As Paul nears the end of his epistle to the Philippian church, what we might call a meditation on the habits of a healthy mind in troubled times, he turns from character qualities to the content of thought. We might say that he pivots from how to think to what to think.
He starts by telling a couple of church members to stop quarreling (Php 4.2). That sounds fairly mundane, but I think it’s something of a key to the rest of the chapter. These are people who have served God in the past, and apparently together. Now they have a disagreement about something. He tells them to cut it out.
And that means that they don’t have to be fighting; they are not driven to their stances by circumstances. They can decide what to think, and they can decide to get along.
You see, we’re not obligated to think about, let alone agree with, any old thought that pops into our heads. We can direct our minds. We can take charge of our thoughts.
These days we’ve had several decades of passivity, watching a screen and letting our minds be pulled here and there as the content creator wished. (Marshall McLuhan warned us about that way back in 1964—when this now-old guy was much too young to understand what he was talking about.) Mental passivity is an unbiblical way of living; as viceregents and stewards of this planet, we ought to be directing our thoughts, choosing how we think, not just reacting—usually merely emotionally—to our circumstances.
Paul spends the rest of the epistle specifying what we should be thinking about.
We ought to rejoice (Php 4.4)
That means that we ought to be focusing, in the midst of troubled times, on what is worth rejoicing over. We ought to be prioritizing our circumstances so that those that bring joy—legitimately—are valued more than those that frustrate us, cause us fear, or drive us to despair.
I have a lot to be thankful for. So do you. Dwell on those things, and revel in the joy they bring.
We ought to be at peace (Php 4.6-7)
… rather than full of anxiety, that is, about the challenges that face us. Why? Because there is a God in heaven, who hears our prayers and is moved to respond to them in ways that are unfailingly for our long-term benefit. Commit the darkness around you to your powerful and loving heavenly Father, and walk confidently through the darkness with your hand in his.
I’ll confess to being more than a little perplexed—and irritated, frankly—at the number of my spiritual brethren whose public words predominantly communicate fear and frustration and rage against the machine. Is there no God in heaven? Does he not skillfully and certainly direct in the affairs of people and nations? Are we not his people? Why, then, the rage? Why the frustration? Why the fear?
We ought to be mentally focused (Php 4.8)
… on the good, the true, the edifying. That means not filling our heads with the words of angry people, people who are constantly muckraking, spouting theories with no basis in fact, grasping daily for ratings, another listener or another click. We can and should direct our thoughts elsewhere.
We ought to be satisfied (Php 4.10ff)
… with what God has given us—our possessions, our relationships, our station in life, our circumstances. Satisfied knowing that whether we live in relative poverty or relative wealth, our Father supplies all our needs, wisely, benevolently, lovingly, perfectly. Children of the heavenly Father, after all, do indeed safely in his bosom gather.
Mine are days here as a stranger,
Pilgrim on a narrow way;
One with Christ I will encounter
Harm and hatred for His name.
But mine is armour for this battle
Strong enough to last the war;
And He has said He will deliver
Safely to the golden shore.
Come rejoice now, O my soul,
For His love is my reward—
Fear is gone and hope is sure;
Christ is mine forevermore!