in insane times

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9

Paul basically tells us two simple yet profound things here. He says essentially to guard our thought life, not so much here by what we don’t take in, though that’s important, but what we actually do think about and reflect on. And Paul tells us to live as he did. That should be a check on us, on how we often live and act, or react to things.

This is a challenge because Christians are not to turn a blind eye to what is wrong, impure, ugly, shameful, and deserving of rebuke and censure. That’s always to be found, and people are thankfully metaphorically, but still sadly nearly at each other’s throats nowadays. It is a maddening time.

But what’s a Christian to do? Do what Paul tells us here, a part of God’s written word. Settle down and settle in to what is better. In doing so, maybe then we can be helpful to influence what is not. In and through Jesus.

thinking needed during difficult times

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.

Philippians 4:8

Right now in the United States and across the world we’re facing a pandemic. This naturally intensifies stress, and is affecting all of life. So why would I point myself, and all of us to this word from Paul, and actually this Scripture, God’s written word?

First of all, it’s always good practice, something not just recommended, but prescribed for us Christians. And when you turn the pages of Scripture, you’ll find plenty of good in the midst of reality. Scripture is not couched in an alternative, imaginative, make-believe world, but in the all too real world, the world in which we live. Of course across different cultures and time, to be sure. But much of what we see there, we see here. And Paul’s word here actually refers to good found anywhere, all a part of God’s common grace given to humankind.

To be sure, we practically have to turn our faces, or ignore so much right in front of our faces that is less than good, and too often is bad, or even evil. We don’t ignore such things. To focus on what is true is probably more in the sense of what is true in a good sense. But what is true, noble and right includes taking seriously that which is not. To engage in this process requires discernment. It’s all too easy at least for me to descend into something that is less than good in reaction to what’s not good.

During this crisis, we will do well to find what is good in the sense of fitting and helpful. And to have discernment to see what is not. Paul’s words here necessarily mean that we’re going to want to be constructive in our critiques, beginning first with ourselves, if we’re going to help others with the kind of help that’s needed.

May God help us to think thoughts which impact us in ways that are uplifting in the sense of edifying, so that others too may be helped. And especially that we might all look to the one who can lift us beyond what we can imagine, or experience ourselves. In and through Jesus.

 

the flourishing to come

The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the Lord,
the splendor of our God.

Strengthen the feeble hands,
steady the knees that give way;
say to those with fearful hearts,
“Be strong, do not fear;
your God will come,
he will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution
he will come to save you.”

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow.

And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness;
it will be for those who walk on that Way.
The unclean will not journey on it;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
No lion will be there,
nor any ravenous beast;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
and those the Lord has rescued will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

Isaiah 35:1-10

I am much interested in Miroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun’s book, For the Life of the World: Theology That Makes a Difference (Theology for the Life of the World). It seems that they advocate for policies for human flourishing within the pluralistic world in which we live. I personally am all for that. I don’t know what else they say, but I’m sure they agree that full flourishing will come only at Jesus’s return when God’s promise of salvation and new creation will be fully realized.

Human flourishing is at the heart of God’s will for the world, for humankind. It’s when all is well, humans are individually well themselves, and living in the relations in which they’re meant to live with each other. Each realizing their full potential, and enjoying the outcome of that together.

Unfortunately in this present existence, simply put, there’s too much resistance against God’s will. There’s both lack of faith, and actual desire to live in God’s will. Although in common grace there’s much in common (not to repeat the same word so closely) with God’s will. There is goodness and righteousness along with evil, whether or not the educational elite can or are willing to recognize that.

We long for the breakthrough to come when the world will at long last be what God intended it to be. Paradise restored and human culture meeting its full potential in the life and love of God. In and through Jesus.

is our focus uplifting?

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

Taken in context, Paul’s words here call us to a mindset that is uplifting, turning our attention to what in itself is wholesome and good. This has nothing at all to do with “the power of positive thinking,” or even “possibility thinking.” Nor does it have to do with shining our light into the darkness of this world. That will more or less naturally happen wherever we go as the light of the world in Christ. But yes, inevitably as we see the better way, we’ll see that the less better ways, or what we once thought to be good, or good enough must go. So it’s not like one has their head in the sand, either.

Sometimes Christians along with others see it as their moral duty to focus on all that’s wrong, the mess of the world with the goal of exposing and rooting it out, or at least taking a stand against it. There is surely a time to speak and a time to keep silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). But one can become completely absorbed in that, totally occupied with it, so that there’s no time to do what we’re called to do in the passage above. I liked what I heard Dallas Willard say online in a talk, that only after one has worked hard all day, and is collapsing should they turn their attention to the news. That might be an overstatement to make a point. It’s not like we’re to ignore what’s unpleasant. But neither should that be our focus. Instead we’re to concentrate on what’s uplifting and helpful to us. Then hopefully that same spirit and practice can help others as we continue to be helped. In and through Jesus.

the moral fabric of society and the Christian witness

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.

Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.

Philippians 2:14-16a; 4:8-9

Philippians is a great (short) book to read and meditate on. Interestingly, Philippi was a Roman military outpost, so at least in that respect, it was quite what we would call today, nationalistic. It surely had the normalcy of cities with city life and its own culture. Paul’s letter is written in that backdrop.

