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How To Sit Quietly
In A Room Alone
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As a young man, I spent much time studying the biblical book of Proverbs. While not a perfect document, Proverbs offers us a great deal of wisdom and practical advice for successful living.
Eventually, held in thrall by Proverbs as I was, about 40 years ago now, I would self-publish a compilation of 21 translations of this ancient work.
Though I no longer study Proverbs as in those old days, I look back fondly at that time. This icon of wisdom literature became my first major research project and, in many respects, would shape and give direction to subsequent enquiries of my life.
I still recall, what I consider to be, a central organizing principle of Proverbs, found in chapter 4, verse 23. Here it is in several different translations:
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. (New International Version)
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (New King James Version)
Guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life. (Christian Standard Bible)
Be careful how you think; your life is shaped by your thoughts. (Good News Translation)
With all watchfulness keep thy heart, because life issueth out from it. (Douay-Rheims Bible)
Carefully guard your thoughts because they are the source of true life. (Contemporary English Version)
Notice the existential dichotomy:
(1) you are to stand guard over, are to carefully monitor,
(2) your own thoughts, the emotion-led “voice in the head.”
But wait. Are there two of you? Who is this superintending “you” as opposed to discursive “thought”?
Most people think that the little voice in the head is “the real me.” But, if such is the case, how could the thoughts be monitored by a "you"?
Leaving this nettlesome question aside for the moment, let’s consider the implied warning in the second half of the proverb: "for everything you do flows from it," or "for your life is shaped by your thoughts," or "for out of it spring the issues of life."
sawing off the branch you're sitting on
Bible commentators note that Jesus in the New Testament quoted Proverbs more than any other book of what we call the Old Testament. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the principle of “guard your thinking as the wellspring of life” should occupy a central theme in Jesus’s teaching.
What has become known as Jesus’ “unpardonable sin” discourse – a very unfortunate translation and misleading phrase – features a seminal precept of Proverbs. You can read about it in this article, but, essentially, Jesus’ point was, if we pervert ourselves, that is, the fundamental “spiritual machinery” via which we were meant to recognize the truth, how do we recover from that? It’s “sawing off the branch that you’re sitting on,” as some modern translations put it.
This is the great danger. There’s no way out of that box. Not by human agency. And this perilous predicament becomes the unspoken focus of this book.