In Proverbs chapter twenty-three, we find an oft-quoted passage that I have frequently ministered and taught on — and even wrote a whole book about. Yet, I have always been rather perplexed concerning the context in which this passage appears. Verse seven begins with the revelation that a man’s personality is determined by how he thinks in his heart. This is a powerful truth, and it certainly warrants all the attention it has received from all the teachers and preachers who have ministered on it. However, the way it abruptly appears in the middle of a seemingly unrelated context demands that we delve a bit deeper into the verse to quarry out the true mother lode of truth it conceals.
Before we actually look at the text, let me confess that I want to skip a couple verses in order to make the message a little more readily obvious. Verses four and five carry the general theme of the section but shift the focus toward a different aspect of consideration before returning to the central point in verse six.
When thou sittest to eat with a ruler, consider diligently what is before thee: And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite. Be not desirous of his dainties: for they are deceitful meat…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. (verses 1-3, 6-8)
The perplexing question is why does Solomon make this reference to the way a man thinks in his heart right in the middle of the discussion about eating. The key to unraveling this mystery is found just a couple pages earlier. Proverbs 18:8 in the King James Version of the Bible at first looks like it is totally unrelated, “The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.” Here it looks like Solomon is saying that gossip is like an injury deep inside our vital organs. However, more modern translations communicate a totally different message by recognizing that the old English word “wound” referred to a kind of pastry. With this in mind, we see that gossip is something so tantalizing and irresistible that we readily swallow it up. The American Standard Version, for example, translates this passage as, “The words of a whisperer are as dainty morsels, And they go down into the innermost parts.” In this respect, we can see that Solomon must have learned some principles from his father King David who wrote, “Incline not my heart to any evil thing, to practise wicked works with men that work iniquity: and let me not eat of their dainties.” (Psalm 141:4)
Looking back at the passage with this new understanding of what the dainties offered to us represent, we begin to see that the paragraph actually has nothing to do with food. Rather, the whole message centers around what we listen to and allow to get inside of us. Now it becomes crystal clear as to why Solomon injected his statement about a man’s personality being determined by how he thinks into this context. If we listen to the words of a talebearer and are enticed by them as if they were the delicious treats offered at a royal banquet, these thoughts will enter into the very deepest parts of our psychological and spiritual person to determine how we view ourselves, the world around us, the people we interact with, and everything that happens to us. The result is that — just like our body weight and general physical health are determined by our natural diet — our whole personalities are molded by the “dainties” we consume.
At this point, I feel like one of the scriptwriters for a television infomercial as I type out the next few words, “But wait. There’s more!” There is much more in this passage that suddenly becomes obvious as soon as we understand that these dainties represent the words of a talebearer. The whole idea of vomiting the food back up suddenly takes on a new light. What is the first thing you want to do any time someone shares a bit of gossip with you? The natural human response is to find someone else to spread that gossip to. In fact, the more private the conversation is, the quicker it will spread. Phrases like “This is just between you, me, and the fence post,” “Don’t tell anyone else,” “I’m just sharing this with you because I know you love the person and would be concerned,” and “Can you keep a secret?” are like accelerant to a flame making it spread all that much more quickly. The most effective Christian gossip is baptized by introducing the tidbit with, “This is just so you can help me pray about the matter.” Like frosting or delicious toppings on the morsel of gossip that make it more tempting, these imitations of privacy enhance the appeal of the gossip so that it is gobbled down more readily and then spread that much more rapidly.
