Philippians 4:8-9 is a scripture that has been quoted at me a fair amount in the past as a way of not-so-subtly reminding me (as if I needed to be reminded) that I tend to struggle to think positively sometimes. The fruits of our lives grow out of what we fill our mind with–if we fill our mind with goodness, good thoughts, proper sentiments, and work to make those thoughts and feelings evident in our lives, we will (eventually) have good fruits in our lives and in our relationships with others. Rather than quoting this verse at anyone else in particular, we ought to look at scriptures like this in terms of ourselves and see how they apply.
Philippians 4:8-9 reads: “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. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” This passage is at the end of a somewhat longer description of those things that will lead the God of peace to be with us, a reminder that peacemaking requires active efforts on our part, and does not come naturally. Peacemaking certainly does not come naturally to me.
When we examine the list of what we should think about, it is easy to understand how we might be more prone to thinking about different aspects and less prone to thinking about other aspects. For example, speaking for myself it is far easier to think about that which is true and noble than it is that which is pure or good report. For other people, their natural thought processes might be different. We are all created with a certain natural way of looking out of this world, and this view can either be hardened or changed by the sorts of experiences we have as well as our own conscious effort in thinking and acting differently than we would normally do. Sometimes life rather forcibly reminds us that we need to change how we think and how we behave because it does not accurately reflect who we are and who we want to become.
In reality, we need to focus on all of these elements: truth, nobility, justice, purity, loveliness, of good reputation, virtue, and praiseworthiness. We cannot forever dwell on the bad parts of existence (and there are many) without becoming corrupted by it ourselves, without adopting some bad habits, or without uncharitably assuming the worst of others. The fact that this world is full of people who have very little of these qualities within them is ultimately irrelevant. We are called to be true, noble, just, pure, lovely, having a good reputation, virtuous, and praiseworthy, and so we have to think about these things, and fill our mind and attention with those matters which will help us to become better at practicing and recognizing and encouraging these qualities in ourselves and others.
I do not feel it is my place to prescribe what sort of activities would develop these qualities, as some might be in the habit of doing. I find, speaking for myself, that keeping my mind focused on the positive is a difficult task given a native tendency to pessimism, but that it is worthwhile to show appreciation and to think about the good things in a given situation (whatever it is) because that allows me to help and encourage things to get better rather than remaining part of the problem. Being someone who needs a fair amount of encouragement, it requires a great deal of conscious effort at this stage to remember and honor the need of others for the same as well.
Let us note that Paul considered himself to be a model of the behavior that he commanded to others. Despite the fact that we know that Paul was not perfect (even as none of us are perfect), the record we have of him in his letters and in Acts demonstrates what he meant as being true, noble, lovely, pure, of good report, and praiseworthy. He still was able (and willing) to give a severe rebuke when it was needed (see, for example, 1 Corinthians or Galatians), but at the same time, we must recognize that his writings are also full of touching grace and loving concern (Philemon is a great example of this). Even when Paul rebukes a congregation for its sins, the rebuke is written in terms of our positive obligations as Christians and our praiseworthy desire to be like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
And this focus on the ultimate end of our behavior, on our reasons for putting forth the difficult effort of changing and mending our wicked ways is something we ought to emulate. Even if it is necessary, for the sake of truth, to talk about unpleasant matters, we cannot be content to wallow in them and to spend all of our time and effort on condemnation of evil. We must balance out our dissatisfaction with the way things are with a vivid and clear vision of the way things should be and will be, once we all begin to fulfill our obligations to love others as ourselves. That positive vision of a better future puts what is unpleasant or unhappy or painful truth in a perspective of love and concern, rather than judgment and condemnation.
And quite honestly, we need both truth and love rather than to see those pitted against each other as is so often the case. By placing the need to occasionally remind the members of different congregations of the high standards we must live up to as Christians in the context of the love and grace of God to us that we do not and cannot deserve, Paul showed how it was possible to show gratitude to God and develop a mind and heart that are devoted to thinking on those things that are God (especially in the present and future) rather than being burdened by the sins and evils of the past. We would all do well to gain that vision of what we and what the world will become, so that we may be able to see how our day-to-day lives bring us close to what we have been created to accomplish. We need all the encouragement that we can give ourselves and receive from others. So does everyone else, though, and we would do well to think positively for their sakes also, as well as our own.