Developing the Mind of the Spirit: Peace Part 2

Developing the Mind of the Spirit: Peace Part 2

Text: Rom. 8:6-7; Phil. 4:4-13, 19-20

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Introduction: Brief Response to Marty’s Announcement

  • The joy of working here and my hope that we can continue to be a part of Madison in the years to come, but even that is in God’s hands.
  • It is an example of what we are talking about: Seeking God’s Guidance for our life together and having peace that God is at work and has his time and purpose for everything.
  • Preparing ourselves for the new person by becoming more Christ-like through the work of the Spirit. Let’s think more about the how.

Explore the Text

The Mind of the Flesh is Death vs. the Mind of the Spirit is Life & Peace

  • Spiritual death vs. Spiritual Life and Peace
  • Consider the contrast between the two conditions of a person in Gal. 5
    • What would happen in our churches and in society if we were committed to the development of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives and lived as a community that encourages the formation and maturity of that kind of life?

Developing a heart, mind & will where there is peace.

  • Our love, joy, & peace are challenged by anxiety & fear.
    • The Spirit works to help me trust Jesus as my wise mentor.
  • Defining terms (Willard in Renovation of the Heart)
    • Love as the embodiment and expression of genuine goodwill (willing the good): “It is will to good or “bene-volence.” We love something or someone when we promote its good for its own sake. Love’s contrary is malice, and its simple absence is indifference. Its normal accompaniment is delight, but a twisted soul may delight in evil and take no pleasure in good. Love is not the same thing as desire, for I may desire something without even wishing it well, much less willing its good. I might desire a chocolate ice cream cone, for example. But I do not wish it well; I wish to eat it. This is the difference between lust (mere desire) and love, as between a man and a woman. Desire and love are, of course, compatible when desire is ruled by love; but most people today would, unfortunately, not even know the difference between them. Hence, in our world, love constantly falls prey to lust. That is a major part of the deep sickness of contemporary life.”[1]
    • Joy: Joy is natural in the presence of such love. Joy is a pervasive sense—not just a thought—of well-being: of overall and ultimate well-being. Its primary feeling component is delight in an encompassing good well-secured. It is not the same as pleasure, though it is pleasant. It is deeper and broader than any pleasure. Pleasure and pain are always specific to some particular object or condition, such as eating something you really like (pleasure) or recalling some really foolish thing you did (pain). But for joy, all is well, even in the midst of specific suffering and loss. Self-sacrificial love is therefore always joyous—no matter the pain and loss it may involve. For we are always looking at the larger scene in which love rules: Where all things (no matter what) work together for good to those who love God and are drawn into his purposeful actions on earth. Joy is a basic element of inner transformation into Christlikeness and of the outer life that flows from it. Thus when Jesus was explaining things to his closest friends on the night before his crucifixion, he left his peace with them (John 14:27). Then, after explaining to them how he would be the vine and they the branches, constantly drawing rich life from him, he said, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (15:11). This theme of being full of joy is repeated twice more in John’s version of his final discourse and prayer (16:24; 17:13).[2]
      • Willard observes the importance of our choosing to trust God’s goodness if we are to have joy: But here again we must not be passive. We may allow joy to dissipate through looking backward at our sins and failures, or forward at what might happen to us, or inward at our struggles with work, responsibilities, temptations, and deficiencies. But this means we have placed our hopes in the wrong thing, namely ourselves, and we do not have to do this. It is our option to look to the greatness and goodness of God and what he will do in our lives. Therefore Paul, in jail, speaks to the Philippians of his own contentment “in whatever circumstances” (4:11) and urges them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (4:4). We will be empowered by the Spirit of God to do this if we choose it and fix our minds on the good that God is and will certainly bring to pass.[3]
    • Peace: Peace is the rest of will that results from assurance about “how things will turn out.” It is always a form of active engagement with good, plus assurance that things will turn out well….“I am at peace about it,” we say, and this means I am no longer striving, inwardly or outwardly, to save some outcome dear to me or to avoid one that I reject. I have released whatever is at issue and am no longer even putting “body English” or “spin” on it or inwardly gritting my teeth. Of course everyone is at peace about some things, one hopes, but few have peace in general, and fewer still have peace that reaches their body and its automatic responses to such a depth that it does not live in a covert state of alarm. Most people carry heavy burdens of care, and usually about the things that are most important in life: what will happen to their loved ones, their finances, health, death, their physical appearance or what others think of them, the future of society, their standing before God and their eternal destiny. To be at peace with God and others (family, neighbors, and coworkers) is a great attainment and depends on graces far beyond ourselves as well as on our own efforts. That is also true of being at peace with oneself. Peace with God comes only from acceptance of his gift of life in his Son (Romans 5:1–2). We are then assured of the outcome of our life and are no longer trying to justify ourselves before God or others. We have accepted that we are not righteous or even totally competent and that we cannot be so on our own. We have laid down the burden of justifying ourselves before God and are learning not to justify ourselves before men. This is the peace that grows within us.[4]
      • Willard adds this insight on God as the living ground of true peace: The secret to this peace is, as great apprentices of Jesus have long known, being abandoned to God. We have to return to this for a fuller treatment in our next chapter, on the will [see the NOTES section below for this]; but the person who is heartily abandoned to God knows that all shall be well because God is in charge of his or her life. My peace is the greatness of God. Because he, who not only loves me but is Love, is so great, I live beyond harm in his hands; and there is nothing that can happen to me that will not turn out to my good. Nothing. That is what Romans 8:28 really means. Because of this, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee,” the ancient text reads (Isaiah 26:3, kjv).[5]

Life Designed by God: Willing God’s Will to be done in & through my will.

