In a famous passage the apostle Paul enjoins us, “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” (Philippians 4:8, NIV). I wish to focus on the first part today: what it means to think about “whatever is true” only.
This encouragement has broad implications for our lives, for training our minds to live by the revealed truth of God’s Word—and not the lies and falsehoods proclaimed so loudly by an erring world. Our adversary is, of course, the father of lies (John 8:44). And yet, it seems we often spend more time reflecting on his pronouncements than on the life-giving words of our gracious Father.
If we are to overcome this tendency, we must discipline our minds to know the truth thoroughly and think on it exclusively. Martin Luther says it memorably: “[Y]ou cannot read too much in Scripture, what you read you cannot read too carefully, what you read carefully you cannot understand too well.” Knowing the truth thoroughly, thinking on it exclusively, will free us to live the abundant life Jesus offers. After all, it was only a few verses before Jesus calls Satan the father of lies that he said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
A few examples should suffice to show the freedom God’s truth—and disciplining ourselves to think only of it—can bring.
Many experience crippling fear and worry on a daily basis. Frequently this springs from the petrifying question, “What if…?” What if I lose my job? What if my spouse gets cancer? What if my child suffers harm? However steeped in reality these fears might seem, they are not truth. You have not lost your job. Your spouse does not have cancer. Your child has not suffered harm. They are hypotheticals, mere possibilities—and therefore not worthy of serious reflection. Of course, should any of these tragedies befall a Christian, God will provide grace for that time. But God does not give grace for what might be—only for what is.
Others look backward in time, but experience the same paralysis. Trapped in a quagmire of regret and remorse, they spend their time contemplating successive fantasies beginning with the deceptive phrase, “If only….” If only I had married a different person. If only I earned an extra $10,000 per year. If only I hadn’t committed that sin. Frequently this line of thinking leads to outright sin—thoughts that are not pure, lovely, excellent or praiseworthy. Imagining yourself married to another man or woman will lead to emotional unfaithfulness, for example. And once again, the trouble is that these thoughts simply are not true. You are already married to your spouse, and the commitment is until death. You make the amount of money you make, and that is sufficient for your daily bread. You did sin, but your forgiveness is complete in Christ Jesus—so complete, in fact, that even your guilty conscience has been cleansed by Christ (Hebrews 9:14).
Or take some temptations common to men and women. Men feel the need to prove their manhood by bettering themselves—and their competition. Success is the ultimate indicator of a life well lived, whether that be athletic achievement, financial gain, or career advancement. I believe this masculine urge stems from a desire to make ourselves feel worthy. Do I matter? Have I earned the air I’ve breathed today? Of course, God has answered these questions for us already. We know we matter because of the great lengths God has gone to rescue us from our deserved damnation. There is no need to prove ourselves. Knowing this, and thinking on it continuously, frees us from our false worship of the idol success—and frees us to worship God single-mindedly by carrying out the commission he has given us, even if it means halting our career advancement.
Fewer women find themselves driven by this need to become successful (though some do). Instead, women spend their time and energy trying to feel loved—giving themselves sexually to the undeserving, dressing immodestly or extravagantly to attract attention, even harming themselves irreparably in a ghastly attempt to keep themselves slender. Am I beautiful? Will anyone ever love me? Once again, God has already answered these questions graciously and tenderly. We are lovely because he loves us, beautiful because he made us (cf. Psalm 139:13-18). Knowing this, and thinking on it continuously, frees us from self-hatred, from looking for love in all the wrong places—and frees us to live modestly, chastely, contentedly in the light of God’s unfathomable love.
What thoughts occupy your reflection, whether conscious or not? Do you listen to the father of lies, bent only on destroying you? Or do you attend to the word of your gracious Father, who loves you perfectly and longs for you to live the abundant life he offers? “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. . . . And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8, 9).