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Friday, May 20, 2011

Focusing Our Thoughts

“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 NIV

Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi has been exceptionally meaningful to me for a number of years, but recently I have been encouraged by the application of its teaching in worship and in my life in general. I would encourage a thorough study of the book and its context [Paul’s thank you letter for a gift while in prison] in order to grasp more fully what’s in the text. Looking at a verse in this way is similar to picking up a grain of sand and then looking at the beach, there’s just no way to comprehend it all. Given the limitations, I would like to touch briefly on how applying these verses might enhance our walk with Christ. [Again, this is not to be taken as a commentary, there are many excellent ones on Scripture available; this focus is more on how do we apply what we understand about the text.]

Paul often closes his letters with specific actions he asks the readers to do, given the previous understandings he has shared. He would open with a greeting, share theological truth in the first half of his letter and then in the latter part shift to application. Although there is an abundance of theological insight in Philippians, especially in chapter 2, the tone of the letter centers more on his sharing his love and appreciation for the brothers and sisters in Christ there and giving them some instruction, than on the presentation of a theological treatise. My desire is not to remove Paul’s teaching from its context, but to look briefly at a very small slice of his instruction to those whom he regarded so much at Philippi.

When Paul begins with “finally,” he is obviously beginning concluding statements. He is not saying that these are the most or least important, he is simply wrapping up his thoughts. However, what is shared here has the potential to radically change how we approach worship and even radically change our lives. Paul is calling on a change in the way that we think that requires divine intervention, for only the Spirit of God can renew our minds as God desires. Consider what Paul wrote in Romans 12:1-2:

“ Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

The way to not “conform ourselves to the pattern of this world,” was the renewing of our minds. Our human nature is naturally “bent” not toward obedience of God, but toward our own selfish ends; our reasoning can become defective and not reliable. Only as we allow God to renew our minds can we reverse the process. How is this done? I believe that the process begins with what Paul shares in Philippians 4:8, where he doesn’t simply tell us what not to think, but what to think. Paul is consistent in his instruction to provide a godly replacement for the behavior or action that is not consistent with biblical truth, the “put off,” and “put on” that is found in many of his writings. We all have patterns in the way we think, and Paul gives us clear instruction in how to retrain the brain, so to speak, to replace that pattern, when it does not conform with biblical truth.

So what are we to do? There are two basic ideas in the passage: a change in thinking and a change in action. In changing the way we think, we will change the actions performed. That is why Paul begins there first. To accomplish the pattern of thinking, he lists six qualities, all reflected in the nature and character of Christ, on which he commands we focus our thoughts:
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

These are all true about Christ, but Paul seems to open the thoughts beyond just Christ and His nature and character with the word, “whatever,” and in that sense whatever that is in line with the nature and character of God. One way to aid in changing our thoughts to “whatever is true,” is to ask ourselves, “What is true about this situation, or What is true about God in this situation?” When we find ourselves is a discouraging or circumstances, we need to focus on what is true about God in this situation. Well, we know that God is God, He is in control, that He is love, He is good, that His nature and character are unchanging, that He promises to be with us, He promises to provide as we depend on Him, and the list can go on and on. Focusing on “whatever is true” in this situation takes our focus off the circumstances and places it on the true reality of the situation and helps us trust in God. We may have to write them out at first, just to be able to focus on them, but I believe doing this alone would cause a radical shift in how we approach our problems. As you continue with the others, “Whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable,” even extending the list to “anything excellent or praiseworthy,” then Paul’s guidance is to “think about such things.”

In my own life and circumstances this process has been helpful. When devastating things happen, we are taken off guard, we go numb in disbelief, hurt and anger, yet it is in time like these that God’s Word is especially vital to what God wants to do in and through our lives. In addition to mediating on God’s nature and character, it has been helpful to me to think about other things that are true: that our worth and value come not from what we can do, but from what Christ has done in us. We could never “do” enough to earn God’s favor, that is the nature of grace. Another thing that has been helpful has been remembering God’s faithfulness in the past. When faced with Goliath, David remembered how God had delivered him from the lion and the bear. As we are faced with our own “Goliaths,” how much more should we recount the lion and bear stories of God’s provision and protection. For us, the memories of living in a war-torn country early in our missionary career and later through an invasion in another country, are not just pictures in a family album, but vivid memories of our crying out to God in the midst of perilous circumstances and seeing God’s hand of protection. In recent days I have found myself rehearsing the nature and character of God, His goodness, His love, His worth, His provision and protection in the past, to help me refocus and apply what the Lord was teaching through Paul.

There is also another issue to be addressed in verse 9, 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. The emphasis here seems to be one of following the example of the mentor. Not only are we to change how we think, but work out these thoughts in concrete action. As we are obedient in these actions, there is the assurance of the presence of God, who is the “God of peace,” will be with us. The assurance of the presence of God in the midst of difficulties brings about trust in His nature and character and peace in us. It is not enough to sit idly and think without applying what we have learned into obedience to God’s commands. Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “do this and you will feel better,” for obedience is not measured in how we feel, but that on the basis of the Word of God, as we obey, we can be fully assured that the presence of God, Himself, will be with us.

It is necessary to insert here verses 6-7 to see how God transforms our emotions related to difficult situations: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul preceded the verses with which we began by laying the groundwork for response to difficult circumstances: prayer with thanksgiving. As we are obedient in this, the “peace of God” guards our hearts and our minds. Verses 8 and 9 can be the fleshing out of how to give thanks when everything about you cries out to the contrary. By an act of the will we begin to focus on what is true, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, and so on and by the mercy and grace of God, He begins to transform our minds to conform to His will and way. He produces peace in our hearts and we begin to reflect more of His nature and character.

Just in case you might be wondering, “What does this have to do with worship? Isn’t this a blog on worship?” I’m glad you asked. Let me just make a brief connection. Since worship is our obedient response to God’s nature and character, as we focus our thoughts on God’s goodness and respond in obedience to what He commands, we will begin to worship Him as well.

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