  • Not done on my own terms! I must decide where my life is centered.
    • Danger! Taking what God gives us & using it on our own terms.
      • Someone gives you an iPhone & using it to prop a door open.
      • Sin in my heart destroys peace with God; I must deal with it!
      • Dealing with the sin in my heart rather than excusing or rationalizing it.
    • As we do this work with the Spirit’s help & the assurance of God’s love for us in Christ, sin gradually loses its grip on us & we discover the greatness of the reality of God’s presence in our lives.
      • His presence is the source of deep peace and confidence.
    • Philippians: Paul’s Christ-centered model of cultivating peace, joy, & love.
      • If we use Eph. 4:17-24, we see the pattern of spiritual formation practiced by Paul being prescribed for his readers: Walking in the way of love (Eph 5:1-2)
        • My starting point if this is to be a reality: This is possible!
        • Paul’s experience in a prison in Philippi described in Acts 16.
        • Later, the letter to the Philippians is written from another prison; rejoicing is a constant refrain in the letter.
        • Carson: Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4). Of course, Paul has already introduced this theme into his letter. In the first chapter, Paul assured his readers, “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel . . .” (1:4–5). The theme recurs in chapter 2: Paul is ready to be poured out as a kind of drink offering, a sacrifice on top of all their sacrifices, and if this should transpire, he would be glad and rejoice with them and expect them to be glad and rejoice with him (2:17–18). The same theme is picked up in chapter 3: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” (3:1). And now it returns once more, and in a most emphatic form. Doubtless the Philippians could not read many such exhortations from the apostle without remembering that Paul had been a prime example of this virtue when he had first preached the gospel among them. According to Acts 16, he and Silas were arrested and thrown into prison. Beaten, bruised, their feet in stocks, they displayed not a whiff of self-pity. Far from it; they began a midnight chorus of praise. Now Paul finds himself in prison again. He is not writing this epistle from a chalet in the south of France or taking a few minutes out from the happy pleasures of paddling in the waters of the Bahamas. He is under arrest. And what does he say? “Hang in there, brothers and sisters, as I am trying to hang on myself”? Not a chance! “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4).[6]
      • Made new in the Attitude of your Mind: In Phil. 2, Paul instructs his readers to develop a mind like Jesus because we are blessed by Jesus.
      • Taking off the Old Self (Flesh) and Putting on the New Self (Christ developed in me): In Phil 3, Paul describes how he used to live his religious life in the flesh & his new way of living with Christ.
      • This New Way of Life in Christ: In Phil. 4, Paul urges his reader to learn how to be people of peace!
        • Rejoicing and Gentleness
        • Prayer and Thanksgiving rather than Anxiety.
        • A mind centered on God’s goodness (see also Phil. 2)
        • Putting into practice what we are learning.
        • Circumstances of my life no longer control my Joy & Peace
        • There is strength from Christ that makes all possible.

Conclusion

Finding peace in My Father’s arms: Joel and Vera. Cholic & crying (the storm within); lightning, thunder, and rain on the mountain; J & V outside under the deck swaying as the wind blows and in perfect peace.

Notes

Dallas Willard from Renovation of the Heart, Chapter 8 Transforming the Will (Heart or Spirit) and Character

Duplicity, Deceitfulness, and Darkness

The constant character of the will apart from God is duplicity—or, more accurately, fragmentation and multiplicity. It wills many things and they cannot be reconciled with each other. Turned away from God, thought and feeling fall into chaos, and the will, for reasons given above, cannot but follow. There is nothing outside it that can pull or push it right.

But this conflicted complexity may go unrecognized or unacknowledged. The will seems very simple when we first reflect upon it. We decide to go to the grocery, for example, to buy milk and bread. We decide to tell the truth (or not) in a difficult situation. The decision or choice seems as simple as a puff of wind on our cheek. But this is only because it is a nonphysical act or event, which we must strongly exert ourselves to grasp. “Who can distinguish darkness from the soul?” the poet Yeats inquired. Compared to a reading lamp or ballpoint pen, for example, its parts do not leap out at us.

When we come to reflect more deeply, however, we suddenly realize that a choice or act of will is not simple at all. The understandings, feelings, and purposes that enter into it may be highly complicated, as are the degrees of strength with which it is taken, as well as the other motivations and actions and choices to which it is related. It is a rich field for the play of good or of evil.

In a condition of alienation from God, the complexity of the human will moves irresistibly toward duplicity, not just in the harmless sense of “doubleness,” but in the sense of deception. This is the result of pretending to feel and think one way while acting in another. Often the deception involved is self-deception. Our pride will constantly trap us between desire and fear. Rather than surrender our desire, we will do what we want but conceal it because of fear of the consequences of being known. And perhaps then we will also try to conceal our fear because of our pride. We will try to pretend that there is “nothing going on” at all.

Accordingly, the natural and proper complexity of the will leads those thus living as their own god in their world into ever-deeper layers of deception, and then into darkness, where they cannot even understand themselves and why they do what they do. Adults who in their childhood had to hold the lives of addicted parents and their family together may be among the clearest illustrations of this heartbreaking condition, but in some degree everyone is subject to it.

The existentialist portrayal of sincerity as always bogus is in fact a correct picture of the will apart from God, and its emphasis upon the natural complexity of the human will is correct and helpful. That natural complexity is good and God-given. It is an essential part of human greatness. But the deceitfulness and darkness of the heart apart from God is inevitable to those who trust only themselves and so must try to take charge of their life and their world. Then, as we have quoted previously, “the heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9, nrsv). And the answer to that question is, as the prophet continues in the very next verse to say: “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways.” To God the amazing duplicity of the human heart is totally transparent.

Sad to say, we live in a world where others, including our loved ones as well as the institutions of society and government (and those running them) are with distressing regularity engaged in duplicity, deceitfulness, and darkness. It is a rare individual who does not have people around him or her who cannot be trusted to do what is right when something they desire or fear is involved. How often we have to deal with someone whom we know at the moment to be simply working out how he or she is going to mislead us. Perhaps very few of us could honestly say we are untouched in some way by our own duplicity. Few of us could honestly say that we do not sometimes have to struggle to overcome deceit and darkness, within ourselves as well as around us.

Our only hope is to entirely place our confidence in the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who is willing to enter the duplicity of our heart and bring it wholly to himself if we earnestly invite him. He is “greater than our heart, and knows all things” (1 John 3:20, emphasis added).

God Hears the Heart

The heart (will, spirit) is precisely what God observes and addresses in human beings. He cares little or nothing for outward show. He responds to the heart because it is, above all, who we are: who we choose and have chosen to be. What God wants of us can only come from there. He respects the centrality of our will and will not override it. He seeks godly character in us and for us, to fulfill the eternal destiny he has in mind for us.

But on the other hand, he is sensitive to the slightest move of the heart toward him. This is the witness of both the Bible and of life. It doesn’t matter whether you are “religious” or not (“Jew” or “Greek”), for “The same one is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for ‘Whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved’ ” (Romans 10:12–13).

Multitudes of people have come to a full knowledge of God because in a moment of complete hopelessness they prayed “The Atheist’s Prayer” or something like it: “O God, if there is a God, save my soul if I have a soul.” When that is the true cry of the heart, of the inmost spirit of the individual, who has no longer any hope other than God, God hears and responds without fail. It is as if he has a “heart monitor” installed in every person. And when the heart truly reaches out to God as God, no longer looking to itself or others, he responds with the gift of “life from above.”

