Paul suspects that he does not have much longer to live. Always a man of hope, Paul nevertheless senses that Rome has begun to realize the threat that Christianity poses to its claim of absolute truth and its demand of absolute fealty, and they are not likely to let one of its chief proponents go free. Writing from prison, the thought of his mortality concentrated Paul’s thoughts and distilled his desire to offer practical and profound advice to his beloved friends at Philippi. The letter of Philippians is not the letter to the Romans; it is not marked by complex theological discourses. Instead, this letter is filled with practical, pastoral wisdom, imparted by a spiritual leader to a group he cherished. Chief among those words of pastoral counsel were these words of closing admonition: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Think upon the best!
Notice what cannot be found within that statement — not a negative word or phrase. It is a statement bereft of “Thou shalt nots.” Rather, the essence of Paul’s advice can be distilled into one phrase: ‘Whatever is positive, do!’ To understand the profundity of that simple statement – ‘Whatever is positive, do!’ – is to grasp the genius of our Christian faith, for our God is a positive God, eagerly standing at the door of our lives, seeking to fill our hearts with joy, hope, love, life, and the liberation of redemption. Our God sends his Son to the cross to effect reconciliation, intending to transform us, so that we might in turn transform our world. That is why, when our Lord is asked, ”How do we know the Kingdom of God is upon us?” he answers, “Because the blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear and the poor have good news preached to them. The dead are raised up and the oppressed are freed!” Our Gospel is positive news! Our Gospel is Good News intended to raise dead lives, to have a transformative influence upon our lives so that we can transform those around us. Think upon the best!
Of course, it is true that for many people Christianity does not have a positive connotation. Many in the contemporary world regard Christianity as synonymous with negativity, limitation, resistance to grace, inclusion and tolerance. That is because many Christians have cast a gloomy pall upon God’s Good News. More than a few of us grew up under the old Baptist dogma: “Thou shalt not drink. Thou shalt not cuss. Thou shalt not chew. Thou shalt not go with girls who do.” But that is not Paul’s conception of faith. He does not define his outlook in terms of negativity. He calls us to tap into what is best and truest about our faith — whatever is true, whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious – Do! Whatever is positive – do!
Actually, my statement glosses the profound truth of Paul’s advice. It is easy for us to miss Paul’s first and truest word. What Paul actually says first is, “That which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious – THINK on these things!” What is positive, think! Think upon positive things! Think upon that which is best!
Paul recognizes that thinking precedes action. Thinking spawns action. If we center our soul by thinking on that which is positive, we don’t need to define the boundaries of our faith with a bevy of “Thou shalt nots.” To center our soul by pondering what is true, what is honorable, what is just and pure, what is lovely and gracious, such thinking breeds positive attitudes and actions. Thinking upon that which is best, that which is positive, creates an inner power of love, and perfect love casts out fear. Thinking on that which is excellent results in excellent things emerging from within our being. Focusing on that which is positive erupts forth in an enthusiasm that transforms our lives and transforms the world and banishes shackles of gloom. Positive thought produces positive action.
The reverse is also true: negative thoughts spawn negative reactions. There was a high school football game in 1983 in Monterey, California, where, during the game, four kids became nauseous and dizzy. All four kids, it was ascertained, had bought a drink from a particular drink vendor, and a city health official quickly tried to determine if the drink syrup or the city water had made them sick. Since the PA system was not working, the cheerleaders were recruited to go out and instruct the crowd not to buy drinks from this certain vendor because four people had become nauseous and dizzy. You know what happened next? Within fifteen minutes, over two hundred people started complaining of dizziness and nausea! A hundred and ninety people checked into the local hospital for fear of food poisoning. The irony is, the problem was never identified, and the four kids who became sick early in the game had recovered by the time the game had ended. However, a diseased thought poisoned the collective mind of the crowd and in short order no small number felt they had the symptoms of the illness. A poisoned thought poisoned an entire group, just as a positive thought can uplift an entire group!
Paul urges us to think upon that which is best because doing so orients our entire being toward positivity. In our current miasma of darkness and gloom, for certainly January is not the cheeriest month, when we are beset by a pandemic that swirls all around us, it is easy to give way to anxiety. But if we are able to think upon the best, if we ponder those thoughts that are highest, then it makes a difference in how we move forward. Life is an experiment. The world is a laboratory. Our faith is a ceaseless pilgrimage of exploration into the unknown. We as the people of Christ are called to initiate projects of hope that convey positivity to our world. Will all of our initiatives succeed? No. But we must be a people of spiritual resilience who learn from our failures and don’t give into frustration. We must move forward! When we think upon the best, when we ponder what is honorable, true, just, pure, lovely and gracious, such thoughts engender within us a love that casts out fear.