The most serious problem with the “prayer line rumor mill” is that much of the content that it spreads is simply not true. I remember the story of one pastor’s wife who became the object of the chain reaction of the “concerned” members within her church by having her hair done in a beauty salon. The problem wasn’t that she had her hair fixed but that she chose a salon that had a big glass window facing the main street in her little town. The fact that she took a chair in front of that large sheet of plate glass while waiting her turn for the beautician’s chair soon led to such a serious defamation of her character that her husband’s career as the pastor of the congregation was jeopardized. But how could a picture window in a beauty parlor ruin a woman’s reputation, upset her husband’s career, and damage a church? You see, the real issue was that she decided to write a letter while she sat in the chair in front of the window as she waited for her hair appointment. Well, that was only part of her problem. It seems that the real culprit in her crime was the white ink pen that she used to write the letter. But, I guess that her real problem was that she hesitated over exactly how she should word her thoughts and put her pen in the mouth to chew on it while she was “chewing on” her choice of words to use as she wrote to her daughter in college. Well, just at the moment that she put the pen to her lips, one of the “sanctified” ladies from the church happened to pass the beauty shop’s window and “witness” the pastor’s wife with a “cigarette” in her mouth! Before the sun set that day, the entire church had been alerted about the prayer need and was “interceding” as they passed the request to more and more members. Like vomit, the dainty morsel of the talebearer was being spewed up by everyone who had received it!
We’re back to the infomercial script again when I have to add, “But wait! There’s even more!” Not all the tales that are borne by the talebearers are false assumptions like the ink pen that miraculously transformed into a cigarette. Some of the stories are actually true. And even worse, some of the talebearers are not busybody gossips who whisper over the back fence or in hushed tones on the phone; some of them are legitimate sources and even card-carrying authorities on current events. By this, I mean that the media who boldly proclaim well-researched and documented reports in magazines and newspapers, on television and radio, or over the internet may be just as guilty of spreading factual rumors as those little church ladies were of spreading false information. For example, an entire nation can be thrown into an economic crisis by the media’s decision to focus their reports on a few companies with unsound or even unethical business practices. The public reaction to such news is that the general populace will lose confidence in not only the guilty companies but in other businesses as well. In response, they decide to sell their stock shares before the prices start to drop. When enough people try to sell off their stocks, the overall stock market prices drop due to the fact that there are more people selling than there are people buying. Before long, there is panic and the stock market begins to collapse. As the overall economy declines, even the companies that have always based their operations on good business practices and ethical principles are affected. Soon, all companies wind up having to lay off employees and cut back operations. Everyone suffers, but why? Was it because of the businesses that were operating with shady principles? Partially, yes. But more significantly, it was because the media decided to focus on their problems rather than to feature the majority of the companies that were operating under sound business models.
Continuing to think about the passage in light of the media reports, have you ever noticed how quickly bad news spreads? As our country recently fell into an economic decline very similar to what I just described in the previous paragraph, it was amazing how every conversation seemed to focus on or at least reference the failing economy; however, I don’t seem to remember the same kind of emphasis on the economy when things were going well. No, it was not gossip over the back fence, but the tale of the talebearer was still being vomited up by everyone who had swallowed his dainty morsel.
An outbreak of a certain strain of flu in Mexico was so widely discussed in the American news media that several churches and mission organizations canceled their plans to send teams to Mexico that summer. We can only guess how many Mexicans missed the opportunity to hear the gospel and settle their eternal destiny simply because of all the media attention given to the flu. Though tens of millions of Mexicans were disease-free and hundreds of travelers crossed in and out of the country each day, it was only the few who were affected by the disease who made the headlines. In like fashion, it’s interesting how the ninety-three percent of people who are working or the ninety-six percent of the people who pay their mortgages on time never become the topic of conversation while the seven percent who are out of work and the four percent of people whose homes go into foreclosure are a major focus of attention. In the same manner, the pastor’s wife was not a major issue as long as she faithfully played the piano, taught Sunday school, and brought fried chicken to the church suppers. There’s something wrong with this picture.
