Like some of the other passages I have discussed in this series of articles, this is not really a “difficult” passage as such. But it is a passage which is very often misused, especially by the “positive confession” folks. They use this text as a club to silence those who deal with more “negative” or unpleasant issues.
They basically say we should only be thinking happy and uplifting thoughts, and not drag ourselves down with any “negative confessions” or lingering contemplation of life’s more unpleasant and unsavoury matters. I have already dealt with this sort of thinking in a more general fashion elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/04/13/i-just-dont-want-to-think-about-it/
But here I wish to focus on this passage in a bit more detail. Even taking it at face value, it cannot mean what either the positive confessionists believe, or those who just don’t want to think about all the yucky things in life. The passage says this:
“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.” Consider just one thing that we are supposed to consider: that which is true.
Now here are some true things – things which we must therefore consider:
-the terrible persecution of Christians around the globe
-the rape and abuse of children
-the slaughter of millions of unborn babies each year
-the breakdown of marriages and families
-the many lives destroyed by drug and alcohol abuse
-the widespread carnality, compromise and lukewarmness in the churches
-the proliferation of cults and false religions
-the scandalous cases of apostasy, sexual sin, and abuse in the churches
-the many cases of false doctrine, false teachers, and false prophets causing all sorts of mischief
These are just a few things which happen to be true, and which we must consider. It certainly does no one any good to close our eyes and try to wish all these problems and tragedies away. That has nothing to do with Christian witness in a fallen world, and it has nothing to do with what this verse is attempting to convey.
And bear in mind that the Word of God itself is true – and it gives us the full picture of life in a fallen world with all of its sin, suffering, degradation and evil. Our calling as believers is to deal with all that and seek to be salt and light in this very needy world, and not pretend it does not exist.
So just what is Paul saying here then? First, a bit of context. In this brief letter Paul talks about joy and rejoicing more than in almost any other book in the Bible. And that is quite amazing because he wrote it while in a Roman prison. The point of the epistle is to encourage believers, and to get them to focus on Jesus, not just their circumstances.
Of course that does not mean Paul is just trying to wish away his difficulties, or do some mind-over-matter routine about his actual condition. Paul is a realist and he knows his situation is not so great. But he knows his God is great, and whatever happens, he wants to see Christ glorified.
Gordon Fee, a Pentecostal pastor and New Testament scholar, who wrote a devastating little booklet back in 1979 called The Disease of the Health & Wealth Gospels, writes in his commentary on this epistle:
“What Paul says here is much less clear than the English translations would lead one to believe. The impression given is that he is calling on them one final time to ‘give their minds’ to nobler things. That may be true in one sense, but the language and grammar suggest something slightly different. The verb ordinarily means to ‘reckon’ in the sense of ‘take into account,’ rather than simply to ‘think about’. This suggests that Paul is telling them not so much to ‘think high thoughts’ as to ‘take into account’ the good they have long known from their own past, as long as it is conformable to Christ….
“Thus, he appears to be dipping into the language of hellenistic moralism, in his case tempered by Jewish wisdom, to encourage the Philippians that even though they are presently ‘citizens of heaven’, living out the life of the future as they await its consummation, they do not altogether abandon the world in which they used to, and still do, live. As believers in Christ they will embrace the best of that world as well, as long as it is understood in the light of the cross.”
And this is not mere happy reflections, daydreaming, or theoretical musings. Right thoughts are meant to be coupled with right actions, as verse 9 makes clear. As Gerald Hawthorn remarks, “These verses constitute a single sentence in Greek that is marvelous for its rhetorical expression and for the loftiness of the moral standards it sets forth….
“They fairly well sum up what is involved in standing firm in the Lord: (1) ‘you must think’, and (2) ‘you must act’. . . . The Philippians must ever be critical towards heathen culture and evaluate carefully its standards of morality. But certainly he does not intend by [the use of ‘consider’] any encouragement to reflection without action.
“Rather he intends to say that the Philippian Christians must carefully consider certain things and evaluate them thoughtfully for the ultimate purpose of letting these things guide them into good deeds.”
Moreover, the list of virtues found here of course culminates fully in the person of Jesus Christ. It is him that we are to be mindful of and to continuously consider. When we do that, we can endure whatever difficult circumstances come our way, and be effective in the work of the Lord.
Thus this passage is not about any “positive confession” theology, nor is it a command to look away from the world’s troubles and problems. It is a call to have the mind of Christ and apply it to the ills of the world as we seek to represent him faithfully, and minister into the needs and difficulties of the day.