The Psychology of the Sages

In co-teaching an adult Sunday School class in Proverbs for the past year, I’ve come to realize that the Hebrew sages had a deep and nuanced psychology.  I realize that over the last several decades, “psychology” has become a buzzword in conservative Christian circles and a ten-letter curse word throughout the biblical counseling movement.  The rise of organized mental health alternatives and their perceived sovereignty over the realm of mental and emotional “problems” has demanded a robust response from those who recognize that God speaking through His Word can diagnose and treat the human condition in far deeper ways than the latest pill, process, or technique (further, the very terminology of diagnosis, treatment, and condition only covers one scriptural metaphor for sin; sin can be described in terms of sickness, yes [Jer 17:9; Matt 9:10-13], but it is more often identified in terms of rebellion and active wrongdoing [Rom 3:10-18; 1 John 3:4]).  I’m grateful that the biblical response to secular psychology has been given and continues to be advanced.  Though there are mental issues that call for appropriate medical investigation, the clarion call resounding from the church should be that Scripture is indeed sufficient.

However, in our necessary response to secular psychology, the formation of a biblical psychology has been strangely lacking.  (By “psychology” I now mean not a methodology for approaching people’s problems but the study of the inner workings of the human heart including issues of motivations, emotions, personalities, and external influences toward behavior, among other things.)  According to Merriam-Webster, psychology is simply “the science of mind and behavior,” sometimes focusing on “the mental or behavioral characteristics of an individual or group,” and sometimes centering on “mind and behavior in relation to a particular field of knowledge or activity.”  Psychology in a broad sense is simply the study of mind and motivation, of heart and behavior.

Unfortunately, those of us who rightly emphasize the priority of Scripture haven’t often lowered our theological buckets into this well, at least not very deeply.  In a tremendous class on the life and theology of Jonathan Edwards, professor John Hannah pointed out that most seminarians have been well-trained in hermeneutics and homiletics, but are woefully untrained in understanding people — the inner workings of motivations, the nature and complexity of relationships, the variety of personalities and their impact on others.  This can significantly hinder if not destroy effective pastoral ministry.

I’ve never formally studied secular psychology, so I am sensitive to the strong reactions of those who gorged themselves at that table and now grow nauseous at any mention of the word and its connotations.  But after seven years of intensely personal and deeply relational residential ministry, I believe more and more that we need a sound biblical psychology.  By this I mean that we need a deep and nuanced knowledge of the human soul — grounded in exegesis, shaped by theology, molded through experience, proven in relationships, contextualized to culture, and seasoned with wisdom.

The ancient Hebrew sages had just this type of psychology.  They demonstrate a penetrating insight into the human soul, its glorious design, and its wretched condition.  They perceive the ways in which the fabric of society is both woven together or torn apart, and the difficulty of patching it back together when shredded by the foolish.  They comprehend the depth of emotions, the recoiling nature of personal hurts, and the inner workings of community.  Through keen observation and diverse experiences and the non-negotiable requirement of simply living life thoughtfully for a lifetime, they can virtually reproduce the blueprint of human design.  They understand human beings.

Take Proverbs 14 as an example.  Five verses in this chapter alone demonstrate Solomon’s deep knowledge of humanity and the human condition.  He speaks of the unplumbed depth of human emotions, the powerful human potential for self-deception, the paradoxes of laughter that masks grief and joy that ends in sorrow, the power and prevalence of partiality in relationships, and the physiological effects of contentment and envy.  Consider:

The heart knows its own bitterness,
And no stranger shares its joy.
— 14:10

Common experiences and emotions are central to life, but the deepest personal woes and the highest personal joys aren’t transferable in any ultimate sense.  “One’s emotional-intellectual-religious-moral motions are too complex, too inward, and too individualistic to be experienced by others or even to represent them adequately to others” (Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 1-15, 590).  This has a lot of wise and healthy implications along with a number of presumptuous and selfish applications which I may expound on in a later post, but suffice it to say that this is a profoundly observant proverb about the deeply individual nature of our affections.