One of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers on medical treatment and healing was a man who was not a physician. But he impacted medical thought in the last half of the twentieth century maybe more than any other person. His name was Norman Cousins, a journalist who through the adroit study of his own illnesses eventually became employed at the UCLA medical school. Cousins impressed upon the medical community that the greatest threat to people’s health was not the medical crisis they faced, but the panic their medical crisis engendered. Cousins stressed to the medical community the importance of tapping into people’s positive faith, their positive thought, and the power of laughter. Cousins practiced what he preached: in the wake of his own serious heart attack, when the ambulance delivered him to the emergency room, he declared to the attending physician, “The greatest healing instrument you’ve ever seen has just entered your hospital.” He was referring, of course, to his own personality and faith. He committed himself to focusing upon that which was highest and best.
Norman Cousins learned the necessity of focusing upon the positive at an early age. When he was ten years old he was placed in a tuberculosis sanitarium. Even at age ten, Cousins had not been at the sanitarium long before he realized that the population was divided into two main camps. There were those who felt their disease was beatable, who felt sure they would soon overcome this setback and resume their normal lives, and there were also those who were convinced that their disease was progressive, irreversible and ultimately fatal. Even as a ten year-old boy, Cousins realized that those in the positive group had a far higher and faster cure rate than those who remained in the group of gloom. In fact, the positive group sought to recruit each new arrival to their side before they could be captured by the pessimists. Even a ten year old boy sensed that when faced with a fight for one’s life orienting one’s thoughts around that which was highest and best, and tapping the power of the positive was an absolute necessity in order to heal.
Some of you will recognize the name of Norman Vincent Peale, regarded for many decades as the pastoral guru for positive thinking. In truth, Norman Vincent Peale’s theology is limited and inadequate on the whole. But the longer I pastor, the more I have come to realize that old preacher had a lot of truth in him. He realized that his ministry brought him in constant contact with those who felt overwhelmed and defeated by life. He sensed that the only way to counter that feeling of being overwhelmed and defeated was to help people tap into the positivity that God’s Spirit offered.
I think often of the advice Dr. Peale gave an exceptional business man who came to him complaining that he no longer had the energy to get out of bed in the morning. The man complained that he felt lethargic, without purpose. He awakened every morning feeling beaten. His wife would bring him breakfast in bed and pour sympathy on him until he would at last arise. Dr. Peale counseled, “Sir, tomorrow morning when you awaken, the first thing I want you to do is pray, ‘My Lord and my God, thank you for this day. Fill me with energy; fill me with joy; fill me with strength and purpose. Fill me with love and enthusiasm.’ Then envision the living God filling you with those qualities. Envision God filling you with energy, hope, strength and love each morning. Then I want you to get up out of bed and go attack the day.” The man said, “Preacher, you are crazy,” and he left. A few months later Dr. Peale encountered the man on the street and asked how things were going. The man said, “I haven’t returned to see you because I haven’t needed to. Once I started every morning praying for God’s Spirit to empower me with energy, joy and enthusiasm, and once I started every morning truly envisioning God’s filling me with power, I’m up and out and attacking life with gusto.” “What does your wife think of all this?” Dr. Peale asked. “The first morning when she came in full of pity for me, and I popped out of bed and kissed her full of joy, she almost fainted. But now she loves the new me.”
When I am tempted to criticize the narrowness of Dr. Peale’s vision, I remind myself that he came to his New York City pastorate in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, in the heart of the financial community. He knew that the people around him were surrounded by negative circumstances, and many of them felt defeated by life, and all he had to offer them was the power of resurrection found in the positivity that God’s Spirit could provide. So, too, Paul, in prison, perhaps manacled to a Roman soldier, surmised that his own life was soon coming to an end. Moreover, he knew that the prospects of this nascent movement called Christianity overthrowing the seemingly omnipotent power of Rome were exceedingly dim. In fact, the odds of that happening were astronomical. But he did not despair. He invited his friends to focus on that which was true, that which was honorable, that which was just and pure, that which was lovely and gracious and worthy of praise. He knew that by that positive power the church at Philippi and Christians everywhere could transform the world.
For many years I kept a cartoon in my office of two bedraggled men hanging onto a piece of wood floating in the ocean, the remaining shard of a boat that had foundered. One man glares at the other and says, “It would make me so happy if you would stop whistling.” As Christians we do not whistle aimlessly in the dark. We whistle because we feel swelling up from within us an irrepressible, inexorable joy rooted in our confidence in God. We whistle because we feel within ourselves a love able to cast out fear. We as Christians have an outlook that is grounded on Paul’s exuberant declaration, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” In the midst of all the negativity surrounding us, we must hold to that fundamental statement of confidence in the Divine: we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. And if we think upon the best, if we think upon that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious and excellent, then we will find the power to change our lives and the lives of others and the life of our community. If we think upon these things, we will be thinking the thoughts of God. And thinking the thoughts of God will spur us to do the actions of God.