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What does the Bible say about as a man thinketh?
The Popular (Wrong) Understanding of Proverbs 23:7
The popular (and wrong) understanding of Proverbs 23:7 focuses on the first half of the verse, “For as he [a man] thinks in his heart, so is he.” I have seen a number of New Age, pagan, and even some Christian teachers take this verse and says that it refers to the “power of mind,” connecting it to affirmations and the claim that we can manifest our own reality. Sometimes the phrase is shorten to “as a man thinks, so he is.” If we only took the King James Version translation (and NKJV), we can see how people might think that this verse supports New Thought beliefs.
You might say that there have always been “self-help” books; after all, we are discussing a verse from a book of wisdom literature that tells people how to live a good life. Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, wrote about not only how to have a good life, but to have a good society. In Deuteronomy, God lays out the “way of life” and the “way of death” for his people and tells them that they can choose between “blessing or curse.” God himself provides a way to “success.”
We want to know how to achieve the success, that good end.
However, it used to be that we understood that “good” was connected to something higher than ourselves. Augustine wrote in City of God
as it is, cannot be happy except by partaking of the light of that God by whom both itself and the world were made; and also that the happy life which all men desire cannot be reached by any who does not cleave with a pure and holy love to that one supreme good, the unchangeable God.
The Christian understanding is that true success and happiness can only be found in God, even when our circumstances don’t look successful or seem to be what other people would see as a reason to be happy. That is what Paul meant when he said that jesus brought a “peace that passes all understanding” in Philippians 4:6. Jesus is not the Prince of Peace because he removed all conflict (although that day will come), it is because we can have peace within ourselves even when we are surrounded by turmoil.
I’m not sure exactly where wrong interpretation of Proverbs 23:7 became so entrenched in our understanding, but I think it may have had something to do with a combination of the self-help movement in the 19th century combined with the self-centered focus of the theosophy and New Thought movement.
In the 19th century, there was a huge focus on “success.” This was Post-Enlightment, where many had left the grounding for a good life as being God. If you can’t ground purpose, meaning, and goodness in an eternal and unchangeable God, then all that is left is to ground it in yourself. This was during the Industrial Revolution when man began to have control over matter in ways that he had not had before and it was easier to have an illusion of control.
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not mere business; it is not even mere cynicism. It is mysticism; the horrible mysticism of money … The writer of that passage did not really have the remotest notion of how Vanderbilt made his money, or of how anybody else is to make his. He does, indeed, conclude his remarks by advocating some scheme; but it has nothing in the world to do with Vanderbilt. He merely wished to prostrate himself before the mystery of a millionaire.
Chesterton had no patience for success worshippers writing,
At least, let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect. They do not teach people to be successful, but they do teach people to be snobbish; they do spread a sort of evil poetry of worldliness. The Puritans are always denouncing books that inflame lust; what shall we say of books that inflame the viler passions of avarice and pride? … what shall we say of the gospel preached to the new Industrious Apprentice; the Apprentice who rises not by his virtues, but avowedly by his vices?
There was an illusion of control, a fixation on success and achievement defined by secular and economic standards, and then there was also the rise of theosophy. The Theosophical movement was founded by Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and taught that focused on mystical experience and taught that spiritual realities could be controlled by human thought.
The word “theosophy” means “divine wisdom, but the divine is considered the human self or consciousness. This idea that a higher state of being could be achieved through knowledge or higher understanding did not originate with Blatavatsky. Most of her ideas and teachings were nothing more than a rehashing of the ideas of ancient Gnosticism and NeoPlatonism that early church writers, like Irenaeus in the second century, had already refuted.
In 1903, James Allen published a short essay titled As a Man Thinketh based on the first half of Proverbs 23:7. In the essay, he argues that man, his character and who he is, is the product of what he believes. He focuses on the power of thought to transform a person and shape their life and that a good life is the result of not only making good choices, but having good thoughts.
What Allen writes is not all wrong. The Bible talks about the importance of “bringing every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5) and that we are to “renew our thoughts” and as a result, we will be transformed (Romans 12:2). We are told to focus on whatever is “true, noble, and lovely.” (Philippians 4:8) Yes, it is true that actions begin in thoughts, and our thoughts and believe shape our perspective. However, the error is that the message in As a Man Thinketh that man can do it by his own power, that circumstances and surroundings have little to no impact on outcomes, and that every person can achieve the state of being they desire on their own.