The thing that is out of focus with this scenario is that we have overlooked a couple very important concepts from the scripture. In Ephesians 4:15, the Apostle Paul instructed us that we should speak the truth in love and followed up in the next verse that our purpose in life is to edify one another in love. Several verses later, he concluded with, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.” (Ephesians 4:29)
First we see that everything we say must first be determined to be the truth. Obviously, this point was overlooked by the lady passing the hairdresser’s window — not to mention much of what is circulated in current conversation. Next we see that even if it is true, it must still pass the love test. This means that we don’t have the privilege of sharing things just because they happen to be true. Suppose that we revisited the beauty solon and discovered that it really was true that the pastor’s wife was sitting there puffing on a cigarette. Would that give us the right to begin to whisper behind her back and spread the fact around the community? Certainly not! Even though the facts had been determined to be true, gossiping about them would not be motivated by love; therefore, it would be unscriptural to share the news. The only loving response to the situation would be to humbly and sincerely approach the pastor’s wife directly and ask her if she realized what impact her actions would have on her health and her testimony in the church and community in general. With genuine concern for her best interests, we would be free to talk to only two individuals — the woman herself and God. Anything beyond that would violate the love principle. Next we see that any and everything we say must result in edification or positive construction in the lives of everyone involved. News about the pastor’s wife’s faults is not constructive. News about how bad the economy is destroys rather than builds the spirits of those who hear. Reports about epidemics engender fear and panic — the opposite of edification. These reports may be true, but if they do not pass the test of edification, they are disqualified. (I Corinthians 14:26, I Timothy 1:4) In fact, Paul summed up his discussion on this point by labeling all such conversation as “corrupt communication.” Wow, what a powerfully new way to understand the significance of what we hear and say!
Thinking back to what King Solomon was saying, I see the idea of vomit as carrying with it an inherent significance of its own. Although vomit is the regurgitation of the food we have eaten, it is much more. It is now mixed with gastric acids and is awful smelling, sickening in its appearance, and vile tasting. So it is with these reports when they are retold. There is a bitterness, a stench, and an acidic nature to them as they pass down the chain from person to person. Whether whispered gossip or publicly published news reports, any message that does not pass the tests of love and edification bears with it a corrupt nature of stinking, bitter, acidic vomit. The effects that it has on the hearers are always negative.
Don’t forget the infomercial; there’s still more! One other thing that Solomon mentioned is that when we vomit up the dainty morsels we have swallowed we also lose the sweet words we had. To understand this part of the statement, we again have to go back a few pages in the book of Proverbs and also consult the words of Solomon’s dad in the book of Psalms. Proverbs 16:24 records, “Pleasant words are as an honeycomb, sweet to the soul, and health to the bones,” and Psalm 119:103 defined the message as referring to the Word of God rather than just any pleasant words in general, “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” This same message is repeatedly conveyed in other psalms such as Psalm 141:6, “When their judges are overthrown in stony places, they shall hear my words; for they are sweet,” and Psalm 19:10b, “Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.”
In the same way that a person who has experienced severe vomiting is at risk of dehydration and loss of nutrients that were already in his body, the person who participates in this spiritual vomiting will soon find out that it is draining his spiritual personality of all the benefits he has previously gained from the Word of God. Meditation on negative reports — even if they are true — robs us of the positive spiritual and mental perspective birthed from scriptural truths. Let’s take the scenario about the pastor’s wife as an example. Before the rumor mill was activated, the people in the church were probably thinking of her as a Proverbs thirty-one woman:
Who can find a virtuous woman? for her price is far above rubies…She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness…Favour is deceitful, and beauty is vain: but a woman that feareth the LORD, she shall be praised…Give her of the fruit of her hands; and let her own works praise her in the gates. (verses 10, 26, 30, 31)
But as soon as the fabrications and vain imaginations mixed with the gastric juices of the busybody who happened down the street in front of the beauty parlor started making their rounds, the sweet words of Proverbs suddenly evaporated.
The same is exactly true of the news media’s reports on the economic situations or the spread of a flu virus south of the border. As soon as talk about an economic downturn begins to circulate, believers somehow begin to forget that the God they serve is Jehovah Jireh, the God who supplies all their needs according His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. (Genesis 22:14, Philippians 4:19) As soon as the deadly flu in Mexico became a major topic, even strongly evangelical and mission-minded believers seemed to no longer remember the sweet words of Exodus 15:26,
And said, If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the LORD thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have brought upon the Egyptians: for I am the LORD that healeth thee.
