October 11th, 2020, homily on Phil 4:1-9 by Pastor Galen Zook
The 2010 movie Inception was a James Bond-like thriller in which a group of people enter another person’s dream (and dreams within dreams) to plant an idea in his mind. In an early scene from the movie, one of the characters by the name of Arthur explains to another character named Saito that it actually isn’t that difficult to plant ideas in other people’s minds:
Arthur says, “I say to you, ‘Don’t think about elephants.’ What are you thinking about?”
Saito responds, “Elephants.”
Trying NOT to think about something is probably the most foolproof way to ensure that you are going to think about that thing.
This is one reason why many diets and rigorous self-improvement strategies fail to yield lasting results. Trying really hard to lose by weight by focusing on all of the unhealthy junk food that we’re not supposed to eat can stress us out. And what do most of us do when we’re feeling stressed out? We eat junk food to cope!
That’s why the best diets place the emphasis not on the unhealthy foods that we need to avoid, but rather they focus on living a healthy lifestyle that combines exercise with eating healthy foods that fill us up and provide us with long-lasting energy.
What we focus on and what we think about matters. Dr. Freeman Hrabowski III, the president of UMBC (the university that my wife and I attended), repeats this quote at the end of almost every speech that he gives:
Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your actions. Watch your actions, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.
Your thoughts become your words. Your words become your actions. Your actions become your habits, your habits form your character, and your character becomes your destiny.
The Apostle Paul, in Philipians chapter 4, is also concerned with our thoughts.
Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche, two women who were most likely leaders of house churches in Philippi, to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil. 4:2).
He also tells the Philipians to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4), and not to “worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6).
Be of the same mind. Rejoice. And don’t worry.
Now I know, telling someone not to worry sounds sort of like saying “don’t think about elephants!” In reality there are so many things in our lives that we could worry about.
And even though we know that worrying doesn’t change anything, when we focus on trying not to worry, we usually end up worrying even more!
We lie awake at night worrying that we won’t be able to fall asleep because of all of our worries. We worry that if we don’t worry then we might forget something important. We’re concerned about our own concerns, and we’re afraid of our fears.
This is probably why the Apostle Paul doesn’t focus for too long on what we’re not supposed to think about, but rather he focuses much more positively on what we can and should focus on.
Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or worth of praise. “Think about these things.”
There are a lot of things that are wrong in the world. Many things that are messed up, and that are not the way they should be. It’s easy to see these things. But rather than focusing on all of the things that are wrong in the world, Paul wants us to look for, to search out those things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise, and to think about these things.
Paul says that if we think about these things, and if we “keep on doing the things that [we] have learned and received and heard and seen” through Paul (and the other apostles, and ultimately through Christ), then Paul says, “the God of peace will be with [us].” (Phil. 4:9).
Having the God of peace with us sounds a lot better than living with our worries, fears, and concerns, doesn’t it?
Not just Positive Thinking
Now some may wonder, is Paul just preaching a message of positive thinking? Does Paul think that if we simply ignore all of the problems in the world, then the problems will simply just go away?
But lest we think that Paul is encouraging us towards blind optimism, we see here that the first thing on Paul’s list that he wants us to think about are things that are “true.”
Paul does not want us to get wrapped up in falsehoods or wishful thinking, or to walk around with our heads in the clouds, denying the realities of pain and suffering in this world.
Paul wants our hope to be grounded in truth. Because it’s only when we know and understand the truth that we can work towards positive change. We have to know and understand the problem before we can seek a solution.
One of the many things we’ve learned in the midst of this pandemic that we’re currently living in is that blind optimism might even be more dangerous than irrational fears.
Recently, researchers in London completed an 18-year project studying people’s financial expectations in life in comparison to actual outcomes. They found that some people relied on pessimism to lower their expectations, so that they wouldn’t be disappointed in the end. Others relied on optimism to forecast and create a more hopeful and happy future.
The researchers concluded,
Plans based on inaccurate beliefs make for poor decisions and are bound to deliver worse outcomes than rational, realistic beliefs… Being realistic about your future and making sound decisions based on evidence can bring a sense of well-being, without having to immerse yourself in relentless positivity.
In other words, it’s better to know and understand the truth than to forge ahead blindly and optimistically, making decisions based upon false information and just merely hoping that things will work out in the end. While worrying won’t make things better, neither will denying the truth.
In the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, the researchers of this 18-year study highlighted that optimists and pessimists alike often make decisions based on biased expectations:
Optimists will see themselves as less susceptible to the risk of Covid-19 than others and are therefore less likely to take appropriate precautionary measures. Pessimists, on the other hand, may be tempted to never leave their houses or send their children to school again. Neither strategy seems like a suitable recipe for well-being.
Similarly, Paul wants our hope for the future to be grounded in reality and in truth. Any hope for a positive outcome, any belief that things will get better must start with an acknowledgement of the reality of how things are. Like reading a map or following a GPS, we first of all have to know where we are before we can figure out how to get to where we’re going.
Jesus — Prophetic Hope Grounded in Reality
Jesus preached a message of hope without denying the reality of pain and suffering in the world. He proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven, while at the same time mourning the death of his friend Lazarus, weeping over the state of affairs in the city of Jerusalem, and turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple. He worked for justice, cared for those who were hurting, stood with the marginalized and oppressed, prayed, cried, felt anger and deep sorrow, all while proclaiming the Good News of God’s saving grace.
Jesus’s life and teaching was grounded in reality, but he did not spend time needlessly worrying. He embodied Paul’s exhortation to think about and proclaim things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise.
Jesus said in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” If we’re looking for something (or rather someone) to set our hearts and affections on, someone to pattern our thoughts and our lives after, we have nowhere better to look than to Jesus Christ.
There is a lot that is wrong in the world. And there’s a lot of misinformation being spread around. Conspiracy theories, fake news and alternative facts. Our world is in need of Christians who will not ignore the facts or disregard science, who will not turn a blind eye to the evils and injustices of the world.
But our world also needs Christians who refuse to sit idly by, shaking our heads and wagging our fingers at everything that’s wrong in the world. Our world needs Christian who will live and proclaim the truth and the hope that is found through Jesus Christ.
And so, as it says in Hebrews 12:2, let us look to “Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Let us set our minds on the One who is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of our praise. Let us continue doing the things that have learned and received and heard and seen in Jesus Christ.
May the truth and the hope that is found in Jesus Christ inform our thoughts. May those thoughts inform our words. May the Word of God become our actions. May our actions form our habits, may those habits form our character, and may the hope that we have in Jesus Christ become our destiny.