As a Woman Thought in Her Heart

“The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” – Acts 17:10-11

A few months ago a technical paper made its way around the offices at my work regarding nonlinearities in the measurement-to-state space conversion for an extended kalman filter, and the impact on filter performance. I wasn’t working that analysis task, but decided to give the paper a once-over since a number of my co-workers were and had asked my input. I got maybe 100 or 200 words into the paper before the authors made an egregiously simple calculus error. They wrote a first-order expansion of the nonlinear conversion function that violated the Taylor Series construct. Honestly! This is freshman calculus stuff.

I was prepared to put the paper down right then. You can’t mess up calculus and have anything useful to say to me about kalman filter behaviors. But, I knew that my co-workers were tinkering with this paper and so I read on, if for nothing else to keep them from wasting more time. (The error was both horrific, and subtle enough to be missed if you were just skimming, not paying attention.) Things didn’t get much better.

A similar thing happened a few years back with a book that was being used in a ladies Bible study in which my wife was participating. I was never going to go to any of the meetings (obviously), but the book was Battlefield of the Mind by one Joyce Meyer – a known Word of Faith adherent – so I thought I’d give it a look. It got sideways almost as quickly as the Taylor Series from above. Let me tell you my tale …

The Simple Misuse of Scripture …

Have you ever misinterpreted a scripture? Have you ever used a scripture to mean one thing when it actually means something else? I certainly have. I will contend that I did so out of ignorance. Let’s consider a few examples.

The one that immediately jumps to mind is the first half of Proverbs 10:7. In the King James Bible it reads “The memory of the just is blessed.” It sounds silly, but there was a time in college when I would rather attend church than study (I was quite the rebel in my youth). I read this in the KJV and said to myself “see, the memory [ability to recall facts] of the just is blessed, so I’m actually better off in school by going to church than studying.” Dumb, I know. Reading the verse in just about any other translation gives a different meaning … or even reading the whole verse in the KJV. Consider the ESV (my preferred translation these days): “The memory of the righteous is a blessing, but the name of the wicked will rot.” It is not the mental faculties of the righteous that is given more grace, but rather the remembrance that others have of the righteous that is a blessing.

Here’s another common one – Proverbs 18:24, once again in the KJV: “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly.” I think quite a few Christians have read this and assumed that it means “if you want to have friends, you must be friendly.” Now, here is an interesting point (to me anyway), the notion of “you have to be friendly to have friends” isn’t exactly wrong – but it is not what this verse means. It actually means something negative. Consider the ESV: “A man of many companions may come to ruin.” The idea that the proverb is relaying is that the effort that one has to put forth in keeping many friends happy may ultimately cause his ruin. I point this out to note that one can honestly make a mistake in interpreting scripture and not actually present an errant idea … but that is likely a less common outcome.

As a Woman Thought in Her Heart …

When it comes to Joyce Meyer, well, I’m not a fan. When I say “not a fan” I mean “I don’t like what she preaches” … I’ve never met her personally, cannot comment on the condition of her heart, but can certainly hold her teaching up to the light of scripture to see if it bears out. So, I picked up Battlefield of the Mind because my wife was reading it and I thought I’d give it a once-over. Did I mention I’m not a fan?

I won’t go through the entirety of the book (we all have better things to do). Instead, let me just quote a snippet from the introduction (a snippet I have heard preached in church long, long ago when I was in college):

What does Proverbs 23:7 really mean? The King James Version says As he [a man] thinketh in his heart, so is he…. Another translation states, “As a man thinks in his heart, so does he become.” [all emphasis in original]

It’s an excellent question on just about any scripture – “what does this really mean?” Theologians will tell you that the whole focus of hermeneutics must be to ascertain “the plain meaning” of the text. The text cannot mean anything other than its plain meaning, and its plain meaning is also the one that is obvious to those to whom the text was originally directed. It’s basically the theologian’s version of Occam’s Razor. (This doesn’t mean the meaning can’t be extended or extrapolated to the lives of anyone reading. Consider 1 Cor 9:9-10, where Paul extends Deut 25:4 [don’t muzzle the ox] to ministers of the gospel – but he doesn’t change the meaning of Deut 25:4 in the process.)