Now by this point, I’m sure that you must be thinking that I’m advocating Christian Science or some other philosophy in which I’m suggesting that we simply ignore the truth and pretend that it doesn’t exist. No! That is absolutely not at all what I’m trying to communicate. Simply ignoring something will not make it go away. Thinking that it will is absolutely ludicrous and very dangerous. However, there is a way of dealing with negative truths so that they are de-fanged and de-clawed and have no bite or pose any threat.
A few paragraphs back, I made reference to Psalm chapter nineteen. If we revisit that passage, I believe that we will find a powerful key in verse fourteen, “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer.” David prayed that the words of his mouth — the sayings he initiated and the things that he repeated from others — would be acceptable unto the Lord. From what we have seen in the Apostle Paul’s writing, he probably passed all his words through the litmus tests of truth, love, and edification. But he also asked that the mediations of his heart also prove acceptable in the sight of the Lord. To figure what his filter here might have been, I’d like to suggest another one of Paul’s writings. In Philippians 4:8, the apostle wrote,
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
Here he listed eight criteria that must be met before any thought qualifies to be meditated upon. Simply being true does not make it eligible to become part of our thinking process. Once it passes the truth filter, it then must be subjected to the filter of justice and the honesty filter, followed by the purity filter, then the filter of loveliness, the good-report filter, the virtue filter, and the praiseworthiness filter. If it makes it through all these filters, then — and only then — is it acceptable for a Christian’s meditation.
So what does this say about the bad news reports that we hear? How should they affect us? First of all, we need to determine if they are true. Quite simply, much of what is published today — especially in tabloids and on the internet, but even in many reputable news sources — simply is not true. In that case, ignore it unless you have an opportunity to correct the misinformation in order to protect other innocent subjects. Next, we must apply the just and honest filters to determine if what is being said is being presented with a bias that is distorting the truth. The kernel of truth that inspired the gossip may be true, but what about the assumptions or exaggerations that came along with it? An old expression goes, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.” For example, all of the scientific evidences that have been presented as proof of evolution actually have another story to tell — one that proves the instantaneous creation of the universe by an intelligent being. However, the scientific publications as a whole are unjust and dishonest in the way they report this information. Since the reports have failed the next layers of filters, we have to discard them from our meditations unless we have the ability to correct the interpretations into honest and just concepts. Other filters include purity, loveliness, praiseworthiness, and virtue. These filters readily disqualify any kinds of reports that slander and harm others. Obviously, when people are in error, they need to be corrected; but slander or “getting even” are not correction! Therefore, we must not meditate on these aspects of the issue. Rather, we must meditate on a positive quality associated with their wrongdoing — the fact that Jesus came to redeem fallen man and that He gave us the ministry of reconciling these wayward men to Him.
One other test is the good-report filter where we have to ask ourselves if the report is good as well as true. If what we hear is true but negative in nature, it does not qualify as a tenant for space in our hearts and minds. That doesn’t mean that we ignore the truth; it simply means that we are not to meditate on it. Going back to the example of the economic downturn, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that the economy was in serious difficulty; however, to allow that negative report to become a focal point in our thoughts would be disastrous. My own personal experience when our country entered a financial crisis demonstrates how this principle can work. The newspaper reported the results of a study that showed that giving to not-for-profit organizations had fallen off around twenty percent during the first months of a major economic setback. At the same time, a number of ministries I knew of were forced to lay off employees due to lack of funding. All this happened at a time when I was making the most aggressive faith decisions in our ministry. These news reports were true reports that I could not — and did not want to — ignore. However, these reports were not good reports, so I knew that I could not allow them to become the focus of the meditation of my heart. Instead, I found another report that I also knew to be true but also passed the good-report test: “But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19) This passage became the focus of my meditation even when I acknowledged the currently prevailing economic difficulties. I knew that I couldn’t ignore the facts, but I also knew that I could not focus my attention on them. With full awareness of the financial strain, I chose to focus on the fact that I had a God who would supply all my needs — not according to the present economy, but according to His riches. Almost as soon as I made the decision to focus on the good report of Philippians rather than the negative report of the media, I was faced with a major request. A pastor I had been assisting in Burma contacted me with a need. Revival was spreading through his area, and he had seen a major influx into his church. In fact, the growth was so great that he needed to expand his facility. He asked me to help him with the cost of this expansion. Had I been focusing on the news reports, I would have told him that I was sorry; however, I was focusing on the good report that my God would supply every need. Because of that, I was able to promise him in faith that I would help. Not long afterwards, I went to speak at a conference in Africa and was given a huge offering that covered the pledge I had made toward his building. Who would ever have thought that I would receive an offering on the mission field, much less one generous enough to undertake a building project! Imagine — even while we were experiencing an economic downturn in America, God supplied for a church in Asia by an offering in Africa!
