How are God’s people to live in a way that pleases Him? By this, I do not mean “what does a life pleasing to God look like?” but, “where can I find the power and motivation to live a God-pleasing life?” The Scriptures give a multifaceted answer to this question—be filled with the Holy Spirit, abide in Christ, have a renewed mind, trust God’s Word and promises, and so on. But an important, often overlooked, and quite foundational means to a holy life is proper thinking. Indeed, if we are not thinking biblically, we cannot pursue some of the other means to holiness!
One of the most impactful sentences I have ever read comes from Nancy Leigh DeMoss’s book Lies Women Believe. In it she writes that we live what we believe, not what we say we believe. If we believe wrong things about God, His Word, ourselves, and His world, it will bear bad fruit in our priorities, choices, emotions, values, and daily living.
Paul wrote Philippians 4 to explain how Christians can have spiritually stable and powerful lives for the glory of God. After discussing the necessity of unity (vv. 1-3) and peace through prayer (vv. 4-7), he moves to the foundational reality: a godly life fueled by transformed thinking.
A. Godly Thinking (v. 7)
The Enemy of men’s souls delights in distraction. If we have the wrong priorities, our focus will be taken off of Christ and His ways and we will lose power for living for Him and advancing His kingdom. Many in the church—even some in well-taught churches—downplay the importance of thinking, pondering, meditating, and learning. Some who are well-taught do not think through issues, tensions, qualifications, and the limits of ideas well enough, and so become overly simplistic and narrow in their thinking. Others simply do not wish to go deeply into the intricacies of doctrine, loathe precision and disciplined thought, and do not care for the finer points of theology. In both cases, this is the sin of intellectual laziness.
Others have a robust life of the mind. They love ideas, interacting with differing perspectives, precise theology and exegesis and mining all the details out of every passage of Scripture. Perhaps they enjoy apologetics and so spend their time thinking through sound doctrine and how it contrasts with the (doubtless well-understood) ideas of false religions and cults. Others may emphasis biblical and systematic theology, exegeting the text of Scripture to understand how its pieces mesh into a glorious coherent whole. But some of these very people do not seem to cross the bridge from thought to life. Perhaps they battle anger, impatience, moral impurity, listlessness, apathy, or other sins. Perhaps they are arrogant or mean-spirited. Perhaps they assume the worst about believers who know less than them. These people have lost focus on the point of knowing theology. We must know truth to live rightly, but we must not stop at knowing truth—we must do the truth! These people are practically lazy.
In both cases there has been a disastrous loss of focus. Paul wants to restore balance: we must think rightly with the goal of living rightly. He gives us eight virtues upon which to meditate that our minds might be renewed.
True. This is what is reliable and conforms to reality. Ultimately, it is what is found in God’s inerrant Word (Psa. 19:9, 119:151). The starting place is to give yourself to the meditation upon and analysis of Scripture. Good books can help you learn principles for this (how to identify and analyze a biblical paragraph, how to find main ideas, etc.), but you must do it! Your starting place must be the revealed Word of God. Only through that can you discern yourself and your world rightly.
Noble. That which is dignified, lofty, elevated, worthy of reverence. The scared as opposed to the profane. This word is frequently used in Paul’s pastoral letters to describe the right attitudes and lifestyle of church members (Titus 2:7-8, 1 Tim. 3:4, 8, 11).
Right. This is the root for the word “righteousness”; we are to focus on what conforms to God’s blindingly holy standard, instead of that which falls short of or violates it. (How much of what we dwell on is wicked and ungodly?) Dwell upon sound doctrine and holy obedience.
Pure. The Greek root for “holiness” or “sanctification” is this word. Holy, pure thoughts ought to consume us, not fantasies of lust or revenge or competition. The same word is translated as “free from sin” in 1 Timothy 5:22. Stay away from the world even in your thinking, for it does nothing but contaminate (James 1:27).
Lovely. Used only here in the NT, it refers to beauty, graciousness, and sweetness, even a pleasing fragrance. Here is a good case for filling your mind with elevated, lovely things that are not directly in Scripture. Do you know of music that meets God’s standards of beauty (i.e., it does not adopt fleshly and carnal performance and musical styles ad its lyrics present truth)? Then fill your days with it. Good art, good literature, and even good clothing and food can be expressions of proper beauty and delight that draw the mind heavenward, away from the corruption of your culture through the flesh.
