Sunday, June 27, 2010

As a man thinks in his heart?

“As a man thinks in his heart, so is he”, states the Bible in Proverbs 23:7. Sermons have been preached and doctrines taught on the concept that we become what we think in our heart. Even the Buddhist philosophy admonishes “right thinking” as one component of the eight-fold path. However, other translations of this portion of Proverbs convey a different meaning: “for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost” (NLT 2007, NIV 1984, ESV 2001). In fact, this translation seems to fit more accurately with the context of the passage. Reading the verses immediately preceding and following 23:7 indicates the writer is cautioning the reader when associating with a selfish person:
“Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, or desire his delicacies; for as he thinks within himself, so he is (for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost). He says to you, ‘Eat and drink!’ But his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten, and waste your compliments.”
This hardly seems like positive encouragement for us to become what we think in our heart.

This passage advises us to be careful when with certain types of people because they are not what they appear to be on the surface. The clause “as he thinks within himself, so he is” warns that this man’s inner thoughts are different from the deceptive false front he presents. These verses do not teach the power of positive thinking. In fact, the deceptive man mentioned in this verse acts differently from his inner thoughts.

But, is the concept still accurate and is it supported in other passages of the Bible? Actually, there is less Biblical support than one might think. In fact, several biblical passages that mention thinking lead to different outcomes. For example, Jesus said, “whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has shall be taken away from him” (Luke 8:18). The thoughts of this person obviously did not lead to action. Paul similarly mentioned positive cognitions that failed to benefit this person: “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Galatians 6:3). Again, here is a person who thinks he is something he is not, in contradiction to the common meaning attributed to Proverbs 23:7.

But wait, doesn’t the Bible state that we speak what the heart believes? Yes, there is some biblical support for that; for example, Jesus connects the heart with speech (Matthew 12:34, 15:18). So, what is in the heart (mind) will at some time leak out of the mouth. And, we know from experience that belief can determine behavior. But, that is not always sufficient - as James points out, we show belief by actions (James 2:17-18). So, thoughts and beliefs do not automatically lead to the behaviors we desire. Thinking – and even believing – must be followed by conscious decisions to put them into practice in reality.

On the other hand, psychology does seem to support the concept that thoughts can lead to behaviors. Much of the basic theory of cognitive psychology is derived from the notion that thoughts determine the interpretation of events, which lead to feelings, which can then determine behavior. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive psychology wrote: “In cognitive therapy it is generally maintained that beliefs have a profound impact on feelings and behaviors.” [1] Though, psychologists will often employ behavioral techniques enabling clients to follow accurate thinking with appropriate action.

The bottom line here is the importance of considering the context and proper translation of biblical passages, especially when basing an entire doctrine on one or two verses of dubious clarity. Mistakes have been made in other areas similar to this (e.g., baptism for the dead and faith of God). Furthermore, we should not take for granted what we have been taught; rather, “examine everything carefully, hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess. 5:21).

[1] Aaron T. Beck, Fred D. Wright, Cory F. Newman, and Bruce S. Liese, Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse (NY, NY: The Guilford Press, 1993), 169.