That is just not the case. In the temple of our individual lives, “unless the Lord builds a house, the builders labor in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)
Allen himself may not have believed that God played no role in the picture, but his essay resonated with those, such as the Theosophical movement who thought that man was good without God. A little over 30 years later, Napoleon Hill (1882-1970) built on Allen’s philosophy and wrote in his book, Think and Grow Rich (1937), “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve.”
What is Wrong with the Power of Thought?
What is wrong with believing in the power of thought? Is what we think important? Absolutely. However, beside simply being a gross misinterpretation of the meaning of that verse, which we will cover in the second part of this lesson, the idea that Blatavatsky, Allen, and Hill promoted is not only unBiblical, but it is also has no relation to reality.
If everyone had the exact same life experiences, the exact same interactions, and were making choices under the same conditions and circumstances, then yes, then a person’s outcome would be totally dependent on their own mindset and choices — but that is not the case. Yes, our thoughts do affect our bodies and even our brain chemistry, but what we think is greatly influenced by what we experience and things that influence us. Science is discovering almost daily just how much more malleable that we as human beings are than we would have ever believed. This was a huge part of the discussion in the segments in the Restoring Hope conference.
Second, beyond not being reality, that mindset is actually nothing more than just plain witchcraft. Witchcraft is about manipulation and control, trying to impose your will on others, nature, and even God himself. Anything that encourages us to focus on “our” way rather than God’s way is rebellion against God.
When we become a Christian and say that we repent of our sins, that we need a savior, and make Jesus the Lord of our life, we are saying to God, “I’m tired of my way, I will go your way instead.” That is repentance.
Jesus said, “anyone who would be my disciple must lay down their life, pick up their cross, and follow me.” What do we think that means? Do we even understand what he suffered for our sake? Do we understand that Jesus was brutally beaten and died for us? Where in that statement do we get the idea that it will be all rainbows and unicorns when we become a Christian from that statement?
We have the promise of a time of perfect peace when Jesus comes again, but until then, the Good News of the gospel is that whether you are in living in a third world country overrun by gangs or living in safety in the U.S., you can experience the same peace and joy that the Holy Spirit brings. It is not about circumstances or accomplishments, true fulfillment comes through Christ. It is when we come to recognize that we can’t do it on our own that God steps in.
What Does “As a Man Thinketh” actually mean?
Before we deep dive into the first part of Proverbs 23, let’s look at what the full verse actually says. The New King James Version of Proverbs 23:7
“For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.
“Eat and drink!” he says to you, But his heart is not with you.”
Without looking at anything else, just by reading the full verse it is obvious that the meaning promoted by Allen is a misinterpretation. Who is this “he” whose “heart is not with you?”
Context of Proverbs 23
Proverbs 23 is part of a section in the book of Proverbs that contains 30 “sayings of the wise.” The sayings begin midway through chapter 22 and ends in chapter 24. This is actually a really interesting section because it parallels an Egyptian writing called “Instructions of Amenemope” and most scholars think that Solomon based his proverbs on that work (sort of the way Matthew and Luke based their gospel accounts on Mark.)
There is debate on the dating of the Instructions of Amenemope: some think it was written between 1000-600 BC, which would either make it contemporaneous to or after the time of Solomon and the United Kingdom; however, as more fragments of the work have been discovered, the dating is now considered to between 1300-1000 BC, which would make Proverbs based on the Egyptian source and not the other way around. But we are going to discuss the impact of influence and dating when we discuss Proverbs 23:7 specifically.
We are going to read the first half of Proverbs 43 in the ESV.
When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
observe carefully what is before you,
2 and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to appetite.
3 Do not desire his delicacies,
for they are deceptive food.
4 Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
5 When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
for suddenly it sprouts wings,
flying like an eagle toward heaven.
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.
8 You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
and waste your pleasant words.
This passage is a warning against falling under manipulation or control. The beginning of the chapter (saying 7) warns to watch what you accept from a ruler, specifically in this context food, but it could be anything. The next saying warns against avarice and a focus on money, and particularly warns against accepting anything from a man who is stingy. He is giving to you, but it is not a gift, he is counting the cost, calculating how much you own them.
The stingy man is the “he” in verse 7, in the end, you will want to “vomit up” whatever it is that he has given you.
That is what “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he” actually means. The person seems generous, but what they are thinking in their heart — calculating to bring you under obligation — is who they really are.
Reflection on Proverbs 23:7
The question that we each need to ask ourself is where do we individually fall in this verse? If and when you give to someone, whether it be your time, money, or talents, are you truly giving a gift or are you in your mind creating an obligation deceptively.
If you have any expectations tied to a gift, if there are any strings attached, then it isn’t a gift. It is a transaction or a contract. The person on the other side of the transaction must agree to the terms, otherwise that is deception and fraud.
