Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Gates, Walls & Self-Perception

There is an ancient proverb that says, “As one thinketh within his heart, so he is.”[1] Though phrased a little awkwardly for our times, this ancient maxim is loaded with application for our media saturated culture. The word for heart utilized in the original text is nephesh[2], which is the Hebrew word for soul. The Hebrew concept of the heart encompasses the seat of emotions, the core of one’s being, the mind and emotions. Some would even say that the soul would also store the shaping influences of one’s life experiences. The interesting aspect of the verse and that which acutely relates to our understanding of how each of us has been formed by our surrounding environments has to do with the word “thinketh.” Not exactly a word that makes its way into the everyday vernacular. Thinketh, is the Hebrew word shaar. The fascinating thing about the word shaar isn’t so much the linear translation as think, rather the embedded word picture that would have been striking to the first hearers of this saying.

Shaar literally means, “to split or open.”[3] It was a place of access. Another translation is the idea of one “acting as a gatekeeper.”[4] Ancient proverbs were deeply visual sayings, especially given they were generated and shared in a oral-storytelling culture. Proverbs were profound, subversive and rich in imagery. This particular adage would stir up vivid images of a city surrounded by huge walls. Cities were typically characterized as such. Often there were only a few avenues of entrance into the city. These entrances were guarded by trained watchmen and gate-keepers.

It was the watchman’s responsibility to recognize and identify visitors on the horizon, then report to the gatekeeper below where they perceived them to be coming from, intended purpose and their relational standing to the city. The gatekeeper took this information and then interacted with those wishing to make entrance into the city. The gatekeepers responsibility was enormous, for the destiny of the city depended on their discernment and wisdom. The ancients knew that everything that was allowed through the gates of the city would influence and effect the whole of the city, for better or worst, good or bad, blessing or cursing. For instance, a covered wagon full of manure carried into the city would quickly infest the entire city with a putrid smell by high noon. Regardless of the strength and fortitude of the city walls, it was this place where the city walls were “split open” that could easily lead to a titanic like crash.

The writer of Proverbs often referred to the human soul as a city and the walls there of. “Like a city whose walls are broken through,” writes the author of Proverbs, “is a person who lacks self–control.”[5] In Proverbs 23:7, the sage isn’t so much talking about a persons “mind” or what they think, rather he is talking about the things that influence the way one thinks. There is a distinct difference. He isn’t just saying, “as a person thinks, so they are,” though that’s true, the deeper meaning of the word shaar is actually digging a few layers below this reality. It’s not one’s thoughts that he’s talking about, but the realities that are influencing and shaping one’s thoughts. It’s the things that are given access to our soul (mind, emotions, experiences) that shape and determine who we are and how we respond. This is the case, whether we are aware of it or not. It doesn’t matter whether we expose ourselves to these powers consciously or unconsciously, be it intentionally or unintentionally.

It is imperative that the weight of this proverb be understood and internalized, otherwise we will remain hamstrung and incapacitated in our endeavors to live a life of biblical simplicity. For it is only as we understand the principles governing this verse and the practical in-workings by our surrounding culture on our understanding of value, success and personal worth, that we can begin to reorient ourselves to the truth. “We crave things we neither need nor enjoy,”[6] Foster tells us. He continues, “We are made to feel ashamed to wear clothes or drive cars until they are worn out. The mass media has convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality. It is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick…”

[1] Proverbs 23:7, KJV.
[2] Old Testament Hebrew Lexicon, reference no. 5315.
[3] Strong’s Hebrew Bible Dictionary, reference no. 8176.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Proverbs 25:28, TNIV.
[6] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 80.

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