible. Radical healing. Radical redemption. It’s a future filled with hope. It’s time to quit searching for meaning in a world that so often leaves us without, and start seeking a relationship with God that instead changes the world completely.