In fact, God is constantly looking for people who will worship him “in spirit and in truth.” What does that mean? It means people who have free-hearted and wholehearted admiration, respect, and commitment to God as the highest being of all. They never try to conceal anything from him and always rely completely on him. God is actively seeking such people, whoever they may turn out to be—even a despised, sixth-hand woman of Samaria, so ashamed that she would dare go to the well for water only in the heat of noonday, to avoid social contacts (John 4:6). God is spirit, we recall, and nothing is hidden from him. So those who worship him must worship him in spirit and therefore in truth (4:23–24). At the level of the human spirit, nothing can be hidden. Lying always depends upon the use of our body.

Shouting to God

No great sophistication or information about God is required to be reached by God. Edith Schaeffer tells of a man from the Lisu tribe far out in the hills back of China. There was in him a great longing for a God he did not know. One day he found on a mountain path a page torn from a Lisu catechism. He read: “Are there more gods than One?”—“No, there is only One God.” “Should we worship idols?”—“No …” And the rest was torn away.

He went home and destroyed his altars. Immediately his daughter became very ill and his neighbors taunted him for making the demons angry. The man thought if there was one true God perhaps he could reach that God with his voice. He knew nothing about prayer, but he climbed to the top of the highest peak in the vicinity—twelve or fourteen thousand feet high—and shouted out, “Oh, God, if You really are there and You are the One I am to worship, please make my little girl well again.”

It took a long time to climb back down, but upon arriving home he found the little girl completely well, with no time of recuperation needed. She had recovered at the time he had prayed. That man became an effective evangelist across the entire area. Edith Schaeffer comments: “There will be so many stories to compare with [this man’s] that I picture us taking thousands of years to find out about them all.” This is because of the seeking God who constantly “monitors” hearts.

And as for those whose heart is at its core completely given to him, who completely rely on and hope in him, “The eyes of the Lord move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support” them (2 Chronicles 16:9). And “the eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry” (Psalm 34:15). Little children, whose hearts are not fully formed are especially cared for by God. “Their angels in the heavens are always in direct contact with my Father in the heavens” (Matthew 18:10, par). Knowing what happens to little children in this world, how could one keep their sanity without such an assurance? Jesus assures us that children are cared for by God, no matter how things appear to our senses.

From Surrender to Drama

In the progression toward complete identification of our will with God’s there are distinctions to be noted. First there is surrender. When we surrender our will to God we consent to his supremacy in all things. Perhaps we do so grudgingly. We recognize his supremacy intellectually, and we concede to it in practice—though we still may not like it, and parts of us may still resist it.

We may not be able to do his will, but we are willing to will it. In this condition there is still much grumbling and complaining about our life and about God. Andrew Murray comments that “we find the Christian life so difficult because we seek for God’s blessing while we live in our own will. We should be glad to live the Christian life according to our own liking.”

Still, this is an important move forward. The center of the self, the heart or spirit, is now willing for God to be God—even if with little hope or enthusiasm. Perhaps it is only willing to be made willing. But it is for lack of this minimal identification with God’s will that multitudes of people are unable to understand the truth of Jesus (John 7:17). Such persons are not willing to do his will, and hence God does not open their understanding, and they cannot do so. They are left to struggle in the darkness, which in fact they desire. And they will certainly reproach God for not giving them more light, though they are unwilling to act on the light they have.

But if grace and wisdom prevail in the life of the one who only surrenders to God’s will, he or she will move on to abandonment. Then the individual is fully surrendered. There is no longer any part of himself or herself that holds back from God’s will. Typically, at this point, surrender now covers all the circumstances of life, not just the truth about God and his explicit will (commandments) for human beings, given through the Bible.

While some things that happen to us may clearly not be what God would wish or has brought about, yet he does allow all—the tragic loss of a loved one, for example, or of health or opportunity, or a grievous wrong done to us by the sins of others. Otherwise such things would not happen. We therefore no longer fret over “the bad things that happen to good people,” though we may undergo much hardship and suffering. While he does not cause these things to happen, we now accept them as within his plan for good to those who love him and are living in his purposes (Romans 8:28). Irredeemable harm does not befall those who willingly live in the hand of God. What an astonishing reality!

Accordingly, older Christian writers often speak of how we are privileged to “kiss the rod” of affliction which strikes us, even while trembling with weakness and pain. What a crucial lesson this is for spiritual transformation! We cease to live on edge, wondering, “Will God do what I want?” Pain will not turn to bitterness or disappointment to paralysis. Such a one has learned, in the words of Tennyson, to

… so forecast the years,

And find in loss a gain to match,

And reach a hand through time to catch

The far-off interest of tears.

But there is still more. Beyond abandonment is contentment with the will of God: not only with his being who he is and ordaining what he has ordained in general, but with the lot that has fallen to us. At this point in the progression toward complete identification with the will of God, gratitude and joy are the steady tone of our life. We are now assured that God has done, and will always do, well by us—no matter what! Dreary, foot-dragging surrender to God looks like a far distant country. Also, at this point, duplicity looks like utter foolishness in which no sane person would be involved. Grumbling and complaining are gone (Philippians 2:14–15)—not painstakingly resisted or eliminated, but simply unthought of. “Rejoice evermore” is natural and appropriate.

From Abandonment to Contentment—and Participation

But we are not done yet! Beyond contentment lies intelligent, energetic participation in accomplishing God’s will in our world. We are no longer spectators, but are caught up in a vivid and eternal drama in which we play an essential part. We embrace our imposed circumstances, no matter how tragic they seem, and act for the good in a power beyond ourselves. “We are reigning—exercising dominion—in life by One, Christ Jesus” (Romans 5:17, par), looking toward an eternity of reigning with God through ages of ages (Revelation 22:5). We take action to accomplish the will of God in his power. Our tiny “willpower” is not the source of our strength. We hardly notice any exercise of it, though it is fully dedicated to carrying out God’s purposes in every respect. But we are carried along by the power of the divine drama within which we live actively engaged. So far from struggling to resist sin, we are devoted to realization of righteousness all around us. This is the real meaning of “Yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” The strongest human will is always the one that is surrendered to God’s will and acts with it.

This progression toward full identification of our will with God’s will is one that, perhaps for most people, may not be fully realized in this life. But that does not really matter. It is a progression that is there for us to enter into now, through the power at work within us as disciples of Jesus Christ. It may be that at present we cannot even imagine what it would be like for us to have a will significantly identified with God’s will as just described. But we must never forget that he “is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, in terms of the power that is working within us” (Ephesians 3:20, par; compare Isaiah 64:4). Our part is to begin as best we can.

“To Will One Thing”

Now, when we set out on the path of the surrendered will we find we must come to grips with our fallen character. This character will have taken over our habitual or “automatic” ways of thinking and feeling, shaped our social world past and present, permeated our body and its responses, and even sunk down into the unconscious depths of our soul. As the diagram on page 40 indicates, what we actually do arises out of all these factors. In their fallen character these factors will usually not be in accordance with the genuine intentions of our reborn spirit or will. The fallen character in fact poises every element of our being against God.

