Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Paul’s instructions are important for us, but life can make them so hard to follow. We are surrounded all too often by the biased, the inaccurate, and the problematic. Tabloids and clickbait try to turn our heads to the trendy, the troubled, and the tawdry. Strong television ratings rarely support the pure, and what is worthy of praise is ignored while panderers broadcast the banal. As such unhealthy items receive our attention in spite of our best intentions, we reinforce our confinement amid the cacophony of the uncommendable. Yet, Paul calls us to something better.
The first step in following Paul is to unplug from the stream of messages around us, so that we can hear the message that God would have us hear. Until we can hear ourselves think, we cannot hope to think on the things that Paul presents for us. If we withdraw for a while in a time of silence with God, we can retune our spiritual antennae to that right channels. Different Christians find that rhythm of essential silence in different ways. Some start their days an hour early with sixty minutes of quiet time with God. Others may have twenty minutes set aside a couple of times a day just to let go of all the spiritual, emotional, and mental clutter that has built up so that they can be attentive. Whatever works for an individual’s personality and place in life is good, as long as we can find moments to turn away from the world’s noise.
Once we have disconnected from thinking on unhelpful things, we can focus on those traits that Paul commends to us. The places to start looking are places those traits are most obvious – the pages of scripture, quality spiritual writings, and the godly men and women in our own lives. Our goal in thinking on these qualities is three-fold. First, we want to come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. As we spend the time with profound examples of people and actions that exemplify these characteristics, we move beyond superficial characteristics to the qualities that give someone such a godly character.
Second, as we understand these traits, we want to appropriate them for ourselves. Paul does not ask us to ponder them for our own entertainment, but so that we might become transformed ourselves. We need a church filled with people who are praiseworthy and commendable and pure and just and honorable. As we think on these traits, we allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out into the people that God wants us to be.
Third, once we have gained an understanding of these godly aspects of character and have begun to live into them, we will also learn to recognize them. At this point, we are ready to go back out into the world and see what God is up to in unexpected places.
In a world full of demonization and polarization, the people of God need to be able to look beyond the incendiary issues of the moment and see all that is truly there. In most cases, both sides have something honorable or something commendable or something worthy of praise. One side may be narrowly focused on the just and another side exclusively worried about the pure. Both sides may be seeking what is true, but without quite getting there. As Christians following Paul’s instructions, our call in the midst of the strife that remains rampant in our civic discourse is to discover the qualities Paul commends, regardless of where we might find them. Then as we find them, we can share what we see. Our country desperately needs people who can break into the mutually destructive drain-circling that passes for debate and lift up the good and the godly in our midst. Our society requires prophets that see reflections of the divine image and likeness in people who disagree. Our churches yearn for the vision to see where we can find opportunities for mutual encouragement and fellowship in the midst of our differences.
So, beloved, let us think about these things.
The Rev. Adam Trambley is rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sharon.