Here you see the point of Solomon’s teaching. It was what I was thinking about in my heart that determined the kind of man I was. Instead of one who vomited back up the negative report of the news media and forgot the sweet promises of God, I was a man who was convinced that God would supply according to His riches — no matter if He had to go to another continent to get the funds!
Shortly after that financial victory, I had another opportunity to put the same principle to the test again. One of the decisions we have made in our ministry is to help missionaries send their children to college because we don’t want to see these sons and daughters suffer if their parents are not able to cover the college bills. Our commitment has always been to help one student per year; however, when the economic downturn began to affect the missionaries on the field we wound up with two emergency cases on our hands at the same time. There was no way we could deny either one, so we decided to sponsor both students — a totally illogical decision based on the economic report, but a purely anticipated one based on God’s promise to supply every need. You guessed it; we were able to cover both tuitions without suffering any deficit in our other financial obligations!
An even more poignant example comes from the story I have already shared about my friend who had a true but very bad report about her health. In an earlier section, I shared the story of how her doctor told her that she had the fastest growing form of cancer known to man. However, I’d like to revisit the story to add a few more details that are relevant to the preset discussion. Her doctor was totally certain that his diagnosis was correct because he had had it confirmed by ninety doctors who worked under him at a major medial facility. Remember what I shared about how he was so concerned because of the rapid growth of this malignancy that he advised her to leave his office and go directly to the airport and book the first flight available to a certain clinic in Texas that was the only facility able to treat this form of cancer. He told her that the time she would waste going home to pack a suitcase would be critical considering the aggressive nature of her malady. Outside the doctor’s office, her husband asked if she wanted to go directly to the airport as she had been advised. Her response was that she first wanted to go to the church in accordance with James 5:14-15, “Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up.” When the pastor and elders gathered around her, one of them made the comment that when we get to heaven we will all be totally healed and have perfect bodies. That, of course, was a true report; but it was not a good report for a woman who was asking God to heal her while she was still here on earth! After leaving the church office, her husband asked if she was now ready to head for the cancer clinic in Texas. Her reply was that there was one more place she wanted to visit — our home. They flew out on the next flight, and I arranged for her to have special prayer at our church followed by a three-day stay in our home during which my wife and I did nothing but reinforce the promises on God’s Word concerning healing. Finally when she did make it to the clinic, the doctor refused to admit her because he couldn’t find even a trace of cancer in her body! The report that she chose to meditate on had definitely determined the kind of person she was to be. In this case, it determined that she was to be a living person instead of a dead one!
Turning to another of Paul’s letters, we find some powerful encouragement concerning the struggle we may face in dealing with these thoughts that do not pass the eight-fold filter test yet try to invade our hearts and distort us from becoming the men and women we should be:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; And having in a readiness to revenge all disobedience, when your obedience is fulfilled. (II Corinthians 10:3-6)
Simply put, the cure to keep us from vomiting up the poison of the destructive and negative messages that bombard us each day comes in three easy steps:
- Be cautious of delicious dainties. Whether it is tantalizing gossip or factually documented news reports, don’t swallow it without chewing on it first.
- Put a knife to your throat so you won’t swallow reports. Remember that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword. (Ephesians 6:17, Hebrews 4:12)
- Filter every thought through the eight criteria listed in Philippians 4:8 — not ignoring the truth, just choosing not to meditate on it if it doesn’t also meet other criteria.