The condition we find ourselves in can best be described as one of entanglement. By contrast, the condition we must move to is that of single-minded focus upon doing the will of God in everything, distracted by nothing.

  1. T. Studd once upset some of his missionary comrades in the Congo by what he called his “DCD Campaign.” “DCD” stood for “Don’t Care a Damn” for anything but Christ. He made up a skull and crossbones insignia and imposed “DCD” upon it, to wear on jackets and caps and to stick on buildings and equipment. “His intention was that he and his missionary team should care for nothing before Christ (not even their family and friends). Nothing should be allowed to detract from that or conflict with it. All lesser desires had to be done to death (hence the macabre badge!).” Some people, of course, were more concerned about language they thought was wrong than about hearts not set wholly on Christ.

In our fallen world very few people live with a focused will, even a will focused on an evil. We have heard from W. B. Yeats that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But, in fact—and we can be thankful for this—even “the worst” rarely have much intensity about them. There are always the “Hitlers” of this world, however. Evil people who are genuinely focused can gain the great power they do over others because of the fact that good people and evil people alike are, for the most part, simply drifting through life.

The “CEO” of the self has abandoned its post to other dimensions of the self and is dragged hither and thither by them. In our culture today the direction of the self is usually left to feelings; and the will, if it is recognized at all, is either identified with feelings or else regarded as helpless in the face of feelings. The cognitive side of the mind is hijacked to rationalize it all by producing or borrowing suitable “insights,” usually lying ready to hand in surrounding culture.

David Hume’s eighteenth-century claim that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” was prophetic of a world to come—our present world—to the existence of which he significantly contributed: a world of perpetual drift in which manipulation and entanglement of the will is simply unavoidable.

“Purity of heart,” Kierkegaard once said, “is to will one thing.” Before we can come to rest in such single-mindedness as the habitual orientation of all dimensions of our being, to allow it and to sustain it, a serious battle is required. But the call of grace and wisdom is nonetheless to “lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and … run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:1–2) and on his own example of single-minded pursuit of God’s will, even to the point of death.

“No soldier in active service entangles himself in the affairs of everyday life,” Paul reminded Timothy, “so that he may please the one who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:4). Dear Martha was “worried and bothered about so many things,” as Jesus pointed out, while only a few things are necessary, really only one, “Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42). And Paul’s own testimony was that he really did only one thing, which was to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).

The Power of Untamed Desire

Now, the primary source of our entanglement is our desires—really, not just our desires themselves, but our enslavement to them and confusion about them. Temptation to sin always originates in desire (James 1:14–15). We have set our hearts on too many different things, some of which are wrong or evil, and all of which are in conflict with some others. We have already discussed this matter with reference to James 4:1–3. Here, perhaps, we need to add that habitual following of a desire leads to strengthening the power of that desire over us. In the realm of the will there is something like the power of inertia in the physical realm. It is easier to do what you have done than what you have not, and especially than what goes contrary to what you have done. You tend to keep on doing what you have done; and the more so, the more you have done it. That is spiritual inertia.

We may come to identify our will with our desire, and a powerful desire may throw us into something like a hypnotic state in order to achieve its satisfaction—often in horrible deeds. In addition, when the will is enslaved to a desire, it will in turn enslave the mind. To justify itself in satisfying the desire, the will enlists the intellect to provide rationalizations, frequently so bizarre that they amount to selective insanity. Then of course the individual in question does and says things that make no sense to anyone. They are hypnotized by their evil desires.

That is where the entanglements of the will with desire can lead and do lead. The “news” and the media keep cases of this constantly before us, and we need to understand what we are looking at. Otherwise we too will stand at a loss with those who say, “How could people do such things?” We need to realize that the less sensational entanglements of ordinary lives—perhaps Christian lives—are precisely what keep well-intentioned people from following Christ into the depths and heights of spiritual transformation.

Getting Free from Entanglement

Our primary, practical aim in stepping free from the “entanglements” must be to overcome duplicity. And to overcome it we must become conscious of it, confront it, and take appropriate steps to forsake it. The point of reference in all of this is the explicit teachings of the Bible concerning the will of God. He that “has my commandments and keeps them, he it is that loves me,” Jesus said (John 14:21). The person who intends to will what God wills—to identify his or her will with God’s—begins with what God has said he wills. And we do not need to know all he has said, though under New Testament teaching that is not as difficult as it sounds (Romans 13:8–10). We can begin with what we know he has said. Let us firmly decide to do that. This will quickly lead us into the depths of spiritual transformation, including adequate knowledge of all of his will for us.

Who does not know, for example, that it is God’s will we should be without guile and malice? Then let us decide never to mislead people and never to do or say things merely to cause pain or harm. Let us decide that today, right now, we will not do such things. You might think that this is a very small part of identifying with God’s will. But in fact lying and malice are foundational sins. They make possible and actual many other sins. If you removed them, the structure of evil in the individual and in society would be very largely eliminated. From family fights and breakups to warfare, the human landscape would be transformed beyond recognition.

Of course when we begin to implement our decision, we discover that it is no simple task. We discover what a grip duplicity and malice have on us in every dimension of our being. Our thoughts and feelings and our usual routines of action, and perhaps even forces beyond our conscious grasp or understanding, have an influence over our choices that is much more powerful and complicated than we ever imagined while we simply went along with them.

We can never sufficiently emphasize the fact that spiritual formation cannot be a matter of just changing the will itself. That is central, of course, but it cannot be accomplished except by transformation of the other dimensions of the self. We discover that mere intention or effort of will is not enough to bring about the change in us that we have hoped for and to free us from duplicity and malice. Still, we must hold to that intention and sincerely make the effort, and then we will find that help is available.

The Role of Spiritual Disciplines Here

A major service of spiritual disciplines—such as solitude (being alone with God for long periods of time), fasting (learning freedom from food and how God directly nourishes us), worship (adoration of God, as discussed in chapter 6), and service (doing good for others with no thought of ourselves)—is to cause the duplicity and malice that is buried in our will and character to surface and be dealt with. Those disciplines make room for the Word and the Spirit to work in us, and they permit destructive feelings—feelings that are usually veiled by standard practices and circumstances and by long accepted rationalizations—to be perceived and dealt with for what they are: our will and not God’s will. Those feelings are normally clothed in layer upon layer of habitual self-deception and rationalization. Typically, they will have enslaved the will, and it in turn will have coerced the mind to conceal or rationalize what is really going on. Your mind will really “talk to you” when you begin to deny fulfillment to your desires, and you will find how subtle and shameless it is. I know this from experience.

