The Disabled Wife and the Proverbs 31 Woman
A wife and mom in southern England writes in. She is perplexed and frustrated and it’s obvious why. “Dear Pastor John and Tony, thank you for this podcast and the ways you have approached so many topics with care and godly insight. I have been hugely helped by episode 548 (‘How Do I Honor God in Chronic Pain?’) and episode 1243 (‘I Have Chronic Fatigue — How Do I Not Waste My Life?’). These episodes directly apply to me as a disabled mother to a 2-year-old and newborn. My disability causes constant pain and significantly limits my physical activity. I am grateful for a husband who will do anything he can to reduce my burdens, although he himself has health conditions which limit his ability to physically help.
“Proverbs 31 paints a picture of a ‘vigorous’ and ‘valiant’ and ‘strong’ wife — up early, late to bed, endlessly busy inside and outside the household. When I look at this example, and at the parents in our church without my physical limitations, it is very easy to feel confused about my practical role as a wife, and anxious about investing positively in my children. Many attractive aspects of our friends’ parenting, such as homeschooling, are unlikely for us. How do I build a vision for parenting faithfully through my limitations, and deal with my guilt over the things I cannot do?”
I’ve been thinking recently about the caution that C.S. Lewis gave to the person who was judging a Christian’s patience or gentleness without taking into account his natural temperament that he was born with.
The problem had arisen from the fact that there was an unbeliever who seemed a lot more patient and gentle than this particular believer. So, the critic wondered, “Well, what good is it to say that God has saved this person, and he’s in the process of sanctifying them? They’re no better than an unbeliever.”
Suppose you have a scale of 1–10. And the 1 represents a person who is totally impatient and completely without any gentleness at all, a perfect hothead. And 10 represents a person who is perfectly patient and perfectly gentle in all the ways that we should be. Then you find that there’s a Christian who’s a 5 on this scale between 1–10, and there’s an unbeliever who, as far as you can see outwardly, is a 7 on the scale of 1–10.
And Lewis asks, “Can you say from this that the Holy Spirit is a weaker sanctifying influence in the life of the believer than the natural influences are in the life of the unbeliever?” And his answer is no, you can’t say that. Because as far as you know, the unbeliever was born with a temperament of 7. He’s simply, by nature, phlegmatic in his personality, while the believer may have been born a 1 and is, by nature, a Vesuvius of bad temper, so that being a 5 is an incredible miracle. I tell you, when I read this years ago, I was just blown away with helpfulness. I wonder why. I just had to look in the mirror.
“God doesn’t measure the form of our faithfulness by the form of somebody else’s faithfulness.”
Now, I think that caution, that wisdom — not to judge without knowing all the factors that shape a person’s personality and achievements — applies to lots of areas of life besides patience and gentleness. And the principle is very relevant when it comes to this particular case of our young mom with a disability. And the principle is this: God doesn’t measure the form of our faithfulness by the form of somebody else’s faithfulness who may have started from a very different place. Faithfulness always matters. The form of the faithfulness differs according to hundreds of circumstances.
Faithfulness for All
Proverbs 31 describes the form of faithfulness in the life of an ancient woman (that is, a woman from antiquity) in the full bloom of her health and strength. It doesn’t describe the form of faithfulness for a woman who is deaf and blind in her eighties or a woman who’s recently married at age 16, just beginning to discover what wisdom is. And it doesn’t describe the form of the faithfulness of a woman with disabilities that might keep her from planting a vineyard or putting her hand to the spindle or rising while it is still dark or even clothing herself.
So, a woman with such a disability must search the Scriptures to find the form of faithfulness that applies to her. And she won’t have to look far because right here in Proverbs 31, there are beautiful forms of faithfulness that she can pursue:
- trustworthiness, not harming her husband’s reputation with an idle tongue (verse 11);
- being financially astute (verse 16);
- being generous with the poor as much as her resources allow (verse 20);
- laughing at the time to come because her faith is unshakable in the goodness and sovereignty of God (verse 25);
- overflowing with the teaching of kindness and wisdom (verse 26);
- and finally, the beauty that really counts: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised” (verse 30).
Content with Your Measure
I don’t discount the difficulties and challenges that test this woman’s faith as she is unable to do some of the things that other mothers do. But I would encourage her not to begrudge the thorn that God has apparently given her, at least for now.
He’s a great healer, so who knows? But for now, this thorn is like Paul’s thorn in the flesh. That thorn in 2 Corinthians 12:7–10 limited what Paul could do. It changed the form of his faithfulness. He will not be held accountable to be productive in the same ways. The test now is not whether he would be productive, but whether he would be content. That’s how the sufficiency of Christ will be magnified.
“God does not put as high a premium on productivity as we think he does.”
God does not put as high a premium on productivity as we think he does. He puts a much higher premium on the qualities of character, the fruits of the Spirit, that you can exercise flat on your back in a hospital bed. I don’t say it’s easy. I do say it’s possible. The form of faithfulness for a paraplegic, for example, is different than the form of faithfulness for an Olympic athlete. One person is given ten talents; another person is given five. The form of their faithfulness is not measured by the same set of achievements.
What Delights God
I would encourage our dear friend to focus on a text like Psalm 147:10–11:
[God’s] delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
Strength and beauty are wonderful gifts, but they are as nothing — they are as nothing — compared to the fear of the Lord and the heart that hopes in God’s steadfast love.
So, when this young mother looks in the mirror or measures herself by the strength of a horse or the legs of the healthy supermom, remember the words of Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7: “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” There is a kind of beauty, and there is a kind of strength, and there is a kind of mothering that God has designed for every disabled mom who will look to Christ and trust him.