The question, “How do you eat an elephant?” has been attributed to various sources, but what really matters is the answer to that age-old question: you eat an elephant one bite at a time. An elephant is an enormous animal to consider killing or eating, and the perplexing task of eating a whole one could cause a lengthy pause—i.e., we neglect to do the essential task, being fraught with anxiety by the overwhelming nature of the job. As a result, we might spend more time figuring out a shortcut than simply moving forward with the task.
I’m reminded of the advice given by Elisabeth Elliot, who quoted an old poem when she said, “Do the next right thing.” A college friend first told me this as I crammed for freshman finals; my stress and anxiety were causing my mouth to burst with canker sores! She was simply encouraging me not to worry about exams week and endless hours of studying. Instead, she said to take one exam at a time, study one hour at a time, and write one paper at a time.
I quickly discovered the universality of this advice in every area of my life. How do I lose weight? Make one good food choice at a time, and exercise one day at a time. How do I write my first book? Write one sentence at a time, and edit one chapter at a time. Every step in the direction of a goal is a small victory, but how do we know what the next right step is?
In the corporate world, my husband is a keen multi-tasker. He can have several conversations at once while typing an email, never skipping a beat. He has the wherewithal to know exactly which tasks need priority.
The Proverbs 31 woman can also be counted among the greatest multi-taskers. We see her never “eating the bread of idleness” while being extremely cheerful about her productivity!
Verse 16 says: “She considers a field before she buys or accepts it [expanding her business prudently]; with her profits, she plants fruitful vines in her vineyard.”
Clearly, these tasks didn’t occur all at once. Nowhere in the chapter indicates that this amazing woman accomplishes all her projects or duties at one time, within a given day, week, month, or even one year. Instead, the chapter could be a summary of a very full, lifelong agenda!
Verse 17 explains how she knows the next right thing: “She equips herself with strength [spiritual, mental, and physical fitness for her God-given task] and makes her arms strong.” She has a plan that includes fortifying herself through her relationship with God, as verse 30 says, “a woman who fears the Lord [reverently worshiping, obeying, serving, and trusting Him with awe-filled respect], she shall be praised.”
Similar inspiration is found in the words of 2 Peter 1:5-7 (TPT):
So devote yourselves to lavishly supplementing your faith with goodness, and to goodness add understanding, and to understanding add the strength of self-control, to self-control add patient endurance, and to patient endurance add godliness, and to godliness add mercy…, and to mercy…add unending love.
This code of conduct naturally leads to making the next right choice that God places before us. Verses 8 and 10 continue that increasing these qualities keeps us from being “useless and unproductive” and that by “actively developing these virtues, you will never stumble in your spiritual growth.”
These virtues are the same for the Proverbs 31 woman. She is discerning while not idle, exercising patience and self-control, showing goodness and mercy to her family, and spending her resources wisely. Each next, right thing keeps her from failing while also being a light for others to follow.
All her tasks require a spirit of humility. Through the glasses of a humble heart, she sees and follows God’s instructions one step at a time.
Our challenge is not to get so lost in anxiety or pride that we miss the tools we need to take on a task in the right way. God’s instructions for each of us may differ, but our good Father will always help us not bite off more elephants than we can chew!
Holly Compton is an author and international speaker living in Houston, Texas, with husband Alex and three children. When not writing or teaching, she and Alex run a nonprofit missions organization, Amor Real Ministries, which owns and operates Pat’s Place, a home for victims of domestic violence in Peru, where they have ministered for over 18 years. Her contact info is firstname.lastname@example.org