Think on these things

So, what do you think about? What fills your mind?

I don’t know about you, but so many things have filled my mind in these past few months. In the midst of a global catastrophe, it’s been impossible not to play out all the worst possible scenarios for the future. Turning on the news certainly doesn’t help; neither does my social media feed.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul writes these memorable words:

Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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…

That’s a strong word ‘think about’ – it means ‘contemplate’ or ‘consider’, invest in and meditate upon. Fill your thoughts with.

So: what are we to consider?

Paul is not talking about abstract concepts here. It’s not as though he’s telling us to consider ‘honour’ or ‘truth’ or ‘justice’ or ‘purity’, as ideas that float somewhere in the sky. He’s drawing our attention to ‘whatever’ is, actually and really, these things; tangible and concrete instances of truth, honour, justice, purity, and so on.

We’re to find these things in the world in which we live – whatever is excellent or praiseworthy – and to give our minds to them.

Why is that? What good will that do?

It’s because whenever we think about these things we will necessarily think of God and hope in Christ. When we contemplate those things that are true and honourable, just and pure, pleasing and commendable, we are reminded of (as my podcast partner Megan Powell du Toit put it) “our created intention and our future destiny”.

The world was created by God and he declared it to be very good. And although much of what we see now is hellish, we can also see that the goodness of the one who made it is still there. We are reminded of the loving care that he put into the world and the way in which his beauty fills it.

And we are also reminded that we are expecting this world to be redeemed and transformed. And this is a key point: our salvation itself is not an escape from this world, but a transformation of it and us. Our heavenly citizenship is not a promise that we will we go to heaven, but rather than heaven will come to us. Jesus will not take us to another home after he has demolished this one, but transform and renew this world – including us and our bodies – to be like his glorious, resurrected body.

Not just everyone but every thing will be ordered to him; everything that mars and scars it now will be put to rights. Every molecule and every mollusc, every atom and every continent, every animal, every plant, everything that has existence, will be gloriously new and will point to Jesus Christ. God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

And so: when we contemplate what is true and honourable and just and pure, we are looking at the things that anticipate the way everything will be. Just as the first buds of spring herald the full glory of summer, so the goodness of heaven is poking through and coming to life all around us. All is not lost; however dark the night, the rays of the dawn announce the coming of the day!

The brilliant colours and the happy chatter of the rainbow lorikeets; the majesty of the Moreton Bay Figs; the tingle of the cool surf on your skin; the taste of truffles and cheese and wine and blueberries and rye bread and chilli and rare steak; the glint of the sun on the harbour; the power and drama of the Southerly Buster; the smell of a newborn baby; the beauty and resilience of the human body; the Sydney Symphony in full flight; the genius of Joern Utzon’s Opera House; the gifts of true friendship and human love; the extraordinary miracle of civic order that we enjoy; the victory of justice and equality over injustice and tyranny; the telling of stories and jokes; the ingenuity of human technology, medicine, and science that alleviates suffering and improves the quality of life for millions of people:

all of these are but a foretaste of what is to come. They are still there from the creation, and they are messages from the future to us: this is the reign of Jesus breaking through. For one day, there will be no falsehood, there will be no dishonouring and demeaning of people, there will be no injustice and abuse of power, and people will not degrade themselves in impurity.

This is what’s coming, says Paul. And so, he says: notice them, think about them, concentrate upon them, cultivate them, invest in them. Understand them for what they are.

So, what do you think about? What fills your mind?

Make it the habit of your mind to embrace what is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Give your mind to these things, because they represent the deeper reality of the world God made and promises to renew. Develop a taste for what is excellent and praiseworthy by exposing yourself to these things. Cultivate in yourself the ability to point to the ways in which these things point towards Jesus Christ.

Do you give your mind a chance to free itself from the shock and horror of the news, the way in which advertising infects you with envy, and the banality of much of modern culture? As never before in human history, our minds are under assault. We learn about sex from pornography and our ethics from reality TV. Where in your life is the alternative vision?

Have you stopped to consider the things that you know are most true, just, honourable, and pure? Have you caught yourself as you contemplate them and reminded yourself that this is first how things are meant to be and secondly how things one day will be?

This may be particularly important for you if you are in a profession where you are confronted with evil and suffering on a daily basis: if you work in the law, or in social work, or in health, or if you’ve been to prison. A Christian lawyer said to me that Paul’s words held special power for him when he had to run a child abuse case

But what is pleasing and commendable, true and just? How can we tell? These categories do seem open wide. Paul doesn’t particularly give us any shape to them – though he is confident that these things are not just a matter of individual taste.

I do think he’s got something here. We too easily fall for the nonsense that there’s no objective truth, or that morality is only subjective. Part of Paul’s point is surely that the world we live in still tells us of God’s goodness and truth and beauty, and that we can work it out if think about enough. But it’s also the case that sin dulls our perception of these things. If we are not careful, we can easily call evil good and lies the truth.

What we learn from the Bible ought to be our reference point here to learn what is true and honourable and just and pure. The character of God as we learn it from Jesus, our humble Lord, is the measure. He is, after all, the truth; in him we see divine justice; we see and we receive true purity and holiness; we see the example of what is honourable and excellent and pleasing to God.

Not only should those things that we think of remind us of Jesus, but it is thinking about Jesus that should give us the measure to know that what we are thinking on is truly beautiful, true, and good.

He heals the woman with the flow of blood, the paralytic and the man born blind; he raises the widow’s son; he casts out the demons; he has compassion on the crowds for they are like sheep without a shepherd; he eats with tax collectors and sinners; he welcomes the little children; he teaches love for your enemies, and then loves his enemies by dying on the cross for our sins. He is living model of whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable: think on him.

But don’t just sit there in contemplation! Not only are we to recognise the traces of the kingdom of heaven in the world, we’re called to underline them when we see them and to sketch new ones in. God is building a great new city; we are to start building it now – to find the pure and the just and the true and to make more of it.

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church Darling Point and the co-host of With All Due Respect