“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9 ESV)
Recently, at a gathering of several Christian families, I found myself in a friendly debate with one of our dear friends. As we celebrated the arrival of autumn and enjoyed a bounty of food and drink, we jousted over whether these tangible blessings were good in themselves (my position) or whether they were only as we enjoyed them (her position).
Our friend maintained that because man both uses and abuses all sorts of gifts from God, the goodness or badness of created things ultimately depends upon what man, made in God’s image, will do with them. To counter, I argued that God had ordained certain ends for earthly things from creation—horses for riding, grain for bread-baking, grapes for fermenting and drinking. When we utilize created things according to their created purposes, we enjoy God’s purposeful design and give him glory, and it is good. But when we treat created things contrary to their God-given nature, we abuse them—yet the thing itself is not thereby bad or corrupt; we are.
Eventually, our friendly back and forth faded in the merriment of the evening. But the exchange reminded me of the ease with which, even as Christians, we are prone to take the objective goodness of God’s world and confine it to the subjective interior of our hearts.
Ancient philosophy and later Christian scholastic theology commonly spoke of three primary transcendentals: the good, the true, and the beautiful. In metaphysics, these three transcendentals relate to three faculties inherent in man: morality (goodness), rationality (truth), and aesthetics (beauty). Each of the three properties all find their source in God—and thus play an indispensable role in the life of the Christian.
The Apostle Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians with a series of exhortations and encouragements, warning the beleaguered church to avoid carnal influencers (3:18), congregational disunity (4:2-3), and worldly worry (v. 6). Then, reaching a rhetorical climax, he calls readers to dwell upon whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (v. 8). Entertaining such edifying thoughts is a prerequisite for anxiety-free Christian joy (vv. 4, 6).
Paul is not calling readers to merely focus on whatever they subjectively judge to be enjoyable; no doubt all sorts of frivolities would result if this were the case. Rather, he expects readers to already know that which is objectively good, true, and beautiful from a heavenly perspective. He recognizes there are many varied manifestations of goodness, with God being the source of all. He emphasizes: “if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy” (NKJV; italics added)—appealing to the broadest common denominator.
Neither is Paul advocating for mere positive thinking without action. No doubt the “enemies of the cross” of the preceding chapter (3:18) would have. But for Paul, the purpose of pondering what is good, true, and beautiful is to enact goodness, truth, and beauty: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (4:9). John Gill expounds: “meditate upon them, revolve them in your minds, seriously consider them, and reason with yourselves about them, in order to put them into practice.”
Notice the bookending. First, Paul had promised that, through prayer, they would experience the peace of God (v. 7); now, the God of peace will be with them. Calvin comments here that “the presence of God brings us every kind of blessing[.]” This heightened promise, glorious as it is, is also conditional upon the Philippians’ putting into practice what Paul has taught and modeled—or, as Calvin has it, they must “apply themselves to pious and holy actions.” Paul was no empty talker; neither were his disciples to be. To experience God’s peace-giving presence in our lives, we must walk in obedience.
This order is important. Oftentimes we delay obedience as we wait for our hearts and minds to settle into the “right place.” Yet Paul, like the Prophet Jeremiah, would have us think about what is good and then walk in that path (Jeremiah 6:16). Our successful accomplishment of our Lord’s mission means we must first set our minds on what is good and then act in obedience to what we know to be good. Only then will we fully taste the peace available to us in Christ.
One more feature of this text deserves consideration. It is true that we should recognize the objective, created good that God has worked into the warp and woof of the natural order. Yet when Paul calls us to consider that which is most noble, he is ultimately calling us to consider the font of all virtue and nobility. Alexander MacLaren (1826-1910), Scottish Baptist minister, explains:
All these things, true, venerable, just, pure, lovely, and of good report, are not things only; they are embodied in a Person. For whatever things are fair meet in Jesus Christ, and He, in His living self, is the sum of all virtue and of all praise. So that if we link ourselves to Him by faith and love, and take Him into our hearts and minds, and abide in Him, we have them all gathered together into that One. Thinking on these things is not merely a meditating upon abstractions, but it is clutching and living in and with and by the living, loving Lord and Saviour of us all. If Christ is in my thoughts, all good things are there.
Why is it important for the Christian to consider the good, the true, and the beautiful? We must do so not only because we live in a world increasingly filled with evil, falsehood, and ugliness but also because the peace of our souls depends on focusing on him who is the ultimate embodiment of goodness, truth, and beauty: the Lord Jesus Christ.
I rejoice in all the gifts you so freely provide. Despite the curse of sin, you open your hands and fill us with all good things (Psalm 145:16). I praise you for filling my life with excellent blessings, and worship you as the source of all excellence and satisfaction. Grant me to draw near to you for the satisfaction of my soul and, thus satisfied, to put into practice the life of mission modeled by those who love you.
In your name,
- Pray that God would redirect your attention from worthless things (Psalm 101:3) and set your sights on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.
- Ask God to fill your home, church, and community with his goodness, truth, and beauty as a testimony to the difference Jesus makes in life.
- Pray that you, your pastors, the missionaries you know, and others dear to you would focus on what is good, act in obedience, and thereby experience God’s manifest presence as a blessed result.