“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Philippians 4:8
Our minds and our thoughts determine how we live.
The old saying goes “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future,” but I would argue that your mind and your affections and your dreams set the stage for everything. That includes who your friends are going to be.
So it’s more accurate to say, “Show me your deepest desires, and I will show you your future.”
When Paul gives the charge to the Philippians to think about things that are true and just and pure, he’s trying to kickstart a reorientation of their affections. Our desires don’t change overnight, and as Christians we know that our default desires are sinful and faulty. We can’t just trust our brains to figure this out.
The Holy Spirit must move in us to stir our hearts toward new priorities and hopes and dreams. This is where that mysterious blend of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility comes together, and we play an active role in continuously steering our thoughts the right way.
But what falls under these categories of honorable and lovely and true and worthy of praise? Why doesn’t Paul give us more concrete examples?
Well, he does actually, earlier in his letter to the Philippians. Here are some examples from Paul and a few other things that I pray are helpful as we daily try to sort through our minds and direct our thoughts according to God’s will:
Think about serving others
Earlier in the letter, Paul writes in verse 2:3, “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.”
He also holds up Jesus as an example of giving of Himself to serve others. Of course Jesus would get this right, and this sounds like a simple and normal thing for a Christian to do. But it’s so, so difficult.
Pride is at the root of much (all?) of our sin. We are naturally selfish, and even many times when we’re helping others we are doing so because we expect to get something in return.
To do this successfully, we truly have to regard others as more important than ourselves. My wife’s needs should be more pressing than mine. The pain my neighbor is going through should be more important than my stress or disappointments. The physical needs of people around me are more important than my desire to buy another pair of shoes or watch the latest movie in the theater.
There is certainly space for us to rest and enjoy the blessings God has given us. But if we do those things without ever giving a thought to how our neighbors are doing, or we indulge our desires while dismissing the needs of our family, friends, co-workers, etc., then we’re missing the point entirely.
“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interest of others.” – verse 2:4.
Find joy and give thanks
Multiple times in Philippians, Paul encourages the readers to rejoice. He points to himself as an example of finding joy in following Christ, even when things aren’t going his way.
In verse 2:17 he writes, “But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.”
He then urges them to also rejoice in that context. Imagine that, finding joy in being poured out as a sacrifice.
But that’s also what the writer of Hebrews tells us was part of Christ’s experience in going to the cross. Hebrews 12:2 states, “…Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
A key to joy, both for Paul and for us, and is ability to be content and grateful for where God has put us, what He has given to us and all else that he’s done for us. If we don’t realize the extent of His love or we begrudge Him for what we don’t have (rather than giving thanks for what we do have), then it’s impossible for us to experience joy in the way that Paul describes.
So thanksgiving and contentment go hand-in-hand with experiencing joy. We should be able to rejoice in what appear to be terrible circumstances because of the knowledge of God’s love for us and His ultimate, eternal rescue for us.
If Jesus could see past the cross to joy, if Paul could rejoice in the midst of prison and persecution, then we can see joy and give thanks in the midst of our struggles.
A great way to view thanksgiving in this context comes from Paul Miller’s book “The Praying Life.” In it, he writes:
“Thankfulness isn’t a matter of forcing yourself to see the happy side of life. That would be like returning to naive optimism. Thanking God restores the natural order of our dependence on God. It enables us to see life as it really is.”
It’s that sort of perspective that allows us to do as what verse 4:4 commands, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!”
Pray, pray and pray some more
Paul’s exhortation in verse 4:6 sums up this thought, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
In everything. There is no situation, no thought, no challenge, no opportunity, no disappointment, no celebration, no worry, no fear and no doubt that we are not called to bring to God in prayer. And how are we to bring it? With thanksgiving, recognizing again who He is and what He has done for us.
It’s a daunting call for us to try to live up to. But it’s not a one-off request. Paul goes to that well in 1 Thessalonians, encouraging believers to “pray without ceasing.” Jesus constantly went to the Father in prayer and spelled out a model prayer for His disciples that could be used in any setting.
Our culture today criticizes offering “thoughts and prayers” in the midst of tragedy (and if offered without any actions, that criticism can be justified). But for the Christian, we are commanded to pray in all circumstances. It’s a natural, justified and frankly required response that we should have, particularly during tragedy or tribulation.
We don’t know how or when God will answer specific prayers, but He will answer them. The immediate result of the prayer for us, though, is peace that surpasses understanding. A peace that will “guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
This same peace is the motivation for responding to Paul’s broader command of verse 4:8 to dwell on what is excellent and worthy of praise. Why should we make the effort to direct our thoughts toward these things, or orient our life this way? Paul gives us the answer in verse 4:9 …
“The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”