What is the Most Misused Verse in the Bible?

MY PICK FOR THE MOST MISUSED VERSE IN THE BIBLE: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” (Proverbs 23:7) -King James Version

Someone gave me a copy of John Eldredge’s “Waking the Dead”–which I must say, I actually find a likable volume.  However,  on page 45  he makes a double-stumble:

“Thus, the writer of Proverbs preempts Freud by about two thousand years when he states, “As [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he…”

Never mind how debunked Freud has been by those thoughtful and good researchers in ‘psychology’, but the casual mention of the verse has become all-but-cliched in our day and age.  In using my research software I found the phrase mentioned in 29 separate articles…all ‘positive’ in the mention.

Here’s the idea: you think…you do.  In fact, it is a little worse than that— you do BECAUSE you think.  More generally it is said that, “You will eventually become what you think.”  Not to ruin it for you…but, what if you think like what you’ve become instead?

I would be the last one to say that our thoughts don’t influence our actions, but to say all action is caused by ‘thought’ is bordering on the absurd.  Think about it…don’t we say that we ‘loose our mind’ when we do inane things?  Don’t we look at teens and say, “You weren’t thinking?”  It is not that thinking doesn’t influence is, but rather, it is that there are other sources of input in our actions (think about such things as emotions, temptations, the flesh, duress, others, low blood sugar, drugs, etc.).

No less than Packer and Ferguson misuse the verse too:

These twin doctrines are characteristic of all oriental mysticism, especially in the Indo-Aryan world. The law of Karma is simply the law of causality applied rigorously in the moral and conceptual realm as well as the physical. ‘As a man thinketh, so is he’ is an example of this law as it works in the realm of thought and moral intent.
Ferguson, S. B., & Packer, J. (2000). New dictionary of theology (electronic ed.) (303). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

So, now causality, karma, and ‘as a man thinketh’ are all linked together under the banner of truth [pardon my agitation].

Here’s the trick (before we look at the verse): IF THIS IS TRUE, THEN THERE CAN BE NO HYPOCRITES

Hypocrites act one way and think another.  I supposed one could pitch the idea that they are acting consistently with their thinking by being deceptive.  However, the plain truth here is that one can act (or not act) in a way that is inconsistent with his own thinking.  James 2 is eloquent on this point, though it is often misunderstood as related to one’s eternal salvation (for an alternative explanation of James 2 as having to do with spiritual growth not spiritual re-birth, see my book at www.backtofaith.com).

Of course, all we need to do is figure out what the verse actually is talking about:

ESV | Pr 23:6 Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; do not desire his delicacies, 7  for he is like one who is inwardly calculating. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.
NCV | Pr 23:6 Don’t eat the food of selfish people; don’t be greedy for their fine foods. 7  Selfish people are always worrying about how much the food costs. They tell you, “Eat and drink,” but they don’t really mean it.
NLT | Pr 23:6 Don’t eat with people who are stingy; don’t desire their delicacies. 7  They are always thinking about how much it costs. “Eat and drink,” they say, but they don’t mean it.
NKJV | Pr 23:6 Do not eat the bread of a miser, Nor desire his delicacies; 7  For as he thinks in his heart, so is he. “Eat and drink!” he says to you, But his heart is not with you.

It should be easy enough to see what’s up with these versions of the famous phrase.  In fact, unless the KJV and the NKJV translated it in the now popular way, then it would never have made it into our christian/western folklore.  All we have here is a hypocrite, a stingy person.  He THINKS one way, but ACTS another.  The verse itself is a counter-example of the point the ‘man thinketh’ theory asserts.

The truth is that you can think and act, think and not act, not think and act, and not think and not act…on some particular point.  All of these options float around out there in the real world.

If I were a betting man, I’d say: IT’S HARD TO THINK STRAIGHT AND WALK CROOKED.

But I would never dare to reduce the amazing nature of the human spirit to something so incomplete, and something not taught in the verse that claims it.

“But Fred,” someone might say, “It’s still true.”

“OK,” I’d respond, “Then why not use the verse that really teaches it?” [Philippians 4:8 is a good choice…except 4:9 shows ‘doing’ is a separate step].

The first danger is in misusing scripture to support a theory we’ve come to love.  The second danger is in not appreciating how important choosing action to match our thinking really is in our growth.

Here’s how I’d finally say it:

Hypocrisy: Thinking one way and doing something else

Integrity: Thinking one way and doing that which matches the thought

We really don’t believe the ‘as a man thinketh’ theory because we truly admire integrity.  Integrity turns out to be special because our actions don’t necessarily match our thinking.  “Wow,” we say, “There walks a person who really lives what he believes (thinks)!”