I’m sure we all know someone who is constantly offended because they did something for someone and the person wasn’t sufficiently grateful or act in the way that they wanted. They didn’t send a thank you card, or they did but didn’t say the right thing in it. The recipient didn’t thank them or mention it often enough over the years … whatever.
That wasn’t a gift, that was an attempt to tie a noose around their neck. It was an attempt manipulate or control. It is witchcraft.
Yes, I’m sure we can all bring someone to mind that fits that description, but the real question is — does it describe you in any way? Are there areas of bitterness or resentment in your life because people didn’t respond in the way that they should? If so, we need to acknowledge that and submit that to God. We are responsible for repenting for our own actions and attitudes.
I know for myself it is something that I have to check myself on constantly. I have to remind myself that I may give advice that people don’t take. I may give a gift that won’t be appreciated. I may invest time that will ultimately be wasted.
I have to ask myself, what is my motivation and who am I doing it for? If I am truly giving something “as unto the Lord” because I felt led by the Holy Spirit, then I can be confident that God sees, he knows, and he rewards. If I’m doing it for recognition or to create some sort of obligation, then I’m on my own and I will very likely end up being disappointed.
Available Bible Studies
 Saint Augustine, The City Of God (1-10) , Study Edition, ed. Boniface Ramsey, trans. William Babcock, 1st Edition., vol. 1, 2 vols. (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2012) 166.
 G. K. Chesterton, “The Fallacy of Success,” in All Things Considered, 1915, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11505/11505-h/11505-h.htm.
 G. K. Chesterton, “The Fallacy of Success,” in All Things Considered, 1915, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11505/11505-h/11505-h.htm.
 “Theosophy | Definition, Beliefs, History, & Facts | Britannica,” accessed April 29, 2022, https://www.britannica.com/topic/theosophy.
 KL Barker, “Proverbs 23: ‘To Think’ or ‘To Serve Food?,’” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Sockiety 19, no. 1 (1989): 1.
 “Instruction of Amenemope,” Wikipedia, March 9, 2022, accessed April 29, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Instruction_of_Amenemope&oldid=1076070060.
I get the point. However, because these doctrines of power of thoughts and the gospel are interconnected
The key to how I live is not what I do or how I feel – but how I think. And key to that are the everyday decisions to exercise my mind with positive helpful thoughts (like memorizing Bible verses or spiritual songs)
Yes, thoughts precede actions. It is interconnected because our actions, thoughts, and feelings are all interconnected for us as human beings.
Your two comments are related, so I am just going to reply here. Our thoughts are connected to what we do, but the misinterpretation of this particular passage is that is not what this verse is about at all. This verse is about being on guard against manipulation.
The misinterpretation also leads to a sort of callousness towards people in less fortunate circumstances, as if their circumstances have nothing to do with anyone except for themselves, which is not true. I’ve actually seen people who think “social justice” is a curse word say almost those exact words. The exploited are blamed for their circumstances, the narrative being that if they had just “thought right” and pulled themselves up by their boostraps, then they wouldn’t be in the place they are in.
That is not true. Ruby Payne’s book “Bridges Out of Poverty” is a great read on this topic. She writes that the things that are valued and the unwritten rules are different for social classes. The poor value entertainment. The middle class values hard work, and the wealthy value relationships. Studies have found that you can change someone’s financial situation, but that if the person doesn’t change those values and learn those unwritten rules, they will end right back in poverty. Yes, this does illustrate that our mindset, our thoughts, are important.
However, it should also illustrate the fact that our circumstances are equally influential. You can’t know what you don’t know unless someone teaches you otherwise. It’s not just a matter of “deciding” to be different, you need someone providing a right example to pattern that behavior on. Thinking leads to doing, which ends in becoming.
But those right, or straight, thoughts and actions aren’t always obvious … many times they aren’t. People who have lived so long in stressful situations don’t know what it is like to live in and with peace. People who grew up having only abusive family relationships modeled for them will likely have the same sort of relationships themselves unless they make a concerted and sustained effort to assess their relationships and their own actions and reactions.
The overall message of As a Man Thinketh is not totally false, but it is off enough that it is dangerous to people caught up in it.
No person lives in their own isolated little bubble. What “manifests” in your life is not just a product of your own thoughts, but your upbringing, your family issues, the community you live in, and the actions of other people. Very often we deal with negative consequences arising from the actions of other people. Things that had nothing to do with us individually or what we have been thinking.
The flip slide of that same coin is that any one person’s success is not solely dictated by their own actions. We all were helped along the way somewhere.