Thought-police? No thanks!

Thought-police? No thanks! October 29, 2023

How do you apply Philippians 4:8?

 

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

 

Personally, I struggle to make sense of how fellow believers apply this verse. Years ago, I remember asking a Christian friend why he didn’t want to join me and others on a trip to the cinema, and his answer was to quote this verse. It was a James Bond movie, but for him, anything created ‘by the world’ couldn’t be pure.

 

I once shared this view, refusing to watch movies, listen to secular music, or even read novels written by ‘non-Christian’ writers, even though all those things brought me joy. I chucked my CD collection in the bin, thinking that’s what a godly person ought to do, and engaged in other forms of denial that did me no good whatsoever.

 

The mistake is a simple one – reading the verse as if it instructs us to ‘only think about such things’. A life spent avoiding difficult thoughts and refusing to dwell on darkness would surely be shallow and cowardly. We are called to engage with the world, and to love it as Christ does, but how can we do that if we’re building rainbow bridges and sniffing at theological posies? Certainly Christ didn’t live that way.

 

A practical impossibility

 

Another objection to this legalistic application of Philippians 4:8 is that it simply doesn’t work in the real world. One of my loved ones has a highly responsible job in law and order. The stuff she has to deal with each day is dark as can be, yet she does so bravely and without flinching. If she applied this verse as a practical, exclusive instruction (to ‘only think about such things’), she would be unable to serve the people she protects, and her husband would be unable to listen to her when she needs to unload without disobeying scripture himself.

 

A person whose life has reached a crisis point couldn’t turn to a counsellor, because visiting a counsellor means revisiting dark periods of one’s life in order to find a way forward. A pastor, vicar, or priest would be unable to hear the confessions of their own church members, when they come to a point of repentance.

 

The Law is a curse

 

Galatians 2:21 – 3:3

 

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing! You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

 

Falling away from grace and back into Law (where righteousness is attained through perfect behaviour rather than receipt of God’s grace) is an ever-present trap, masquerading in a hundred different forms, depending on our personal weaknesses, tendencies, and ways of thinking. There’s always some aspect of faith one can appropriate as a command for righteous living and make it a standard to measure yourself and others against. Easy though it is to make this mistake, it is the height of spiritually folly and something we must utterly guard against.

 

To take Galatians 4:8 as an exclusive instruction (that we ought only to think of things that are pure, noble, praiseworthy, etc) and then to impose that understanding on others, is to re-enter a form of Law and self-righteousness. We need to stop making assumptions about others and mind our own business. We are not called to be the thought-police.

 

Dwelling on positivity

 

For me, interpreting Galatians 4:8 is a simple matter.

 

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

 

If I come across something true, noble, right, pure, lovely, praiseworthy, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, I dwell on it, absorbing that wonderful goodness, but this is by no means limited to matters of faith. Along with the mysteries of Christ, here are some other edifying subject matters I like to dwell on:

 

Acts of kindness (pure, praiseworthy), scientific advancements (true), sports and competitions (excellent), creative genius, including cinematic and musical productions (excellent and praiseworthy), social enterprises (admirable), the beauty of nature (lovely), the sweetness of friendship (pure, lovely), and sacrificial service and humility (noble and praiseworthy). The list could go on forever because there is such goodness, ingenuity, and creativity in human beings, reflecting the multi-facetted nature of our wonderful God.

 

I only avoid stuff that has no light in it whatsoever. For example, I won’t expose my mind to the psyche of a serial killer – TV series such as the recent Netflix show on Jeffrey Dahmer hold no appeal for me, because they are shot from the perspective of the killer and, in my view, bathe the viewer’s mind in evil. I just don’t want to know! That said, I would watch a show about the catching of such a killer, as the police investigation is certainly noble and praiseworthy.

 

Ultimately, it’s up to each person how they apply this verse. Instead of placing ourselves under Law, every believer can choose to walk closely with the Holy Spirit and listen to their consciences. Trust God, and trust yourself. Let’s not be deceived by a false sacred/secular dichotomy, interpreting an encouragement to absorb goodness as a legalistic instruction that defines what we should and shouldn’t think about. Let’s not impose that on ourselves or on others, but live organic, Spirit-led lives of liberty in Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

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