Fast-forward to today, and while we see stark differences, I think we can find more similarities than not. For Christians to live in a kind of exile on earth as ultimately citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20-21) had its precedent in Jeremiah 29 where the people of God were to settle down and live as witnesses of God, hopeful for the true good of the nation where they lived.

Paul’s words on what we’re to think on involve terms that were quite embedded in the culture of his day. What is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, yes- excellent or praiseworthy. Our thoughts are to be on such things. If we embrace politicians and systems that violate these ideals, are we really adhering to what Paul is getting at here? I would argue that we’re not.

Christians can advocate for the unborn, for the protection of minorities, etc., while not lining up with what is untruthful and ugly. We should never have any part in that, or at least hold it at arm’s length. Someone once told me something we all more or less take for granted: “Politics is dirty.” Okay. But that doesn’t mean Christians should get in that dirt, nor look the other way, thus unwittingly participating in it.

And that gets to Paul’s words quoted above, that we’re to conduct ourselves in keeping with being God’s children: in a manner, first with our tongues, in which we’re blameless and pure, without fault in a warped and crooked generation, as we hold on to the word of life: the gospel or good news of Christ, and Scripture in that context. That we’re to be witnesses of the light of the world, Jesus, and not dim the light we are in him is central to what Paul is getting at.

If we care about society, then we can’t accept something less than that. Our main concern by far is our witness, and being faithful to Christ. We hope and pray for the best in this world, and acknowledge its limitations, while pressing for better. And we realize that the one true life is found only in the church through the one good news in and through Jesus.

what is important, what to be remembered for

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness…

2 Peter 1:5a

In the world in which we live, knowledge seems to be considered the end all, everything. And it’s assumed that if you know enough, you’ll do the right thing, or that this is true of society in general. What’s need is just more education. Ethics are considered quite secondary in education nowadays. If you start talking about ethics, then you’re pushing something beyond what is scientific or pure knowledge. The modern world has little regard for anything beyond what can be measured and verified scientifically. And so knowledge is on the throne, the kind that humans can gather especially in scientific ways, through ongoing hypothesis, testing, and observation. And a popular differentiation between knowledge and wisdom is all but ignored, at least too much of the time.

Actually in Scripture knowledge and wisdom are essentially synonymous. Both are revelatory, received from God for life. Knowledge might be somewhat for knowledge’s sake from God, but is never separated from who we are, who God is, and apart from the world in which we live. It is given for appreciation for and navigation through this world. And the proper term for this might be understanding. Knowledge and wisdom are given to us from God for our understanding of life both in reference to the world at large, and how we should live in it.

In the list from 2 Peter, we see that goodness precedes knowledge (click the above link). We’re to add to our faith, not first knowledge, but goodness, then knowledge. I know some Bible scholars say the order of the list is not important and beside the point, that they’re all to be added to our faith. I think that’s a fair point, but I also think their order is suggestive. Goodness carries the idea of what is helpful and fitting to be and do in love for others. God alone is good, but imparts goodness to his creation, particularly to those made in his image: humankind.

What the world needs, indeed what the church needs first of all is not more intelligence, but more goodness. Intelligence in and of itself does not automatically result or even tend toward goodness. But goodness does result in the kind of intelligence which is helpful to all. What is appreciated in God’s eyes, and truly godly, and what is really needed in the world is a high dose of goodness, then the intelligence that follows will be helpful. As God gives that to us in and through Jesus.

not acting on emotions

Better a patient person than a warrior,
one with self-control than one who takes a city.

Proverbs 16:32

I think one of the greatest problems we have in not really following through on wisdom as we would like is our habit of acting on impulse. Somehow we proceed on how we feel, our emotions, rather than on good thinking based on understanding considered in the light of what is good for others and ourselves, in the fear and goodness of God.

It is almost a given that if we feel a certain way, then corresponding words or actions will follow. For example, someone cuts us off on the road, or sits at a light. At best we might utter a relatively mild word under our breath, at worst we remark that they’re dumb. Or I might just think they’re on their cell phones, and shake my head in disgust.

What Scripture calls us to is not some stoic resolve and refusal to acknowledge what is happening and how we feel. I’ve seen people act like everything is okay when it’s not, and keep doing that only to explode at a certain point later. It’s better to shake one’s head right along, while keeping oneself mostly in check, not flying off the handle. But better yet is the refusal not to act at all on our emotions which we would call negative. But rather, to keep working through things in a thoughtfully wise and understanding way. And many times along the way that will involve prayers to God and seeking help from others, as well as simply persevering in what we need to do.

Like the NET Bible footnote tells us, it is harder for us to appreciate the impact of this verse now, since the kind of warfare mentioned is largely a thing of the past. If we carried that forward to what we know of the military today, they’re trained not to act on emotion, but strictly on command. But in our imagination we can go back to the days when military feats we’re done in hand to hand combat.  I actually don’t think it’s so much comparing one action to the other, but rather simply saying that one mode of conduct is better than the other.

The Holy Spirit and the word helps us to avoid what is not helpful. To be patient, or slow to anger, to be self-controlled. It’s vitally important that we don’t act on negative emotions like anger or fear when we know our words or actions will not help those who hear or see us. Best never to act on such emotions at all. Part of living in wisdom, knowing what is good and right and helpful. In and through Jesus.