Friday, March 18, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: How Do You Read It? (5)

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: We’re in the middle of batting around commonly misunderstood Bible verses. Here’s another frequently-quoted line for you, IC, this one from Proverbs:

“As he thinks within himself, so he is.”

I mentioned in another post a few weeks ago that I’ve often found other people understand individual proverbs very differently from the way I understand them. This one is no exception.

Another One Like the Other One

James Allen, for instance, reads it this way:

“A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts. A person is limited only by the thoughts that he chooses.”

Does that work for you? Is that fair to Solomon.

IC: It would be possible to guess something like that if we knew no more. But it seems Mr. Allen has pulled it completely out of its original context, and is now using it for something it absolutely does not say — or imply.

Tom: Well, you make a good point about original context. Here’s the entire thing:

“Do not eat the bread of a selfish man, or desire his delicacies; for as he thinks within himself, so he is. 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.”

As you rightly point out, this is not some general statement about how all men are. It’s a very specific sort of man and a very specific sort of situation in view.

Phony Deeds and Apparent Generosity

When you put that line back into the context it came from, how do you read it?

IC: The situation being described is when a stingy person offers you benefits of some kind. Maybe he offers them because he doesn’t want to appear ungenerous, uncharitable or inhospitable — who knows? But for some reason, he does. The advice of the verse is that we should refuse such inauthentic favors.

But we might object, “But he told me he was delighted to have me, I should take more, and it was no problem.” Don’t believe the phony deeds of apparent generosity he’s showing. He’ll resent you for every bit of kindness you take from him. So it’s best not to take any — no compliments or thanks will heal the sense of resentment he will feel. That’s the teaching.

Now, in terms of application, we could extend that so far as to suggest it implies more than mere matters of food: we shouldn’t accept any insincere courtesies. But we can’t turn this negative warning artificially positive, and use it to justify “self-esteem” or “possibility thinking” or something like that.

Tom: Right. The intended meaning comes out quite clearly in the very next line: “He says to you, ‘Eat and drink!’ But his heart is not with you.”

Inwardly Calculating

That’s why, for instance, the ESV renders it “for he is like one who is inwardly calculating,” and the NIV says, “for he is the kind of person who is always thinking about the cost.” Neither translation is super-literal, but both get the sense of it quite well, I think. It means the truth of the matter is in the stingy man’s heart; his outward show of hospitality does not represent his real feelings.

Really then, the statement “as he thinks within himself, so he is” cannot be applied universally. I suppose there are times when all of us, for one reason or another, don’t fully speak our minds, but that doesn’t mean we are putting on a false front like the guy in this proverb. If I come to your house for dinner and you say, “Eat and drink,” well, I know to dig right in. If I don’t, I’m insulting the chef. In fact, it’s important for Christians that we keep our outward actions consistent with what we really believe rather than misleading anyone about our intentions.

IC: Here’s a case in which both the immediate context and the teaching of the rest of scripture render Mr. Allen’s extrapolation unreasonable. In general, one could say that the heart, not the outward show, is the essence of what a person is like. That’s the big takeaway. That’s why the scriptures also say, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart,” and “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” It’s because not all people are what they seem. Their actions may belie their true character. It is the state of the heart that defines what a person truly is.

How can we know what’s in a man’s heart? Aren’t we at sea for an application, then?

Tom: No, I don’t think so.

Trees and Fruit

IC: Notice that this proverb assumes we can: the “selfish man” is identifiable, or the instruction would be useless. So how, Tom, do you suppose we come to recognize “the selfish man”?

Tom: Careful observation. We have other scriptures that tell us how to read a guy like that, don’t we. “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit.” Or “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Pay attention long enough and the actions or words of a fake will eventually give them away. People can put on a show for others, but they can’t do it 24/7. Eventually they’ll slip and show who they really are.

IC: Yes, there is a difference between one’s conduct on a particular occasion and what characterizes one’s whole attitude to life. If a person is genuinely generous, then generosity will be generously exhibited in his habits. If he is selfish, we will see it from the larger patterns of his characteristic behavior.

Tom: To get very practical, seeing through a polite but false veneer is a crucial skill to cultivate when looking for a wife. You always put your best foot forward when you’re dating, and often it doesn’t represent the way you are day to day. I remember getting very good advice about girls from my parents in that respect: Watch how she is around her father. If she’s respectful of him, she’ll respect you. If she’s dismissive or insulting to him, expect the same treatment eventually. The same is true of boys and their mothers, I think.

IC: Good advice. And like most of Proverbs, very practical. Ironically, we would miss that point completely if we opted for Mr. Allen’s interpretation.

That’s the tragedy of reading without regard for context: not just that we start believing things scripture does not teach, but also that we stop looking for the particular truth scripture does teach. Both ways, we lose.

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