Self-image

When I use the term “self-image,” I’m referring to the manner in which we are to think of ourselves as the creatures of God, living in His world, subject to His Word. I’m not thinking of the popular notion of self-esteem. In the book of Proverbs, we find a number of verses that establish the perspective we are to hold as we walk before the LORD. And, as is to be expected, we also find a number of statements telling us what we are not to think about ourselves or how we are not to determine our significance in this world.

The perspective that is commended in the Proverbs reflects the facts that we are creatures and God is the Creator. This perspective is essential, Solomon teaches, to a well-ordered life. It won’t take us long to understand why Solomon held such an opinion; nor will it take us long to realize how easily the perspective of Proverbs is lost or obscured or ignored. Because we are fallen creatures, our tendency is to think more highly of ourselves than we should; our tendency is to have more confidence in ourselves than we should.

Our verse was chosen to illustrate the essence of what the Proverbs teach us about how we deceive ourselves regarding our place in this world and how we are to correct that self-deception.

All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the LORD weighs the motives. (Pro. 16:2)

Here is an example of antithetical parallelism; and in this case, it is particularly significant because this verse presents two diametrically opposed approaches to life—one that is “natural,” we could say to fallen creatures, and then the one that is truthful. In terms of generalities, Solomon sums up the way fallen human beings think of themselves and their abilities to perceive and act rightly. In contrast to that perception, he sets the One who knows our hearts and that is the LORD.

Let’s consider the first phrase of this verse: “all the ways of a man are clean in his own sight…” What does this tell us about how we tend to think about ourselves? What does this tell us about how, without correction, we will view our abilities and actions? This phrase declares that to the uncorrected mind—and this is the way to think of what Solomon means here because he contrasts a man’s ways with what the LORD knows in truth—whatever it conceives is truth. Therefore, what the uncorrected mind, that is, the mind not trained in truth, not subdued to the Word of God, perceives becomes the basis for conduct.

A fallen man examines his world and assumes that his analysis is correct; he assumes that what he concludes about the nature of this world is correct. So, a fallen man further assumes that any actions or decisions based on his observations must be correct—a fallen man, in other words, simply acts in a manner consistent with his fallen nature. He analyzes, concludes, thinks, and acts based on the belief that he is capable of rightly understanding his environment.

This characteristic is directly traceable to the fall of Adam and Eve. Adam’s sin was disobedience to the will of God and at the heart of all disobedience is the belief, however obscured, that I know better than God. Adam, in his actions, declared that he knew better than God, that God’s assessment of his environment was not necessarily the only assessment that might have validity. Consequently, Adam acted on his own, apart from what God commanded. Adam did what he thought was right, not what his Creator had declared was right. And that is what Solomon encapsulates in this first phrase.

It’s a simple truth that we hold the opinions we hold and we take the actions we take because we believe we are correct. Otherwise, we would hold another opinion or act in a different manner. Every person holds opinions they believe are correct or they would believe something else. Every person behaves according to what they believe is right; otherwise, they would behave differently. This is not a difficult concept to grasp. Solomon, as I said, encapsulates the very heart of fallen man’s reasoning process—he assumes that his ways are clean.

Apart from God’s correction, we are left with only ourselves as the measure of all things. If we are not looking to the standard of God, we must look to our own standard—there are no other choices. Now our standard may be a compilation of opinions taken from different sources, but it is still a standard assembled apart from the Word of God. And we go through life applying this standard and viewing the world according to this standard; and we remain in that mode of thinking and behaving unless, at some point, we are regenerated. And even then, we must battle for the rest of our lives to subdue our opinions and our conclusions in light of the Word of God that has become the standard by which we are to measure all things.

There is a lot in this first phrase. It speaks not only of how we behave and think, but also why we behave and think as we do. Remember, that in such verses, when Solomon speaks of “a man” he is referring to a man who operates apart from the wisdom of God.

And that brings us to the second half of this verse: “but the LORD weighs the motives.” As I said, this is an absolute contrast in two perspectives—the perspective of fallen man and the perspective of fallen man’s Creator. That something might be wrong with “the ways of a man” is immediately indicated. Fallen man assumes, as I’ve emphasized, that his assessments are correct and he acts on them. But the LORD assesses the man himself and in that assessment, Solomon implies, fallen man is found wanting.