For example, our “righteous judgments” on others may, as we practice solitude or service, be recognized as ways of putting them down and us up. Our extreme busyness may be revealed as inability to trust God or unwillingness to give others a chance to contribute. Our readiness to give our opinions may turn out to be contempt for the thoughts and words of others or simply a willingness to shut them up.

Truly becoming one who wills above all to act with the kingdom of God and to have his kind of goodness (Matthew 6:33) will not happen overnight. But upon a path of clear intention and decision, with appropriate spiritual disciplines and accompanying grace to illumine and correct us when we fail, it is not as far away as many would suppose. The duplicities, entanglements, and evil intents that infect our will can be clarified and eliminated as we keep our eyes on Jesus, who initiated and perfects our faith, and “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

Sweet Will of God

Do we then lose ourselves? To succeed in identifying our will with God’s will is not, as is often mistakenly said, to have no will of our own. Far from it. To have no will is impossible. It would be to not even be a person. Rather, it is for the first time to have a will that is fully functional, not at war with itself, and capable of directing all of the parts of the self in harmony with one another under the direction of God. Now we do not hesitate to do what is right; and to do wrong we would have to work against ourselves.

In chapter 2 we said that a person with a well-kept heart is “a person who is prepared and capable of responding to the situations of life in ways that are ‘good and right’.” When through spiritual transformation we have in some measure come to know the well-kept heart in real life, we experience it as a gift of grace, no matter how hard we may have had to struggle in the process of growing into it. And it is a gift in which we find, precisely, ourselves, as Jesus taught: “He who has lost his life for My sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39).

For the first time we not only have a fully functioning will, but we also have a clear identity in the eternal kingdom of God and can day by day translate our time into an eternity embedded in our own life and in the lives of those near us. The will of God is not foreign to our will. It is sweetness, life, and strength to us. Our heart sings,

Sweet will of God,

Oh, hold me closer,

‘Til I am wholly lost in Thee.[7]

D.A. Carson on Phil. 4:4-13

Resolve Always to Rejoice in the Lord (4:4)

Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4). Of course, Paul has already introduced this theme into his letter. In the first chapter, Paul assured his readers, “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel . . .” (1:4–5). The theme recurs in chapter 2: Paul is ready to be poured out as a kind of drink offering, a sacrifice on top of all their sacrifices, and if this should transpire, he would be glad and rejoice with them and expect them to be glad and rejoice with him (2:17–18). The same theme is picked up in chapter 3: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” (3:1). And now it returns once more, and in a most emphatic form.

Doubtless the Philippians could not read many such exhortations from the apostle without remembering that Paul had been a prime example of this virtue when he had first preached the gospel among them. According to Acts 16, he and Silas were arrested and thrown into prison. Beaten, bruised, their feet in stocks, they displayed not a whiff of self-pity. Far from it; they began a midnight chorus of praise. Now Paul finds himself in prison again. He is not writing this epistle from a chalet in the south of France or taking a few minutes out from the happy pleasures of paddling in the waters of the Bahamas. He is under arrest. And what does he say? “Hang in there, brothers and sisters, as I am trying to hang on myself”? Not a chance! “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4).

In one sense, this injunction is so self-evidently right that it is embarrassing that we should have to be reminded of it. Surely all redeemed men and women will want to rejoice in the Lord. Our sins have been forgiven! We have been declared righteous because another has borne our guilt. We have received the gift of the Spirit, the down payment of the promised inheritance that will be ours when Jesus comes again. We are children of the living God. Our “threescore years and ten” may be fraught with difficulty, but eternity awaits us, secured by the Son of God. We shall see Christ face to face and spend an eternity in the purest worship and in consummated holiness. If we fail to respond with joy and gratitude when we are reminded of these things, it is either because we have not properly grasped the depth of the abyss of our own sinful natures and of the curse from which we have been freed by Jesus or because we have not adequately surveyed the splendor of the heights to which we have been raised.

Happy, then, the believer who can repeat David’s words with renewed understanding, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:2–3). Happy the Christian who sees in every sin a monster that could easily snare him eternally, were it not for the grace of God. Small wonder, then, that Peter writes, “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9). The kingdom of God may be entered through suffering (Acts 14:22), but it is characterized by joy. Paul insists that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking”—that is, of obeying rules and observing kosher food laws—“but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (Rom. 14:17–18).

But note some details in the text. First, we are exhorted to rejoice in the Lord. The controlling issue is not the style of rejoicing, but the ground. We are not necessarily rejoicing in the Lord when we are boisterous and loud and uninhibited in a large conference hall where the singing is swinging. Such praise may in some instances be entirely appropriate; equally, joy in the Lord may be happily expressed in solemn silence, in tears of gratitude, in sheer delight in times of prayer. But Paul’s focus is not on the style; it is on the ground of the rejoicing.

The ultimate ground of our rejoicing can never be our circumstances, even though we as Christians recognize that our circumstances are providentially arranged. If our joy derives primarily from our circumstances, then when our circumstances change, we will be miserable. Our delight must be in the Lord himself. That is what enables us to live with joy above our circumstances. As Nehemiah puts it, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Lord sometimes allows miserable circumstances to lash us—that we may learn this lesson. Perhaps that is why James, the half brother of our Lord, wisely counsels, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4). Whatever the mysteries of evil and sorrow, they do have the salutary effect of helping believers to shift the ground of their joy from created things to the Creator, from the temporary to the eternal, from jingoism to Jesus, from consumption to God. As the song puts it, “He washed my eyes with tears, that I might see.”

Second, the text implicitly answers two questions: (1) When and (2) for how long are we to rejoice in the Lord? To both questions, the text answers with one word: Always. “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). And this is a command, not simply good advice. Obedience to this command is possible because the ground of this rejoicing is changeless. Our circumstances may rightly call from us grief, tears, and sorrow. Unless the Lord comes back first, each of us will face death—our own, and if we live long enough, the death of loved ones and friends. And we will weep. But even in our tears, we may rejoice, we will rejoice, we must rejoice, for we rejoice in the Lord. He does not change. And that is why we shall rejoice in the Lord always.

God well knows that a believer who conscientiously obeys this command cannot be a backbiter or a gossip. Such a believer cannot be spiritually proud or filled with conceit, cannot be stingy or prayerless, cannot be a chronic complainer or perpetually bitter. The cure for a crushed and bitter spirit is to see Christ Jesus the Lord and then to rejoice in him. Lurking and nourished sins are always a sign that our vision of Jesus is dim and that our joy in him has evaporated with the morning dew. By contrast, the believer who practices rejoicing in the Lord will increasingly discover balm in the midst of heartache, rest in the midst of exhausting tension, love in the midst of loneliness, and the presence of God in control of excruciating circumstances. Such a believer never gives up the Christian walk. Resolve always to rejoice in the Lord.