Good repute. This is what is well-spoken of or highly regarded by God and upstanding men. What does He highly esteem, value, and respect? Dwell on it. This contrasts with the filthiness and foolishness condemned in Eph. 5:4.
Excellent and worthy of praise. Here again Paul uses broad categories to encourage us to focus on anything noble, good, praiseworthy, valuable, wholesome, and honorable. Focusing on the elevated and the proper, even if not something explicitly religious, will have a purifying effect on the upright heart.
“Dwell on” is the main verb in the sentence. It is a most interesting word. It carries the ideas of reflection, pondering, ascribing value or weight to, and taking into account. It was originally a mathematical term that described taking a number or value into account for an equation, and thus came to denote careful, meticulous and disciplined thinking. The apostle calls us to a disciplined, intentional thought life—“dwell” is a present-tense imperative.
Proper thinking, of course, does not mean we do not think about our sin or the fallenness of the world or the failures of the church. But it does mean we are to be proportionate about such things—they are not to consume us. Righteousness is. In a sense, this is most understandable. Do we not serve a saving God whose kingdom has already broken into the world and who has the power to redeem, transform, and make all things new? Godly thinking does not ignore sin or act as though problems do not exist. But it does not stop at the wickedness. It rises above it to look at the sovereign God, who controls all things and whose effectual power is alive in the world to remake it into His kingdom. Do we really believe this about our God? Then we must think like it!
B. Godly Living (v. 8)
The mind stayed on pure thinking will find a powerful impetus for holy living! If we live what we believe, then proper thinking will give rise to proper living. But the thinking is not enough—it must be translated to fleshed-out, applied, practiced truth. We cannot be satisfied with right thinking alone, not even the most precise, insightful, and lofty thoughts about doctrine and the Bible. It is very possible to have the most proper thinking about God and live utterly contrary to it (because in the depths of you, you really believe something else).
How are we to put into practice the truth that we know? Paul gives us four ways.
Appropriate godly instruction. “What you have learned” implies that you have learned truth from someone. You will never see all there is to see in the Word on your own. This is why you must be part of a Bible-teaching church (and why it is a good idea to avail yourself of good books and sermons from godly teachers who have persevered in the faith and in ministry). You must have your mind exposed to the truth to know and live it.
Receive. This carries two ideas. One, it implies we are to hear the Word read publicly. (After all, that is what would have been done with the letter Paul is writing.) Two, we must have a right spirit about the truth we hear. Is our spirit inclined to rebel, question, contradict, and dismiss? Or is it inclined to yield, obey, submit, and embrace?
Hear. This refers not to hearing the truth, but to hearing of the godly examples of other believers. Who do you know that responds to trial with a trusting spirit? Who has gotten victory over a stubborn sin? Who has a rich and effective prayer life? And what godly dead people from church history can influence you through biographies and their own writings?
See. What have you personally seen manifested in the lives of others that is a testimony to the truth?
All four of these ways ultimately are about giving us truth to know in a different way—and truth that holds us accountable before God for what we do with it. For we must do something. Either we believe it and choose to act on it (we become doers and not hearers only), or we merely mentally file it away but do not surrender to nor obey it, and then wonder why we can’t break a sinful habit, have answered prayer, know the Lord’s joy and presence, and live with purpose for eternity.
The danger is especially real for those who attend well-taught churches. Do you excel still more in both your understanding of and your obedience to the fullness of the truth? Or do you content yourself with shallow knowledge and a mediocre life? Press on to as much truth as God will let you understand, and beseech Him for the grace and enablement to do it. God here promises a wonderful incentive for obedience: As we apply His truth, He manifests His presence personally to us (“The God of peace will be with you”). You get more of God as you obey Him. Does this inflame your heart to know and do? Or are you so numbed by things of the world that you have no taste for Him? Pray the Lord grants you a soft, yielded heart that is responsive to His truth and that values His presence and promise.
May God help us to think on His truth to the renewing of our minds, that we might live transformed, fruitful lives for the glory of Christ!