by Chadwick Lewis
Recently, I wrote an essay (“How Far Is Too Far”) that talked about discerning what is and is not edifying entertainment for a Christian to consume. In that essay, I cited Philippians 4:8 to begin the conversation, explaining how many use that passage as a rubric to help determine how edifying a work of art is. While I did argue for this being a valid application of the passage, I also observed that it does not get at the heart of the passage. I say this because with this being the common usage of the passage, I fear we have taken a passage in Scripture that was written as a positive statement and turned it into a negative statement. Even worse, because of the way we have done this, I fear we might to some degree be missing Paul’s actual point.
So, what do I mean by saying that we are turning a positive statement into a negative one? Well I’m glad you asked. By this statement, I simply mean to say that we have taken a statement in Scripture that is telling us what we can do and turning it into a statement about what we cannot do. Look at the wording of the passage again: “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.” While this command does imply that we should not think about that which is opposite to the characteristics listed here, Paul gave this command in this way for a reason.
We see the reason for this throughout the rest of Paul’s epistles. If you read through them carefully, you will notice that he does not make very many “do not” statements. Instead he prefers to use “do this” statements. (And in a lot of cases where he does use a “do not” statement it is paired with a “do this” statement so that it becomes a hybrid “do not do this, but do this instead” statement) There is actually a theological reason for this. Paul has a conception of the Law as being something which binds the individual while the Gospel sets the believer free. Look at what he writes to the Galatians:
“Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Galatians 3:23-4:7, ESV)
This type of language of slavery and freedom is a definite motif throughout Paul’s writing, which is something that warrants further study outside of the purview of this essay. For now, it is important to note that in Paul’s mind, being in Christ equals freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Therefore, Paul sees the commands of Christ as something that we are given the freedom to do. Now that we have been given the Spirit, we now get to do these things, which is why these commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3). These commands, therefore, should be seen first and foremost as a source of joy rather than as restrictive bindings.
So, what does this have to do with Philippians 4:8? Well, by using this passage primarily as a rubric for what movies to not watch, books to not read, or music to not listen to, we have turned this command into a restrictive binding before it can be anything else. Again, there are definitely things in this world that we could meditate upon that do not fall under the categories described by Paul. As such, the necessary implication is that we should avoid meditating on such things. However, those things are not the focus of Paul’s point. Paul’s point is not “avoid thinking about x, y, and z.” Rather, Paul’s point is, “Look, see these wondrous things? See how beautiful they are? Are they not very pleasant? Let us enjoy them!” The immediate context of Paul’s command bears this out. Let’s look at the passage in context.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:4-9)
I do not believe it is by accident that the list of things we are to think upon is bookended by mentions of the peace of God. Nor can it be a coincidence that the first reference to the peace of God speaks of that peace guarding our hearts and minds. This suggests that the mind that meditates on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise is a mind that is filled with the peace that surpasses all understanding. Put simply, these are thoughts of one who is at peace with God.
The verses leading up to the first reference to the peace of God certainly bear this out. We are told that this peace is granted to those who rejoice in the Lord and look to Him in faith. This is a peace that can be gained by not being anxious about anything, and instead casting your cares before the Lord. It seems so obvious, but a stress-free mind is a peaceful mind. But more than that, it seems that the anxious mind is here being placed in contrast with the mind that meditates on all of the wonderful things Paul talks about. By discussing these two types of mindsets in such close proximity to each other, Paul indicates they are mutually exclusive from each other.
There is a complete image of what the Christian mind looks like being presented here. The picture Paul is painting for us is of a mind that is unfettered from the cares of this world. It is a mind whose greatest delight is to look to God in faith. It is a mind whose peaceful thoughts are made possible through the blood of the Lamb who set it free from the law of sin and death. And He who began a good work sees it to completion (Philippians 1:6) because it is He who guards the heart and mind so that the believer remains free to think upon these things.
Thus it becomes clear that if the Christian is to master his mind, he must first take all of his anxieties and everything in his mind that distracts from Christ and unburden himself to God through prayer and supplication. This is a continual process since our daily lives will constantly be presenting us with all manner of causes for anxiousness and all manner of distractions. So the Christian who is seeking mastery over his mind will be in prayer regularly. When struggles arise, take it to the Lord in prayer. It does not matter what your struggles are related to. Whether they be financial problems, interpersonal conflict, health issues, battles with temptation, or any other thing that causes physical, emotional, psychological, or spiritual strain, God wants to hear about it. Ask Him to grant you peace and wisdom that you might see clearly to know what He calls you to do.
Next, keep your focus on Christ. This does not mean you must constantly be thinking about Christ and only Christ, but it does mean that you are to have the mind of Christ. Look for things in your life that remind you of Christ. All of the traits that Paul lists off find their source in the character of Christ. Christ is true, Christ is honorable, Christ is just, Christ is pure, Christ is lovely, Christ is commendable, Christ is excellent, Christ is worthy of praise. Every single one of these is an attribute which He bears perfectly. Therefore it follows that thinking about these traits would entail thinking about things that emulate these Christ-like qualities in some fashion. These things can include a friend who regularly shows you kindness, your marriage, a story about a noble hero, a love song, or even a rock.
This obviously requires a reshaping of the way we see the world around us. It requires us to see things as Christ sees them. It requires us to look for examples of Christ in even the most trivial of things. It requires us to look for displays of His glory, power, and authority. You cannot continue to be a passive observer of things as you once were, but instead actively look and see things as they truly are. And if you’re looking for Christ, you should be spending time where He is most clearly made known: in the Scriptures and in the Church. You must be reading the Scriptures often. You must be attending Church and partaking of the Sacraments regularly. No where else are these things we are to be meditating on more clearly on display than in these two places. So spend much time there and meditate on the holy mysteries found there.
And finally, a Christian who has mastery over his mind is one who rejoices. He takes delight in the true, the honorable, the just, etc. He is governed by a thankful heart because he finds joy in the graces which God has given His people. And he enjoys meditating on the things Paul describes far more than on things that do not fit those categories. This is because the characteristics Paul tells us to think upon are all rooted in the character of God Himself. If we are finding our rest in Him, there is nothing else we can possibly take comfort in meditating on more than things which reflect these characteristics.
So is your mind burdened or heavy-laden? Come to Christ and enter into the joy and peace He brings. Train yourself to not fixate on worldly or wicked things, instead approaching such things with wisdom to instantly identify their corruption. And if for whatever reason you find your mind becoming consumed with those things, take that as a cue that it is time to pray. Clear your mind through prayer and meditate on the good things which God sets before us day after day. Practice doing the things of God, and He will bless you, keep you, make His face shine upon you, be gracious to you, and grant you peace.