The word translated “weighs” (takan) conveys the idea of subjecting something to examination by which its true nature or worth is revealed. This implies that what a man thinks or what conclusions he holds are not necessarily correct. The LORD, as only He can do, examines that which is behind a man’s thoughts or actions—and that is the state of his heart. This is made clear when you consider the word translated “motives.” It is a word (ruwach) that refers to the mind or the heart; it refers to one’s disposition.

Therefore, while a fallen man may believe he sees correctly and is rightly interpreting his environment so that he has great confidence in himself and his decisions, the LORD is able to see the condition of his heart; and that is something that the man himself cannot do. As a result, if a man is to know the truth about himself and his environment, so that he can think rightly and behave rightly, he must look outside himself for guidance. With that guidance, that revelation that God supplies, a man can then begin to think and act in a truly proper manner.

In conclusion, then, as far as this verse is concerned, we must say that we are taught to be distrustful of the uncorrected perspective we all hold—uncorrected, that is, by the Word of God. It is His Word that reveals to us the truth about the world in which we live, and the truth about our relationship with Him and others. We are not to think of ourselves as understanding anything apart from the context of God’s revelation; we are to understand that if we seek to interpret our environment or discover our duties apart from the Word of our Creator, we are bound to stumble. Our fallen natures will lead us astray. There is no question about that fact.

Solomon teaches, therefore, that self-image begins with the admission that we cannot trust our perceptions; we must subject them to the Word of God. We are not independent creatures, we are dependent creatures. We are not trustworthy sources of interpretation, we are, on the contrary, most untrustworthy. We are creatures that must rely on our Creator for understanding.

Additional Verses

The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. (16:1)

This verse says much the same thing. I include it here separately because it speaks even more directly to the nature of our dependence on the LORD. Solomon acknowledges that we make plans in our heart, which has already been emphasized. But then, instead of saying that those plans are subject to the LORD’s oversight, which we know is true from our study already, he says something more significant: “but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD.”

This speaks to the LORD’s sovereign orchestration of our lives. We make our plans, but ultimately God can overrule the words we speak—or, to better explain what Solomon means here—the expression we give to those plans. We are laboring under a false notion if we think that whatever we determine in our hearts will inevitably come to pass.

For the ways of a man are before the eyes of the LORD, and He watches all his paths. (5:21)

In terms of what we think about ourselves and this world in which we live, one false assumption fallen man makes is that he is accountable only when and how he chooses to be accountable. In human relationships, we make ourselves accountable and, when it no longer pleases us, we throw of that accountability (marriages, jobs, church participation, daily observance of civil law, etc.). Normally, we don’t live apart from several human relationships in which accountability is a factor. And we know that the Bible teaches that accountability is a necessary and beneficial element because we are sinners and sinners need to be held accountable at every level.

But suppose a man manages to extricate himself from every significant form of accountability. Is he then truly without accountability? Solomon says “no.” A man’s ways—his life, his actions, that which constitutes his particular existence—are “before the eyes of the LORD.” No person is ever free of scrutiny or accountability because, after all other restraints or restrictions are removed, a man still lives out his entire life before the eyes of the LORD. There is no changing this and there is no escaping this truth. We are creatures and we exist in the presence of our Creator. He knows all and sees all—whether it be concerning some far off place in the universe or the thought that just this moment passed through our minds. We are not, as I said before, independent creatures, we are dependent creatures.

Practical Responses

I’ll close with a couple of thoughts regarding how this study should affect us.

Once again, you’ll notice, that the Proverbs have spoken to us about our fallen condition. As with the last topic of self-control, we also have a particular tendency when it comes to self-image or how we think about ourselves and our place in this world. Our tendency is to overestimate our abilities and under estimate our need for the instruction of the Word. The wise person, therefore, will “force-feed” his spirit with the Word of God knowing that while the flesh may resist, this is an essential exercise.

We must always be measuring our opinions against the Word. I won’t even attempt to speculate how much trouble would be avoided in our lives if we simply developed a habit of submitting our views to the Word and did so by humbly offering our views to others while inviting response based on their understanding of the Scriptures. As it is, though, we hold tenaciously to our opinions and are offended when they are challenged even in the most innocent and well-intentioned manner. This is not the way of wisdom, it is the way of ignorance. As much as we would like to believe it, and as tempted as we are to act on the idea, we are not the measure of all things and we must discipline ourselves to become people who receive instruction—and we must do this because we recognize that, as fallen creatures, we need it.

 

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