by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words
When I was part of Maranatha Campus Ministries back in the 1980s, “Lean not on your own understanding” was a cliche they were particularly fond of. I remember when they were teaching us that Genesis 1:28, where God told the first male and female to “have dominion. . . over every living thing that moves on the earth,” was a divine mandate meaning that today Christians are to “have dominion” in society and government, to “take over” for Jesus and make Christian principles and morality the “law of the land.” I remember shaking my head in puzzlement. That passage doesn’t say anything about human beings ruling over other human beings. According to that passage, there weren’t any other human beings back then to have dominion over! I thought. But when I tried to express some of this to others in the group, their response was, “Lean not on your own understanding.” We were to believe what the Bible said (by which they actually meant what the leaders interpreted the Bible as saying) without question. We were to think as we were told to think. To do otherwise was not “trusting in the Lord.” It was “leaning on our own understanding.”
Another way this cliche is sometimes used is to elevate ideology over practicality; to keep people clinging to a particular “conviction” about how the Christian life is best lived, even if life itself is increasingly showing that the ideological system just doesn’t work. Vyckie Garrison, a former Quiverfull movement member, wrote about this a while back in an open letter where she commiserated with a fellow member who had tragically lost a child during a home birth:
Although we both knew full well that a big part of what makes for better outcomes in natural childbirth is when fully-informed pregnant moms are in control ~ they are listening to their bodies and trusting their instincts ~ as Christian quiverfull women, we also learned to distrust our feelings and we daily practiced dying our own selves, surrendering control, leaving the decision-making to those in rightful authority. . . Looking back, I can clearly see now how verses such as “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart, lean not on your own understanding”. . . set us up as women to doubt our own perceptions ~ to dismiss our fears as irrational or as the devil sowing seeds of distrust. Our deeply beloved belief system denied us an important safety net ~ that of our own feelings. When our bodies and our minds screamed out, “Something is wrong!” our faith calmed us down. . . .
Both of these meanings of “lean not on your own understanding” are spiritually abusive, cliched versions of scripture that divorce the meaning from its context, both biblical and historical. I don’t think either of these things is what “lean not on your own understanding” is really about.
The words actually come from Proverbs 3:5-6:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
This verse is part of a long set of instructions and counsel given by a father and/or mother to a son (see Proverbs 1:8). Verses 7 and 8 of Proverbs 3 together form a poetic parallel– a form of Hebrew writing in which two sentences say the same thing in slightly different ways:
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear [revere] the Lord and shun evil.
This will bring health to your body
and nourishment to your bones.
“Do not be wise in your own eyes,” then, is basically a restatement of “Lean not on your own understanding.” The word “understanding” there is the Hebrew biynah, which refers to the grasp of knowledge. To put it in today’s vernacular, what is being said is, “Don’t think you have all the answers.”
The problem is this. When “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” comes to actually mean “Trust in what you think the Bible is saying without considering any other interpretation,” or “Trust in the doctrines taught by the leaders of your particular movement without question” — this is the exact opposite of the Proverb’s intention. If we really stop believing we have all the answers, this should make us more willing to question what we think or have been taught to believe. It should make us more open to the evidence and realities around us. It should increase our sensitivity to such things as gut feelings, which are a different thing than “understanding” and which may very well come from God.
Also, the Proverb says “with all your heart.” What we mean by “heart” and what it meant in Bible times are two different things. We think “heart” is only about feelings and instincts; we use the word “mind” when we mean our thoughts and reasoning processes. ”Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” thus is easily misinterpreted as advice to focus on our feelings towards God and to leave our reasoning out of it. But the word translated “heart” is the Hebrew word leb, which refers to the whole inmost self: feelings, thoughts, conscience, memories, inclinations, decisions. If our whole innermost selves are relying on God rather than on our own understanding– whether it’s our own grasp of knowledge or that of a church leader or an ideological group– then we can listen to new input and our own reactions, learn facts and knowledge we may not have been aware of, and lean on the Holy Spirit to help us sift through it all.
I believe Paul was expressing the essential meaning of Proverbs 3:5-6 when he said, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.” (1 Corinthians 8:1-2.) This part of Paul’s letter is about how “knowledge” about food sacrificed to idols can be destructive to others– as any form of knowledge can when it becomes elevated into an ideology that trumps actual human needs.
“Lean not on your own understanding” was never meant to support any such ideology. It was never meant to support trusting in our own grasp of knowledge– even our knowledge of the Bible– over trusting in the Lord Himself.
Our faith isn’t supposed to be in formulas, or in how if we push the right buttons according to our ideologies, everything will be rosy. It’s when we treat faith like that that we’re actually leaning on our own understanding. Not when we’re healthily questioning, listening and learning.
So let’s stop acting like we have all the answers. That way we can grow in our understanding rather than leaning on it.
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NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce