Wanting To Be A Woman I Wasn’t
Many, many moons ago, when I was but 22 years old, I wanted to be a woman that I wasn’t.
Having been raised in church, I had a strange theology surrounding womanhood – not one that had ever been explicitly taught to me, but one that was a hodgepodge of things I’d heard, seen, or implied throughout my youth. As a result, I was convinced that I would marry at 22, start having kids at 25, maybe take some time off to raise them, and then get back to teaching, my chosen profession. I’d be a patient and submissive, I’d finally find peace for my heart in my husband’s love and strength, and I’d be fulfilled by motherhood and its many joys. (quick note – if that is your story, that’s awesome!)
Never mind that I was bold and unabashed (“bossy” was a term I’d heard often, with “too much” as a close second), or that I’d not been patient or submissive a day in my life. Never mind that I had an undercurrent of anxiety that fueled an overwhelming and constant discontent, or that I had the desire to make a name for myself. A “good Christian woman”, in my mind, was one thing, and I wanted to be that one thing.
And that one thing was the Proverbs 31 woman.
What I Thought it Meant To Be A ‘Good Christian Woman’
Every teaching I’d ever heard about being a woman in church was based on this one passage. It was used, especially in middle and high school years, to teach me what it meant to be a good woman, and even though I saw very little of myself – my wiring – in the passage, if that was what it took, I would make every effort to mold myself into that woman. Armed with Proverbs 31, Elisabeth Elliot quotes, and sheer force of will, I WOULD become a “good Christian woman.”
I wonder if it will be any surprise to you that I spent the next decade or so in a deep depression and full of anxiety? Would you be surprised to learn that when, at 26, I finally did meet my husband, the weight of expectation I placed on him (and on myself) to fit certain molds almost crushed us both? Will it be any wonder that when I stopped teaching to stay home with my children, I lost a sense of purpose instead of gaining one? Would it shock you to know that I became less patient and more combative the more I tried to be the “right” kind of Christian woman?
I was perplexed. Why couldn’t I be the woman that the Bible was telling me I needed to be?? Why must these pesky character traits, the ones I was born with, the ones that God designed me to have, not go away so I could be who I thought God wanted me to be?
So I went back to the source – Proverbs 31. And when I reread it, I made a huge realization. Proverbs 31 is not a PRESCRIPTIVE passage. It’s a DESCRIPTIVE one.
A Freeing Realization of What It Really Means To Be A Proverbs 31 Woman
The woman being described was a persona, a snapshot of one woman in one phase of her life doing what women across the ages have always done – killin’ it. By using specific examples relevant to the time, the author describes a woman who is helpful, trustworthy, hardworking, generous, and wise. He describes a woman who is strategic. A woman who is resilient. A woman who is strong.
He describes women who love God.
For me, it was a freeing realization. It meant I didn’t have to fit a mold that I knew intrinsically I wasn’t designed to fit. It meant that in my relationships with other women, I could rejoice in their choices, even if they were different than mine. It meant that instead of fighting the things I thought were wrong about me, I could start putting energy towards making those things look more like Jesus.
I started taking antidepressants. I went back to work. My husband and I went to counseling. I dove into the Enneagram and started noticing when my reactions and responses were exactly what God designed them to be.
I stopped thinking of “good Christian women” as a monolith, and started rejoicing in the diversity of thought, gifting, skills, and passions we all bring to the table.
For some women, being a Proverbs 31 women keeps us closer to home. But for some of us, it means going public. It means being in the spotlight. It means starting or leading churches.
Looking for Stories of Women in The Bible
Part of the reason I so misunderstood Proverbs 31 for so long is that I had heard so few examples of women in leadership from the Bible. I “knew” about Mary and Martha (though I think all I really took from that is that being busy is bad!), and I’d heard all about women who had complicated sexual histories and were healed from brokenness (Rahab, Mary Magdalene, the woman at the well). But I really only ever heard about women who “no one would ever expect to be part of the kingdom.” The miraculous women. I never learned about women who led in the workplace and from the “stage.” Or about women who had husbands and kids and were active in the life of the church. I never learned about women who participated in politics or led within communities.
I’d only heard stories about one kind of “good Christian woman”, and that made me (wrongly) think that there WAS only one kind of good Christian woman. And I think until the church starts telling the stories of all Christian women more broadly, people will always have a skewed understanding of what it means to be a “good” one.
So, we’re going to attempt to tell those lesser known stories – the stories of women like Lydia and Damaris. Like Phoebe and Priscilla and Junia. Stories of women who knew their giftings and used them in the public arena for God’s glory – like true Proverbs 31 women.
I pray this series encourages all of us, men and women alike, to rejoice in women’s unique wiring, to thank Jesus for our uniqueness, and to remember that the church does not thrive if women are not there.
Josie Barton was on the launch team of a church plant in Baltimore in 2013, and as a result, has come to learn first-hand the immense value of church planting and the hard work the job entails. She and husband Trevor were married in 2012, and they now have three incredible boys – Abbott, Branch, and Calder.