So what is the plain meaning of Proverbs 23:7? Usually it is a good idea to read the preceding and succeeding verses to gain context. While Proverbs often presents single verse thoughts, Proverbs 23:7 is actually part of a three-verse thought. Let’s consider first the KJV, then the ESV:

Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye,
neither desire thou his dainty meats:
for as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:
Eat and drink, saith he to thee;
but his heart is not with thee.
The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up,
and lose thy sweet words.

And now the ESV:

Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;
    do not desire his delicacies,
for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.
    “Eat and drink!” he says to you,
    but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
    and waste your pleasant words.

Plain meaning: stingy people may say to you “eat up” but they really wish you wouldn’t – their heart says something other than their mouths. Most readers view this as a simple warning against being a burden to a host, especially a stingy one. That’s it. The plain meaning. This is what the first readers of Solomon’s words would have understood. This is what every other person reading the words in a translation consistent with the modern from of their language would understand.

So what is Meyer chasing after with this “as a man thinks in his heart, so does he become” business? I’m not actually saying the idea is fraudulent (depending on how she means it) – but it is clearly not the plain meaning of the text. For instance, if you are constantly thinking about missing free throws, you’ll probably miss a lot of free throws – as my beloved North Carolina Tarheels can surely attest. But if she means something about the creative nature of self-actualization and positive thinking, then I think I would disagree … but we would have to debate it over other scriptures – this one doesn’t apply.

Furthermore, what “version” is she referring to? The book has a copyright of 1995, before the ubiquitous use of search engines. Fortunately, here in 2014, we can access every translation known to man at places like biblehub.com or biblegateway.com. I cannot find any translation that gives Meyer’s wording.

It’s funny, when I read this the first time I was floored – I have heard it preached with exactly the same words some 20 years ago sitting in a highly Word of Faith leaning church during my college years. I mean, exactly the same words; exactly the same “shocking discovery” that there is a translation out there that actually implies that our thoughts become our eventual nature … and then follows some Word of Faith message about the power of thoughts, the power of words, the creative ability of the man of faith, the ability to unleash the power of God through the force of faith (and on, and on).

Now, Meyer doesn’t say all of this in the snippet from the introduction, but she does misinterpret this scripture, giving it some “importance of thoughts” aspect that it does not contain. So then we are left with a simple question: why? There are a number of plausible explanations, but I’m afraid that none of them paints Ms. Meyer in a good light.

It Could Be Ignorance …

Back in the 1980s Jim Bakker was a Word of Faith, Prosperity Gospeler par excellence. (Side note: the “Prosperity Gospel” is an outcropping of WoF, but there is much more to WoF than just prosperity preaching. Fundamentally WoF is about self-worship, the elevation of man to all powerful, and the diminution of God to reactionary automaton responding to fulfill the self-actualized thoughts and words of man.) Bakker was eventually busted for fraud, and running a Ponzi scheme selling mini-time shares to facilities that didn’t exist.

A funny thing happened in prison: Bakker read the Bible. He admitted that he had never actually read it all, and that when he did he found that what he had been preaching was contrary to the whole of scripture. To my mind this is a beautiful expression of the mercy of God; sending Bakker to prison to give him some time away from a “successful” ministry to actually read the Bible.

Side note: If you haven’t read the entire Bible, you probably shouldn’t be a Bible teacher. If you don’t have enough desire for the Word of God to actually read the whole Book, and recently, then you really should question whether teaching is the right place for you (of course, everyone will have to determine for themselves what the appropriate measure of “recently” is … recognizing that in some parts of the world teachers haven’t read the whole Bible because they can’t get a full translation without being thrown in jail). OK, back to our story.

My point in bringing up Bakker is that even successful preachers can be ignorant of the plain meaning of scripture. (I doubt they can use that as an excuse though.)

Could it be that Joyce Meyer is simply ignorant of verses 6 and 8 (or the second half of 7) in the 23rd chapter of Proverbs? Perhaps she’s never read those verses, focusing only on the nine words that fit her desired message (and in the KJV at that).

Of course, this isn’t from a sermon or a blog post; it’s from a book. Typically a book will go through some variation of a gauntlet-run of editors and reviewers. Did none of them stop in the introduction to say “hey, what version uses those words, I’ve never heard them?” or “I don’t really think that half-verse means anything regarding the ‘importance of thought life'”? None of them? Nobody caught that? (Perhaps not surprising – WoF types hate criticism and thus do not allow anybody who asks difficult questions to be a part of their inner circle.)

