Text: Philippians 4:8-9
About a week ago, one of my friends posted something on facebook that struck me as a profound piece of deep moral philosophy. It was a quote from Anne of Green Gables. In it, Anne said, “It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make it up firmly.” This is an important bit of advice for young children trying out new things, but it also applies in all sorts of different ways to all of us. It isn’t only the case that you can enjoy things if you make up your mind, but you can also bear things if you decide to. You can typically talk yourself either into or out of a bad mood. This is also true, with God’s grace, when it comes to spiritual contentment and peace. What you set your mind to do is usually what you end up doing. The question, then, is what do you really want?
This concept ties directly into the topic of spiritual peace which we discussed last week. Last week’s conclusion had to do with prayer and meditation. We were able to discuss prayer in some detail, but meditation had to wait for this week, and that’s what we will be talking about today. Meditation means “to think on” something, but it also has the added connotation of “taking into account.” Before you pray, as you pray, and after you pray, you ought to think of God and His mighty acts, and you should take them into account when you consider your own situation. In addition to this, Paul here lists six kinds of things you ought to meditate on. The kicker is that if you do meditate on these things, then you will have peace and you will end up modeling that peace to those around you, giving them an example of how to pray and find peace. And so, very simply, what you think about matters. Your thoughts dictate your overall state of mind and spiritual disposition, and they always manage to come to the surface. When this happens, it shows the world what it is that you really believe and what ii is that is really in your heart. It shows them your gospel.
We must meditate, but for most of us that word sounds strange, like something you do at the Yoga club. But the word “meditate” is perfectly biblical. We see it here in Philippians 4:8 where it means, as we said, “to take certain things into account.” Meditation is also an act we see repeatedly in the psalms. Psalm 1:2 says that the blessed man delights “in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night.” To this we can add Psalm 63 which says:
When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches. Because You have been my help, Therefore in the shadow of Your wings I will rejoice. My soul follows close behind You. Your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:6-8)
So we see that meditation involves remembering God’s past deliverance and drawing your soul near to God in prayer. We could quote many more psalms to this effect, as the word appears again and again. Meditation is a conscious focusing of the mind on the character of God and His history of salvation. It isn’t a simple passivity or trying to “zone out,” but instead the action of thinking about God and His mighty acts.
Meditation is an important part of prayer, and it ought to be a regular practice for each of you. You ought to be taking time during your day to think and specifically, to think about God. Sometimes we call this “preparing your heart,” but it is simply a time of intentional thought and internal communing with God. In one sense it’s very easy, but it is also easy to miss in our day and age where we are impatiently on the go, always looking to act and stay busy. Meditation requires a break from this pace of life. It requires a bit of Sabbath. You have to take the time out of the rest of your life to think of the things of God, and ironically, this sort of rest will require a bit of hard work. In order to make it happen you will have to push against the natural ways of the rest of the world.
Think About These Things
Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Paul doesn’t merely tell us to meditate on God, however, but instead he lists categories of things which we ought to take into account when organizing our thoughts. You can compare this list with other lists in the New Testament, namely “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 or “the wisdom that is from above” in James 1. What is interesting about this passage in Philippians, however, is that it isn’t simply a list of moral actions, but instead includes subjective aesthetic qualities which are themselves instrumental to bringing about spiritual peace. They are not merely products of that peace but help to bring it about. So let us look at these things in more detail.
The first set of things Paul tells us to meditate on is “whatever things are true.” This is a fairly straightforward reference. It simply means that which is the case, the opposite of falsehood. Christians ought to desire truth, honesty, and fidelity.
Now this need not mean, as some stricter Pietists have asserted in the past, that Christians should avoid fiction or fantasy. That’s a bit of a superstitious approach, I think. We can think about imaginary things, but we do have a relevant teaching here that even our fiction must be true. By that I mean that fiction must tell a true message, extolling virtue and seeking to make points which remain valid when applied to our world. If dragons and fairies are making the statement that evil is monstrous and spiritual powers nimble and alluring, then we are actually thinking about true things, just in image form. But if the fantasy or fiction in question is meant to contradict and subvert the truth, then we ought to reject it.
Secondly, we are told to think on things that are “noble.” The word here can apply to a few different but related things. It can mean sacred, majestic, revered, or honorable things. For something to be noble, it ought to be, in a way, higher or more exalted than ordinary things. And in this we are taught that there is such a thing as nobility. This too goes directly against our current culture. The unwholesome fruit of egalitarianism has been a leveling of all concepts of dignity and beauty. In our day the very assumption that something could be prettier or nobler than another thing is typically rejected in favor of subjective values and personal choice. As Christians we have to fight back against this. We ought not be uncritical in what we assume to be noble. A 19th century British accent is not quite enough proof. But, still, we should reject all forms of “realism” which are really cynicism and a denial of beauty or majesty.
We shouldn’t constantly dwell on dark or morose thoughts. It’s no wonder that people who focus on miserable things end up being miserable. We should admire beautiful and majestic things, and we ought to meditate on the concept of nobility. This is all true, of course, because God Himself is full of awe, and in His presence we feel not only goodness and truth, but also holiness and glory. We feel greatness itself.
