Sometimes I dream in other languages. My subconscious mind takes words or phrases I’ve learned in my travels or from my international students and incorporates them into random scenes and interactions.
But I had one particular dream that was more than just a mash-up of random pieces from the language files in my brain. I don’t remember the plot points or much about the setting. I do remember the soundtrack in the background of the dream. Over and over again, someone unseen chanted an old Hebrew phrase over me.
Eshet chayil. Eshet chayil. Eshet chayil.
On repeat, an assuring whisper worked the ancient words into my spirit.
Eshet chayil. Eshet chayil. Eshet chayil.
A Blessing for Women
The phrase eshet chayil has been translated as virtuous woman or excellent wife in Proverbs 31:10. In its full definition it describes a capable, strong, woman of valor. Over the ages, Jews celebrating the beginning of Sabbath have taken this phrase and the passage around it (sometimes even setting it to music) and performed it as a blessing over the women in their family or the women in their cultural history.
When I woke up that morning, I washed my face, still feeling the effervescent awe from the dream, and told my husband about it. It had been years since I’d first read the original Hebrew words of the blessing. I knew what the words themselves meant, but I wasn’t sure why they had come to me at this particular moment in time.
I wonder, if I could’ve pulled back the veil that morning and peeked into the other realm, if I would’ve seen dark armies rallying. A few days after the dream, I attended an event for a network where I have been a long-term member. I was not aware at the time but I was stepping into a spiritual battle zone. Not long before that, a friend praying over me had sensed the word “destruction.” I had pushed back against the word. Yet now, the smoldering envy, competition, and partiality that had long characterized this particular group suddenly became explosive. It should not have surprised me, yet I was still shocked by the impact.
Any efforts to cultivate group unity were blatantly disregarded. As I tried to speak up and describe the patterns that had escalated tensions in the organization over the years, I was told to quit talking and that I myself was the problem. I was perceived as a threat to the status quo, a tight system that served the elite and dismissed or hurt those on the fringes. I thought back to some specific moments when I had stood apart from a dynamic that felt wrong to me. Each choice to stay true to my values had increased the gap between us.
Now, the powers in the organization began circling. I looked into piercing eyes. Some held me responsible for changes in certain connections within the group. Some pieced together false narratives and accusations. Some lobbed insults and curses. Others stood by or looked away as I was bombarded. I and those associated with me were defined as outsiders and blamed for many things that had gone wrong in the group. It became clear that I had been a topic of secret group discussions for months, probably years, past.
Yet God had initiated a secret conversation with me. To the tune of eshet chayil, I had my ear on the chest of God, his hand patting my back, his lullaby shushing me. I needed his rest. I needed to feel his favor. I needed his loving thoughts about me in the forefront of my mind.
Still, it would take time for me to fully grow into the identity that had been spoken over me. As I tried to dodge bullets and step carefully in that social minefield, sleep was elusive and tears were ever present. I lay awake arguing in my head, trying to find a way to help the group see the dynamics at play and get them to understand and like me.
When we live day after day in emotionally unhealthy contexts, we subconsciously learn the rules and abide by them or work around them. Psalm 1:1 helps us picture our gradual decline into thinking of ourselves and the world like our enemies do. When we walk in step with the wicked, we become accustomed to their ways and slow our steps. Soon, we begin to stand around with them and allow their mindset to inform ours. Before we know it, we are sitting in the seat of mockers and participating in their way of life ourselves, even as it harms us.
When we think like the dysfunctional system, we begin to believe…
- If we go above and beyond in our work, we’ll impress those in charge and be respected.
- If we put enough effort into our fashion and appearance we’ll be admired.
- If we keep quiet and let them take the stage, and if we show up often enough to cheer them on, we’ll finally be seen as a teammate and not an enemy.
- If we start name dropping like they do maybe they’ll see us as well-connected and worth keeping around.
- If we give them the praise they’re seeking, maybe we’ll get the attention we’re longing for, too.
- If we are loyal to them, maybe we’ll feel like we finally have a place to belong.
Yet, in my experience, any words of encouragement I had given, any work I had done, any messages to check on someone in a time of need, any care packages I had delivered, any efforts to increase bonding or requests to be more fully part of the team—all of it was water through a sieve. Nothing had lasted.
Empathy and love had been a foreign language there. As I retraced my steps in the aftermath, I acknowledged for the first time that there was nothing I could do as my authentic self to please the system or the people in it. I had been defined as a non-player no matter how hard I tried. At any given point, I was either invisible or I was despised.
One trusted friend said it was time to stop campaigning for myself. I had been ruminating more on my enemies’ opinion of me than I had on God’s loving affirmation. I was living in their condemnation more than I was living in God’s love. Psalm 1:2 goes on to describe the one who is blessed, “whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”
It can feel like learning a whole new language to align our thoughts with God’s thoughts about ourselves and the world. And learning a new language involves focused study, repetition, and a good conversation partner. As we spend time tuning into God’s presence and talking with him, his words and ways will begin to seem more familiar and natural to us. His love for us will feel less like a theological point and more like a palpable reality.
Woman of Valor
The word, chayil, used to describe the woman of valor in Proverbs 31:10, is the same word God used to greet Gideon in Judges 6. There, Gideon hid from his enemy, threshing grain in a winepress hidden by an oak tree. He was not the picture of courage. It almost reads tongue-in-cheek the way God called Gideon “man of valor,” and it took Gideon awhile to believe God’s estimation of him.
Through all of Gideon’s frustrations, doubts, and fears, God patiently affirmed that this was not about Gideon’s natural physical or emotional strength. He was not to think of himself through the eyes of the enemy, or through the eyes of people around him who were living by the enemy’s rules. Gideon would be valiant and victorious because of God’s loving presence.
Our worth and identity is built by God and activated in communion with him. It’s not something that we muster in ourselves; it’s something we embrace and trust to be true. The people in that network didn’t see me as worthy of love and affirmation. I had to be content that God saw me differently.
Meditating on God’s thoughts about me, I learned to see myself as strong and capable and worthy of love even when those who despised me said otherwise. Embraced in God’s love, I summoned the courage to face difficult interactions with dignity and grace. And when others were hurt by the same group, I was able to look them in the eye and pass along the comfort and courage I had received. God’s pre-affirmation strengthened my spiritual core and helped me stay centered in his love when the wolves were waiting on every side.
Even in unpleasant places, I am learning to anticipate not just the danger but the delight that is directed at me. God is near. He loves me. He is empowering me. I am getting better at listening for God’s language, turning my ear toward his voice, and receiving his blessing like a woman smiling at the Sabbath table. With God’s affirmation as my core identity, I can live with a sense of esteem and security rather than a sense of dread. Walking in friendship with God, I trust that I’m a woman of valor whether others think ill or well of me.