There is a way that seems right to a man,
but its end is the way to death.
— 14:12

Things are not always as they seem, Solomon tells us.  Mankind has a penchant for self-deception, a tendency to judge the rightness and security of a path by mere appearances.  This is biblical psychology at its best — exposing the plausible lies that we so often believe, and motivating us to look a bit deeper and more skeptically into our own choices.  In fact, the very way in which the proverb is written is psychologically aware.  Solomon leaves us hanging, wondering which self-destructive “ways” he might be talking about (if we’re willing to see ourselves in the verse and not just others).  He motivates us through mystery, leaving us wondering what we might be missing, making us stop in our tracks, suggesting that we take a closer look at humanity’s standard priorities and habits lest we find ourselves plunging, startled, over the precipice of consequence.  This proverb invites self-suspicion as it uncovers the self-deceptive power of the human heart.

Even in laughter the heart may ache,
and the end of joy may be grief.
— 14:13

Again, things are not always as they seem.  Human emotions are a labyrinth.  They are complex and even paradoxical.  Laughter is not always full of happiness, and joy is not always fulfilling in the end.  A smile doesn’t tell the whole story.  The riotous laughter of a weekend party can mask the pain of a dozen trials.  And you can enter and exit an enjoyable evening of fellowship and walk away into the cool night air still lonely, afraid, and churning (and without anyone knowing).  An aching heart can be amused, and joy in the morning can be grief by noon.

The poor is disliked even by his neighbor,
but the rich has many friends.
— 14:20

Here Solomon exposes the motivations for so many of our relationships.  He describes how society works, weaving together in a few words the interplay of finances, friendships, social standing, motivations, and partiality.  Everyone wants to be friends with the popular and the successful, but even those who are close to the poor man dislike him.  This is just the way life works, but this construct of relationships is built into every culture with the building blocks of the human heart and its motivations.

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh,
but envy makes the bones rot.
— 14:30

A heart on diplomatic terms with its circumstances will cause the body to flourish, but the soul at war with its surroundings and ever lusting after new territories will make the flesh rot.  It is foolish to presume that the internal movements of the heart have no effect on the body.  This is not to say that every malady of the flesh finds an immediate and identifiable connection with the state of our souls.  It is only to say that spiritual can affect physical.  There is a real and consequential connection, observable even 3,000 years ago.  This proverb is an explicit acknowledgement of the psychosomatic, wrapped in an implicit exhortation to tranquilize our hearts with contentment instead of agonizing ourselves with envy.

Like most arenas of human knowledge, psychology (the study of heart, mind, and behavior) is terribly misleading when centered around man and his reasonings, but indispensably helpful when oriented toward God.  This is not to say that our main goal is to step in and redeem secular psychology; rather, we can build a wise, reasonable, modest, biblical psychology from the ground up.  And we are not starting from scratch, because many have walked the catacombs of the human heart and plumbed the depths as far as they could go in their finiteness, not least the wisest and God-fearing among the ancients.

I am only twenty-eight years old, and already I have seen in powerful ways the importance of understanding people and motivations and personalities and emotions and relationships and behavioral influences.  And with fear and trembling I look forward to the messy and magnificent work of ministering the restoration of the gospel in the midst of it all.  If we refuse to know people — to know them deeply and well — then we resign ourselves to a life of misperceptions, misdiagnoses, and misapplications.  We resign ourselves to two costly errors: on the one hand, doling out band-aids and placebos to those who need the surgical wounds of a friend; on the other hand, leaving little but the tank-tread of truth on the souls of those we claim to love.

So beware of the manifold dangers of secular psychology.  Yet also beware of neglecting the rich and implication-laden psychology of the sages.  Long ago God created a glorious and complex being, and called him “man.”  We will be wise, happy, and effective if we will seek to understand and know him.

6 thoughts on “The Psychology of the Sages

  1. Thanks for your thoughts Gunner and for teaching us in Proverbs! We are rejoicing in the wisdom of God expressed in the details of everyday situations, relationships, ethics… My love for Proverbs has not only grown but been born as my view of it as a book of pithy inspired truisms has been dismantled to see the strong beautiful edifice of God-breathed words that it is. It truly is a book that goes beneath the surface into the heart (the inner man) to show who and why a person who fears the Lord is who he is, and why the alternative is so ugly to God, whose wisdom stands on the street proclaiming herself to al who will hear and see her as beautiful.