The third group is “whatever things are just.” Here we have a basic moral concept. Justice is rightness, but it also implies fairness and rectitude. It has to do with both individual, corporate, and cosmic righteousness, and we cannot meditate on justice without also meditating on the righteousness of God which both condemns sinners and saves believers through the righteousness of Christ. We ought to meditate upon both wrath and grace when we meditate on justice, and this should always drive us to the Cross.
Next comes “whatever things are pure.” This term originally had a ceremonial meaning, roughly equivalent to ceremonial cleanliness, but it also has the basic meaning of “unmixed.” In the New Testament this has usually means “unmixed with sin.” We ought to strive to progress in our holiness and righteousness, and this means thinking about the goal of our sanctification. This too requires swimming against the stream. You see, purity is largely resented today, even among Christians. Sometimes this is a reactionary disgust against prior generations of legalists, but other times it seems to be just a cover for the remaining sinful appetites in each of us. We make fun of purity in order to justify our own impurity. No, we ought not despise holy people or calls to holiness. And so we must meditate on purity.
Fifthly, Paul says that we should meditate on “whatever things are lovely.” This is similar to the earlier classification of nobility, though on a simpler level. We should meditate on things which are pleasing and enjoyable, which inspire our love. This includes “ordinary” things, but ordinary things which are indeed lovely. It can also apply to our friends and family and all of the things that bring us joy. The old saying is true: count your blessings. Think about the good things in life.
And finally Paul says that we should meditate on “whatever things are of good report.” This is curious in a way because he doesn’t explain the relevant audience which is supposed to determine the good report. Whose opinion are we interested in here? Now we can safely assume that Paul is not contradicting the teaching of Jesus which says the world will hate us for following Christ. Of course we won’t be spoken well of all the time. But Paul does mean, as he states elsewhere, that a general good reputation, even among outsiders, is valuable and important. Though the world might fault us for our faith, they ought not be able to fault us for our short tempers, selfish schemings, failure to pay the bills, disorderly conduct, poor tipping, or otherwise frumpy demeanor. We should, therefore, think about the things which bring good report and aspire towards them.
And the end of this list Paul says “if there is any virtue, and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” That’s a kind of summary of the whole list, but what is interesting is that it includes a level of subjectivity. This isn’t just a black and white list of objectives. Virtue and praise are things ascribed differently by different people, and they are often pursued over time rather than easily and immediately identified. And yet there is a common bond. If something is good, true, or beautiful, then it possesses virtue and is worthy of praise. It is like God. And so we should think about such things as we think about God. Thinking of these things will cause you to appreciate and better value them yourself. Thinking of these things will put your mind in the place where it can receive the peace of God.
Set the Example
It’s also important to notice what Paul says at the end of his litany. “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). We learn two things from this. Christians are supposed to model this kind of prayer and meditation to others, and when we do this, we feel God’s presence and peace. Following the example of Christ also means setting that example for future followers, and in doing this we find peace.
So I have to ask, are we setting this kind of example? Are we fixing our minds on truth, nobility, justice, purity, loveliness, and a good reputation? Do those adjectives describe our internal disposition? Would anyone ever dream of describing us in such a way? Too often we end up spending all our time thinking about the negatives, about all the things that are going wrong. But the problem is that when we do this, we actually give control to those bad things. We let them take dominion over our minds, and we end up forgetting to meditate on all the good things. The result is that we become anxious, angry, and insecure. We stop meditating and start reacting. And this actually keeps our thoughts worldly. It robs us of the peace of God. Instead, let us go on the offensive. Think about the good things and bring your body and your life into conformity with your thoughts.
Mature Christians must aspire towards these virtues. This is why elders in the church must be blameless, not quick-tempered, not selfish or greed, and having a good reputation even among outsiders. They have to be able to imitate Paul and set the example to those in the church. They need to meditate on virtuous and praiseworthy things, and they need to embody those things and exhibit a state of spiritual loveliness and peace.
But it doesn’t just stop with church officers. All Christian leaders, in all walks of life, need to also set such an example. Bosses, you need to be lovely, just, and noble. Husbands, you need to be true, pure, and of a good reputation. Parents, you ought to be virtuous and praiseworthy in the sight of our children, and this doesn’t simply happen because you are a parent. You have to show your children the peace of God which comes from knowing Him. Is your anxiety, your fear, your anger, preventing you from being such a model to your kids? Then take it to God in prayer and start meditating with a new purpose. Meditate on virtuous and praiseworthy things, and seek the peace of God.
Meditation is an essential part of prayer. We need to recover it in our sense of personal and corporate piety. We need to value thinking, and we need to learn to appreciate times of quiet contemplation. To do so is not a waste of time. It is a redemption of time. It is understanding time rightly, not as a commodity but as an opportunity to draw nearer to God Himself.
Brothers and sisters, get your minds right. Get them right with God. Go to Him in prayer, meditate upon His teachings, and remember His saving grace. But as you do this, think also on God’s good creation and its pleasing features. Think about beauty, wisdom, and glory. Meditate on virtue and praise, and the God of peace will be with you. Let us pray.