… Or Worse

If not ignorance, then something worse. Is it possible here that Meyer is engaging in a time-honored tradition amongst New Agers and politicians alike: finding a snippet of scripture that seems to fall in line with a different message (pushed by the interested party) and using it to imply that the Bible actually backs up what they’re saying (even though it runs contrary to the common understanding of scriptures)?

It’s a pretty simple game. First, start with a message. It doesn’t really matter what the message is as long as you intently desire to push it and are willing to do anything to get your goal (like “I don’t want to study!”). Second, find a verse that says something vaguely similar to the message you want to send (cropping as much as you need and choosing the translation that leaves the most room for interpretation). Third, quote the scripture, and try to intimidate anyone who disagrees with your interpretation using a veiled threat of “you’re not disagreeing with me, but with God.”

I told you, none of the plausible explanations I could come up with painted Meyer in a positive light.

That doesn’t have to mean that a scripture-twister is being intentionally deceptive. They may actually believe the errant interpretation. I’ve noted before that it is not in the nature of wolves to view themselves as the “bad guy” intentionally bringing members of the flock to ruin. They are consuming the flock because that’s what wolves do. It doesn’t seem unnatural or wrong at all. (Consider for a moment the shock expressed by the rejected in Matthew 7:21-23.) My point here is that whether of honest ignorance or willful ignorance someone may easily misuse a scripture and not see themselves as doing anything wrong.

You’re Making a Big Deal out of One Little Blurb …

As with the calculus-failing filter analysts from before, I did actually read further in the book. What does Meyer think this verse means? Well, let’s consider what she has to say in Chapter 2:

For as a man thinks in his heart, so is he…. Proverbs 23:7

This one Scripture alone lets us know how very important it is that we think properly. Thoughts are powerful, and according to the writer of the book of Proverbs, they have creative ability.

Really? Is that what Proverbs 23:7 means to you? First, pick a message (“thoughts are powerful, they have creative ability, you can access the power of eternal spiritual laws by the force of faith”). Second, find a verse that says something vaguely similar to the message you want to send (cropping as much as you need and choosing the translation that leaves the most room for interpretation):

Eat thou not the bread of him that hath an evil eye,
neither desire thou his dainty meats:
for as he thinketh in his heart, so is he:
Eat and drink, saith he to thee;
but his heart is not with thee.
The morsel which thou hast eaten shalt thou vomit up,
and lose thy sweet words.

Third, quote the scripture, and try to intimidate anyone who disagrees with your interpretation using a veiled threat of “you’re not disagreeing with me, but with God.”

Misinterpreting scripture is a big deal for Christians. If a teacher gets something simple like Proverbs 23:7 wrong in the first 100 words or  so, then I really have to wonder where they’re going. Even if it was out of ignorance, I have to wonder what dangerous ideas will get promulgated out of ignorance. And if it is not out of ignorance, well, the word “run” comes to mind.

A Note on Criticism …

The typical response of WoF crowd to criticism is a knee-jerk “don’t be critical of folks who are trying to do something positive in the kingdom” flail. First, let me re-iterate that I cannot tell you the condition of the heart – only that there is a clear misinterpretation (and thus misuse) of scripture.

Second, as it comes to criticism, let me add that I have read the Bible front to back and it has quite a few critical figures. In the time of the Church, Paul is probably the most critical. Of course, I think even he may pale in comparison to John the Baptist or Moses. (Yes, Jesus was very critical too – but He’s Jesus.) My point is that “don’t be critical” is hardly a valid response. If it is an important issue then criticism is well warranted. Our heroes of the faith had quite a few critical things to say (particularly in the direction of religious leadership … ahem).

There is much more to say about WoF and Joyce Meyer, but I prefer blogging about politics and economics – and these are interesting times. (Though, I’ll note that the WoF folks may well be joining forces with other dominionists on the political front and attempting to take control over the “Tea Party” movements … so WoF may be back in our discussions anyway.)

Finally, let me reiterate Acts 17:11. The Berean Jews were called noble: “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” We live in a beautiful time and place here in 21st century America, where every Christian can own a Bible translated into English and can examine the scriptures for themselves to see if what is being taught is true. We should not take that for granted. It was not always so.

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One Response to As a Woman Thought in Her Heart

  1. Randy says:

    Well put, I think.

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