Philippians is a love letter to a young church for which the Apostle Paul has a great fondness. It is written while he is under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a sentence that may condemn him to death.
One of his counsels to believers is — to think! Not stream of consciousness thinking but thought in an elevated and disciplined way. Here’s how he puts it:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things . . . And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8,9).
Ponder with me these targets of wholesome thought.
Whatever Is True. There is mathematical truth (two plus two equals four, everywhere and always). And there is historical and scientific truth. But the truth Paul has in mind is spiritual or moral truth. Elsewhere he writes of truth “as it is found in Jesus.” (Ephesians 4:21). Jesus himself said, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). And throughout the Gospels countless times he introduces his teachings with, “I tell you the truth.”
We Christians are to hold truth in high esteem. Therefore, we turn to the Gospels often and search for its words of truth in a spiritual sense as grounds for our meditation. As a consequence we are lovers and practitioners of truth.
Whatever Is Noble. Weymouth translates the word as “whatever wins respect.” We might say, whatever is honorable, or whatever we are inspired to look up to. There is so much in our world that is crass and vulgar. Paul calls us to avoid reflecting on that which is cheap by consciously fixing our thoughts on that which is noble.
Whatever is Just. There is a connection in the original language between the words “just,” “right” and “righteous.” Paul’s counsel is, think on whatever assures of fair play or meets just standards. When moral concerns are so readily set aside by deception and favoritism in our times Christians are called to reflect on what is just in order to practice being just.
The psalmist wrote in the Shepherd’s Psalm, “He guides me in paths of righteousness”(Psalm 23:3). That imagery of a righteous or straight path is repeated again and again in the Old Testament, suggesting the path the Good Shepherd leads us on is always free of hidden obstacles that would trip us up (Jeremiah 31:9).
Whatever is Pure. The prophets of the Old Testament, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, constantly preach that God is not pleased with the mere external ceremonies of religion, however elaborate and well performed; he wants the hearts of his people to be pure and undivided toward him.
And that of course requires a Spirit-disciplined thought life, and active avoidance of whatever would sully a pure heart — such as internet pornography, movies that promote lust and literature that excites lewd thoughts. Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8).
Whatever is Lovely. Weymouth translates this word, “loveable.” The NRSV uses the word, “pleasing.”
A vase can be lovely. So can a flower garden, a bride – or the life of a saintly person of our acquaintance. We are to align our minds to see such lovely things as we move through each day.
Whatever is Admirable. This is an extremely rare word, used only once by the apostle according to The Expositor’s Greek New Testament. It might call us to look for what is of value in any situation and to speak in a kindly spirit. It is not a call to forgo judgment when moral integrity is under siege but to affirm goodness insofar as that is possible.
If anything is Excellent or Praiseworthy, Think on These Things. The Contemporary English Version gives this rendition: “Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.” It strikes me that the Apostle, having finished his list, is doubling back to be sure the list will have a permanent place with his readers as they think Christianly about all of life.
This brief scripture gives us a pattern for nurturing a healthy Christian mind across a lifetime. And the conclusion of this passage assures us that as we do this, “God who gives peace will be with us” (Philippians 4:9).
Photo credit: ND Strupler (via flickr.com)