Resolve to Be Known for Gentleness (4:5)

That is what Paul commands: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (4:5). The word rendered “gentleness” in the niv is not easy to translate. Some older versions offer “forbearance,” which isn’t bad. It refers to the exact opposite of a spirit of contention and self-seeking, which is why the niv opts for “gentleness.” But this gentleness must not be confused with being a wimp, with the kind of person whose personality is akin to a wet dishcloth. What is in view is a certain kind of willed, self-effacing kindness.

That suggests that there is some irony in Paul’s exhortation. We crystallize it if we overtranslate: “Be known for being self-effacing.” The pedant might argue that being self-effacing precludes the desire to be known; trying to be known for something surely rules out being known for being self-effacing. But now we are close to the point Paul is making.

What do most of us want to be known for? Do you want to be known for your extraordinary good looks? Do you want to be known for your quick wit, for your sense of humor, for your sagacity? Do you want to be known for your wealth, for your family connections? Or perhaps you are more pious and want to be known for your prayer life or for your excellent skills as a leader of inductive Bible studies. Many a preacher wants to be known for his preaching.

How appalling. The sad fact is that even our highest and best motives are so easily corroded by self-interest that we begin to overlook this painful reality. Paul cuts to the heart of the issue: Be known for gentleness.

The “self-sins” are tricky things, damnably treacherous. In one of his books, A. W. Tozer writes:

To be specific, the self-sins are these: self-righteousness, self-pity, self-confidence, self-sufficiency, self-admiration, self-love and a host of others like them. They dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins, egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion, are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. . . . Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice.

That was written almost half a century ago. What would Tozer say now? He goes on:

Self can live unrebuked at the very altar. It can watch the bleeding Victim die and not be in the least affected by what it sees. It can fight for the faith of the Reformers and preach eloquently the creed of salvation by grace, and gain strength by its efforts. To tell all the truth, it seems actually to feed upon orthodoxy and is more at home in a Bible Conference than in a tavern. Our very state of longing after God may afford it an excellent condition under which to thrive and grow.

It is so very easy to mistake the genuine movement of the Spirit for assorted counterfeits. Or perhaps more difficult yet is the movement where there is something genuinely of God and not a little of the flesh. In the last century in America, there were many “camp revivals.” These were evangelistic and holiness meetings aimed at calling people to repentance. On the American frontier, they were often very well attended. Doubtless they were a means of blessing to many. But a rather painful study has shown that nine months after many of these “camp revivals,” there was a very high illegitimacy rate. Isn’t that remarkable? One can understand why. There was such a spirit of friendship and camaraderie and closeness that intimacy in one arena spilled over into intimacy in another, until one of the fruits of “camp revivals” was a disproportionately high illegitimacy rate. Surely that was not of God!

One of the tests that can be applied to determine whether a movement is of God—though certainly it is not the only one—is to observe to what degree those affected are making it their aim to be known for gentleness. In this, they are becoming like their Master. Is that not one of the lessons made clear in chapter 2 of this epistle? “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5), Paul insists, and then he outlines how this Jesus—though he enjoyed equality with God—did not view such equality as something to be exploited, but made himself nothing, became a human being, and died the ignominious and shameful death of crucifixion. He became known for selflessness.

May God grant that all who read these pages will pray earnestly for this virtue and resolve steadily to pursue it. For such believers will never be moved; they will never give up the Christian walk.

Sometimes we sing these things better than we live them:

May the Word of God dwell richly

In my heart from hour to hour,

So that all may see I triumph

Only through his power.

May the love of Jesus fill me,

As the waters fill the sea;

Him exalting, self abasing—

This is victory.

May his beauty rest upon me

As I seek the lost to win,

And may they forget the channel,

Seeing only him.

Kate Barclay Wilkinson,
May the Mind of Christ, My Savior

Resolve to be known for gentleness.

Paul gives us a specific reason why we should obey this injunction. “Let your gentleness be evident to all,” he writes and then adds, “The Lord is near” (4:5). This could mean one of two things. Both make sense, and I am not quite certain which the apostle means.

Paul could mean that the Lord is near temporally; that is, that he is coming soon. In that case, the argument runs like this: In light of the impending return of the Lord Jesus (to which urgent reference was made at the end of Philippians 3), there is more than a little incentive to be gentle and selfless. The Lord’s return provides incentive. As the apostle John writes elsewhere, “Everyone who has this hope [the hope of the Lord’s return and of our transformation at that time] in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:3).

What would you like to be doing when Jesus comes again?

What would you like to be saying when Jesus comes again?

What would you like to be thinking when Jesus comes again?

Each of us can readily think of what we would not like to be doing or saying or thinking when Jesus comes again. When I was a boy in Sunday School, we sang the chorus:

Doing good deeds, sowing good seed,

Leaving life’s follies behind me;

Doing my best, standing each test—

That’s how I want the Lord to find me.

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (4:5).

That is one way of reading the second part of this verse. But because of the particular expressions that Paul uses, I suspect it is marginally more likely that Paul means the Lord is near spatially or perhaps better personally. He is not far off; he is very near. How then can we give ourselves to self-promotion?

Suppose, for a moment, that the resurrected and exalted Lord walked into the room where you and your friends were seated. Suppose that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to his identity. How would you respond? Would you immediately rush up to him and strut your excellence? As he showed you a glimpse of his glory and turned over his nail-scarred hands, would you be quick to parade your virtues? Would self-promotion play any part in your thinking at that point? Not a chance! But that is the point: the Lord Jesus has promised to be present, by his Spirit, where even two or three of his disciples gather in his name. Does it change the fundamental reality simply because we cannot see him at the moment?

“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (4:5).

Resolve Not to Be Anxious about Anything, but Learn Instead to Pray (4:6–7)

This is perhaps the most striking resolution so far, yet it is nothing but a paraphrase of Paul’s own words: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6).

There is a sense in which our society demands that we worry on a broader scale than any society in the history of the human race. If we were to travel back in time eight hundred years or so, we would discover that most people in Europe worried about nothing more than local matters. Of course, those local matters could be severe: medical help was not impressive; most families lost one or more children; life could be harsh, brutal, and short. But communication with other parts of the world was difficult and late. Most people gave little thought to what people were doing in the next county, let alone the next country or the next continent. Apart from extraordinary events, like the Crusades, when your local feudal lord might sweep you up and carry you off to war, you were not called upon to worry about the international scene. Even national news that could affect you was late and essentially alien. The overwhelming majority of people could scarcely visualize their monarch, for of course no pictures or photographs were printed and circulated.