    I appreciated your comments too about the Bible presenting a complex authoritative psychology. Truly, as we survey the discipline of psychology, its plurality becomes obvious (not ‘psychology’ but ‘psychologies’) and God’s wisdom through His word enters into that discipline as gold in the midst foolish metals, revealing itself as the only trustworthy, accurate, and worthwhile psychology.

    Your caution is also helpful. Whereas 40 years ago, when the Church began to return to a biblically sourced psychology (using the given definition), the impact upon psychology may have been a blurred tangled mess, warranting a war on psychology. But it appears that now our perspective is refined, and our understanding of what we are dealing with is as well. The problem may be that we are still reading 40 year old books and assuming that they were written yesterday, tearing down their authors for malicious speech and being attacking. It may be helpful to recognize that all of this is occurring in grander campaign to refine sola scriptura to establish that it addresses not only Scripture’s authority, but also its design (a sufficient design) to speak to the matters of our lives, relationships, worship, etc. But perhaps we are attacking Luther for infant baptism when the Word of God is what is on the table.

    We are truly indebted to those who have helped us understand these things and to continue to keep the Bible as the standard for defining biblical counseling. CCEF has also personally helped me, but there have been many others…who also, if given the opportunity to write, may have similar wide-scale influence.

    Thanks again for your thoughts!

  2. Peter: Thanks for highlighting the Puritan pastors, especially Edwards and Owen. They give us a great example to follow in knowing the human heart. They are even more helpful in our day and age because they give us deep insights into human nature that pre-date the current secular psychology movement. I also have benefited from CCEF.

    I think that more work can be done in the biblical psychology of relationships in order to help people to interact humbly and patiently with their fellow man, whether in marriage, with children, at work, in the church, or overseas. Again, CCEF seems to be leading the way in this, especially from a family/marriage standpoint, but more widespread teaching would be helpful.

    For example, we’ve all heard over and over again that the main reason missionaries leave the field is strained relationships, often with other missionaries. Obviously there are a lot of factors involved in each situation, but like any relationship, many of the most subtle yet powerful factors is the desires of each individual heart and how those desires interweave with and bump into someone else’s desires. Perhaps better preparation and more penetrating teaching on issues of the heart and relationships could help preempt some of these situations. This is just one example. Ken Sande’s teaching on peacemaking comes to mind as a great example of practical biblical instruction that has psychological depth.

    Great to hear from you again, and I hope you’re doing well!

  3. Gunner, thanks for the post. I couldn’t agree with you more. I especially appreciated the way you drew your comments from Scripture. One of the things that has helped me in the past few years in getting to know “Man” (and myself) is looking back to those men, who, like Edwards, carefully studied their own hearts and then shared what they had learned. John Owen has a volume on this in his Volume VI on Sin and Temptation. It is a tough read, but it is very, very perceptive. I think there are several good modernizations. For more modern stuff, I don’t think anyone is doing a better job than the guys at CCEF out of Westminster (especially helpful are David Powlison, Ed Welch, and Tedd Trip), in using God’s word to show how our hearts affect the way we think, speak, live, and worship. Blessings!

  4. You’re right – so many Christians are well versed in doctrine and theology, but woefully underprepared when it comes to understanding how people actually live and think. Solomon and the others knew, though. They had a profound understanding of the human mind and heart.

    We should learn from their example.

    Thanks for reminding us of that.

    And thanks for making the distinction between the two “modes” of psychology.

  5. An interpersonal difficulty has left me thinking through many of these same things. Thank you for a timely article requiring a more honest evaluation of my own heart examined by the Lord’s word first.

  6. Hi Gunner, Great stuff! I always wondered if Solomon was thinking about how his plan for marrying all those wives from different countries worked out when he wrote this one.

    There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death. — 14:12

    I like how you put it, “Solomon left us hanging”.



Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s