Sounds like Jesus when He said of Nathanael,

“Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47)

God bless,

Fred Lybrand

P.S.  The reason this is so important is because the importance of taking action is easily ignored if one buys into the ‘as a man thinketh’ theory.

2 thoughts on “What is the Most Misused Verse in the Bible?”

  1. Dr. Lybrand,

    I read your article with interest. I can certainly see where Proverbs 23:7 can be abused but I don’t see that Eldredge is wrong (I am not completely sure what Packer and Ferguson are trying to say so I’ll leave them out of it). Several things came to mind when reading your post that you have probably thought about but I would like to mention them anyway.

    You wrote:

    I would be the last one to say that our thoughts don’t influence our actions, but to say all action is caused by ‘thought’ is bordering on the absurd. Think about it…don’t we say that we ‘loose our mind’ when we do inane things? Don’t we look at teens and say, “You weren’t thinking?” It is not that thinking doesn’t influence is, but rather, it is that there are other sources of input in our actions (think about such things as emotions, temptations, the flesh, duress, others, low blood sugar, drugs, etc.).

    To say that all action is caused by thought is not bordering on the absurd. You can say that someone used poor logic or didn’t think things through properly but when a decision is made there is thought behind it. If someone says they “lost their mind” that is a poor excuse but not really an explanation. They wanted to do it at the time; they just don’t like the present consequences. Same thing when a parent asks a teenager “What were you thinking?” This is an accusation of poor thought not of no thought at all. If the teenager really didn’t think about what they were doing then why accuse them? If they didn’t think at all the first time then what makes the parent believe the child will start thinking next time?

    I also believe that temptations should not have been included in your list: emotions, temptations, the flesh, duress, others, low blood sugar, drugs, etc. Rather, I think that all of those things in your list are different categories of temptation or pressure. If I am emotional or under duress it makes it more difficult to do the “right thing” but that doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I am doing. When Christ was tempted by Satan He hadn’t eaten for 40 days, had low blood sugar, and was under duress but He made good choices. If He had chosen to sin (heaven forbid) He could not have blamed it on low blood sugar.

    I would also like to make the point that when we make a choice there are competing desires (it wouldn’t be much of a choice with no “pros” and “cons” involved). It seems to me that we know (or are obligated to know) what the correct (God pleasing) decision is in many circumstances in life. These choices reflect priorities and priorities make the man which is my understanding of Proverbs 23:7.

    7 Fear of Jehovah [is] a beginning of knowledge, Wisdom and instruction fools have despised!
    Proverbs 1:7

    42 Still, however, also out of the rulers did many believe in him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing, that they might not be put out of the synagogue,
    43 for they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God.
    John 12:42-43

    12 for the reckoning of God is living, and working, and sharp above every two-edged sword, and piercing unto the dividing asunder both of soul and spirit, of joints also and marrow, and a discerner of thoughts and intents of the heart;
    13 and there is not a created thing not manifest before Him, but all things [are] naked and open to His eyes — with whom is our reckoning.
    Hebrews 4:12-13

    Scripture places a heavy emphasis on what we think. Does it seem unreasonable to you to interpret “man’s thinking” in Proverbs 23:7 as “man’s prioritizing?”

    1. Glenn,

      Thanks for your thoughtful reflections. While I don’t have time just this moment to interact at length, I do want to mention a few things.

      First, I think adding ‘temptations’ is certainly fine, makes sense. Yet, that really helps make my point. There are other things in the lead in our choices at times rather than our thoughts. If we say we never do anything without supportive thinking…we are not saying that we only do things because we thought first.

      This is the crux of the issue for me. It is postulated everywhere that we are simply going about in life reacting to everything based on our thinking. I believe it is more systemic, yet more elegant, than that. In some ways, this is the nature of what guys like Skinner and Rousseau led us toward in controlling the cause-and-effect around us.

      Eldridge’s reference to Freud is where I think the real challenge is…are we really the result of all our past influences? Do we have a will? Can we not wonder why we do what we do not desire to do (Gal 5) or be double-minded (James 1)? I believe we can…in fact, clearly we can.

      These days ‘thinking’ has been made into an unfalsifiable mantra…meaning the assumption that thinking causes all human action is proved by the statement itself. But, if we can prove it true, we can’t prove it false.

      The temptations are influences (there are many)…and these can take the predominate position in the ‘decision’ process. And, of course, I’m pretty sure action can to. Is it “I thought then acted” or is it “I acted then thought”…?

      Frankly, I think it all depends as these things are happening in a blinding flash together. My concern is that we turn everything in to a grand assumption about straightening out everyone’s thinking…which is important. Yet, reducing the cause and answer to the category of ‘thinking’ alone…does match the scripture, research, or observation.

      Of course, these are just my opinion / thoughts on the matter,

      Fred Lybrand

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