Then came the printing press. It was followed by the telegraph. Alexander Bell invented the telephone; Marconi invented the radio. Not that long ago we started decorating the sky with satellites. My e-mail exchanges with a colleague in, say, Papua New Guinea bounce off a reflector twenty-two thousand miles out in space. But the result of these greatly improved communications, of course, is that we now speak of the “global village.” A few shots can be fired almost anywhere in the world, and if, in the opinion of the news editors, nothing of greater significance has happened to claim prime-time television, the entire episode will be replayed that night on the evening news, inviting your worry.

So our advances in communications demand that we worry about peace, economics, famine in the Sahel, enormous disparities of wealth in Latin America and the Philippines, cultural decline in the West, the breakup of the Soviet empire, civil conflict in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda, and on and on.

Of course, our worries are not limited to international affairs. Personal and cultural problems are constantly polled, demographically checked, statistically analyzed, and paraded in our newspapers and on our televisions. Then the economy changes, and suddenly very few have permanent jobs, and some do not have jobs at all. Then of course we can add in the regular parade of pressures: car troubles, conflict with colleagues at work, impending exams and the expectations that family and friends impose, competition at work, a degenerating family, an arid marriage, a rebellious teenager, bereavement, financial insecurity. Pressures mount and surround us and bully us, until even the Christian who hears the injunction of this passage (“Do not be anxious about anything”) smiles half bitterly and mutters, “You don’t understand; it can’t be done.”

But of course, it can be done. Part of our problem is that we hear this command not to worry—perhaps at a conference or in a book—and we smile piously, grit our teeth, resolve not to worry, and promptly begin to worry about not worrying. What we overlook is that Scripture here tells us how to overcome our anxieties. “Do not be anxious about anything” is not a naked prohibition; the alternative is immediately provided: “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6).

Those of us who have been born into the family of God know about these things. But knowing about them and finding them true in our experience are two different things. When was the last time you prayed explicitly and at length over the things that worry you, trouble you, plague you? Did you take them out and recount them to God, one by one, laying your burdens on him?

Time, time alone and quiet before God, that is what we need. Our lives are so rushed that we begrudge a three-minute “quiet time,” and then we wonder where God is. Yet the psalmist had it right: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust’ ” (Ps. 91:1–2). Christians who come before the Father in regular prayer discover that Peter is right: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). They discover that Paul is right: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We are refreshed in the assurance of God’s sovereign and wise goodness. According to Philippians 4, the way to be anxious about nothing is to be prayerful about everything: “in everything, by prayer and petition . . . present your requests to God” (4:6). J. A. Bengel was right to insist that anxiety and genuine prayer are more opposed to each other than fire and water. I have yet to meet a chronic worrier who enjoys an excellent prayer life.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust him for his grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan his work in vain;

God is his own interpreter,

And he will make it plain.

William Cowper,
God Moves in a Mysterious Way

None of this should be misconstrued as a Pollyannish approach to life. Christians are not ostriches with heads carefully buried in the sand. None of this means that our paths will be smooth and edged with the sweetest smelling roses. There is no hint that we shall live above the pressures of other mortals by escaping them. Far from it. It is precisely in the context of the pressures we all must endure that we find our rest in God. If you worry little simply because Providence has so far blessed you with a relatively easy passage or if you worry little because you have a carefree personality, you know little of the truth of this passage. This passage does not deny the existence of anxieties, it tells us what to do with them. It does not tell us that if we have the right personality, we can live above tension; it tells us where we find strength and grace to help in times of need.

In fact, we are to go on the offensive. Not only are we to present our prayers and petitions to God, we are to do so “with thanksgiving.” This, surely, is what is elsewhere called “a sacrifice of praise” (Heb. 13:15). Anyone can offer praise when things are going well. To praise when by common human reckoning everything is the pits—this is what demands the sacrifice of praise. In Philippians 4, Paul insists that this must be our constant policy: along with our petitions and cares, we offer our heavenly Father thanksgiving. For in fact, even in the most extreme sorrow and distress, there is much for which to give thanks to God—above all, for the privilege of being reconciled to him by the death of his dear Son and for all the blessings that come our way, in this life and the next, because of this great salvation.

Resolve not to be anxious about anything, but learn instead to pray. The result, as Paul describes it, is lovely: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Once again it is clear Paul does not expect that the answer to our prayers will most likely take us out of the problems, but that our hearts and minds will be garrisoned by the peace of God. This is not some easily analyzed bit of clever psychology. At the end of the day, it is supernatural and “transcends all understanding.” It is part of well-known Christian experience, as many who read these pages can attest, and it must not be reduced to a bit of clever suggestion or escapist comfort. God’s peace stabilizes us, guards us, suffusing us with the joy of the Lord. Christians delight in trusting him. In the words of a Scottish preacher from the last century:

I stand upon the mount of God

With sunlight in my soul;

I hear the storms in vales beneath,

I hear the thunders roll.

But I am calm with Thee, my God,

Beneath these glorious skies;

And to the height on which I stand,

No storms, no clouds can rise.

O, this is life! O this is joy,

My God, to find Thee so:

Thy face to see, Thy voice to hear,

And all Thy love to know.

Horatius Bonar

Or again,

Drop thy still dews of quietness,

Till all our strivings cease;

Take from our souls the strain and stress,

And let our ordered lives confess

The beauty of thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire

Thy coolness and thy balm;

Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;

Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,

O still small voice of calm!

John Greenleaf Whittier,
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind

Resolve not to be anxious about anything, but learn instead to pray. Nothing will prove so effective in strengthening your spiritual stamina, in giving you grace never to give up the Christian walk.

Resolve to Think Holy Thoughts (4:8–9)

That, surely, is what Paul means: “Finally, brothers, 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” (4:8).

It always makes me fearful to remember that God knows my thoughts. Hebrews 4:13 reminds us, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Small wonder that David, after his sin with Bathsheba, could write, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Ps. 139:23–24).

Clearly, David recognized not only that God knew his thoughts, but that any real reform in his life must begin with his thoughts. That is why the Lord Jesus taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that murder can be traced to hate, and adultery to lust (Matt. 5:21–22, 27–30). That is also why, from God’s perspective, the real measure of individuals lies in what they think—not in what they own or in how well they deploy their gifts or even in what they do, but in what they think. If you think holy thoughts, you will be holy; if you think garbage, you will be garbage.

So it should come as no surprise that the prophets insist, “Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts” (Isa. 55:7). One of the sovereign remedies against sin is to spend much time, thoughtful time, meditative time, in the Scriptures, for it is impossible to get rid of the trash in our minds without replacing it with an entirely different way of thinking. Even kings and leaders, extraordinarily busy people, are told to make this their first priority (Deut. 17:18–20; Josh. 1:7–9). On the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed for his followers in these terms: “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). There is no enduring sanctification apart from the truth of the gospel taking hold of our minds. The way we avoid being conformed to this world, the way we are transformed into conformity with Christ, is by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2).

I know it is possible for people to gain a sort of mechanical knowledge of Scripture that is not characterized by repentance and faith and that therefore remains spiritually fruitless. But for most of us, that is not our current danger. Our current danger is that we make very little effort to think God’s thoughts after him, to hide his word in our heart that we might not sin against him (Ps. 119:11). To hide God’s word in our hearts—as opposed to our computers—means we ought to memorize it, read and reread it, think about it, turn it over in our minds. Only such committed absorption of what God says will enable us in turn to confront and change the unbiblical worldviews all around us, or as Paul puts it, to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” and to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

In the passage before us, Paul puts things in the most concrete way. Think about true things, Paul insists, not about the false. Think about noble things, not the base. Think about whatever is right; do not dwell on the wrong. (What does this say about the programs you watch on television?) Think about whatever is pure, not the sleazy. Think about the lovely, not the disgusting. Think about the admirable, not the despicable. Whatever is excellent, think about it.

This is not some escapist demand to avoid the harsh realities of our fallen world. The sad fact is that many people dwell on dirt without grasping that it is dirt. The wise Christian will see plenty of dirt in the world, but will recognize it as dirt, precisely because everything that is clean has captured his or her mind. The hymn writer was right (one of those I learned as a child, and whose source escapes me):

Guide my thoughts, keep them from straying

Into paths unwise for me,

Lest I should, thy love betraying,

Turn aside from Calvary.

Or again:

May the mind of Christ, my Savior,

Live in me from day to day,

By his love and power controlling

All I do and say.

Kate Barclay Wilkinson,
May the Mind of Christ, My Savior

Resolve to think holy thoughts.

Moreover, this verse (Phil. 4:8) is tightly tied to the next. After telling the Philippian believers to think holy thoughts, Paul goes on to say, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (4:9). In other words, Paul is returning to a theme that was very strong in the previous chapter: we are to emulate worthy Christian leaders. In this context, that theme is now applied to the discipline of the mind. We are to emulate Christian leaders who have clearly disciplined their minds. Of course, we have no access to the mind and thoughts of another except through what that mind says and does. But that is the point. Paul is saying, in effect: What was on my mind when I was with you? What did I talk about? What did I read? What was the burden of my conversation? What did I value? What did I do to improve my mind? “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (4:9).

Resolve to think holy thoughts. This is foundational to the commitment never to give up the Christian walk.

Resolve to Learn the Secret of Contentment (4:10–13)

Paul begins this paragraph by commenting again on the Philippians’ concern to meet Paul’s needs by sending support: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me” (4:10). The phrase “at last” does not in this context carry derogatory overtones that blame the Philippians for being so slow, as if Paul were saying, “At last, you have finally got around to it.” Rather it means that now, in these last few days or weeks, after an extended hiatus caused by all sorts of things (not least Paul’s constant travels), you have renewed the concern for me that you showed in the early days ten years ago. That this is what Paul means is made clear by his next sentence: “Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it” (4:10).

But Paul very shrewdly grasps how his exuberant thanks to the Philippians could be misunderstood. Some people voice their thanks in such a way that it is hard to avoid the inference that they are hoping for another gift. Perhaps they grovel; perhaps there is nothing tangible in their thanks that you can put your finger on, but you feel slightly manipulated anyway. Once in a while missionary prayer letters sound this way; very often the thank-you letters from non-profit organizations sound this way. In any case, Paul takes no chances; he wants to distance himself from all of these possibilities, so he immediately explains his own motives: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (4:11–13).

This is a remarkable stance. Note especially two features of it:

First, the secret of contentment is not normally learned in posh circumstances or in deprived circumstances, but in exposure to both. Perhaps you have come from a well-to-do background, and you have never lacked anything. You have never had anything you valued taken away from you. The question arises whether you would be comfortable and content if you were suddenly forced to live in poverty. But on the other side, you may have come from a really poor background. Perhaps you learned to handle the uncertainty and the deprivation in godly ways. But now the question arises whether you could be content if you suddenly fell into wealth. Would it instantly corrupt you? Or would you feel so guilty with all these possessions that you could scarcely look at yourself in the mirror?

Paul carefully insists that his own contentment operates under both conditions: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (4:12). He avoids the arrogance that is often associated with wealth; he also avoids the kind of spiritual arrogance that is often associated with poverty. The brute fact is that Paul is content in both circumstances because his contentment is utterly independent of circumstances. His contentment is focused on all that he enjoys of Christ Jesus. That means he has learned, by hard experience, a relaxed contentment whatever his circumstances.

Second, the secret of Christian contentment is quite unlike stoic self-sufficiency. Paul is not claiming to be so strong that nothing can move him. Nor is he simply resolving to be independent of circumstances by a superlative act of will. Far from it; he immediately confesses that if he has reached this stage of contentment he owes everything to God: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (4:13).

This verse is often wrenched out of its context. Paul is not claiming to be a kind of superman because he is a Christian and God is on his side. The “everything” in this verse is certainly not unlimited, as if Paul could be read to mean, “I can raise the dead” or “I can walk on water” or “I can show you how cold fusion is a practical possibility.” By the same token, the verse should not be deployed by well-meaning but ill-informed church leaders who are trying to manipulate church members into doing something they really do not think they should do: “But Mrs. Jones, you can’t say no to our invitation to teach ten-year-old boys, just because you’ve never taught a Sunday School class before or just because you feel you have no gifts or calling or interest in this area. After all, Paul teaches us that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.” That is horrible.

Paul’s “everything” is constrained by the context. His point is that whatever the circumstances in which he finds himself, whether with the rich and the powerful or with the poor and the powerless, whether preaching with unction to substantial crowds or incarcerated in a filthy prison, he has learned to cast himself on God and to be content. He can do all these things, everything that God assigns him to do, through the one who gives him strength. Let the gospel advance, let God’s will be done in me and through me, Paul is saying, I am content, for I can trust the one who invariably strengthens me to do what he assigns me.

It takes the strength and resolution and perspective that only God can provide to live above changing, difficult circumstances. But to live above circumstances, utterly content in Christ Jesus, is to ensure that you will never give up the Christian walk. Resolve to learn the secret of contentment[8]

[1] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (pp. 130–131). NavPress.

[2] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (pp. 132–133). NavPress.

[3] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (p. 133). NavPress.

[4] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (p. 134). NavPress.

[5] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (p. 135). NavPress.

[6] Carson, D. A. (1996). Basics for believers: an exposition of Philippians (pp. 103–104). Baker Books.

[7] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (pp. 147–157). NavPress.

[8] Carson, D. A. (1996). Basics for believers: an exposition of Philippians (pp. 103–120). Baker Books.

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