I often advise university students to 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.” The original Greek word translated as “think” in this passage means “take inventory.” Rather than a fleeting thought, it suggests an intentional taking stock and focus. Some English versions translate it as “dwell on these things.”
As Christians at a secular university encounter ideas and theories that may challenge their faith, I suggest that they focus on what is true, just, pure, and excellent in what they are learning—even from secular ideas and theories—and build on those. Not to ignore the difficulties, but to help them build up faith and joy through their studies. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in God’s world; through God’s common grace, truth, goodness, and justice are to be found everywhere.
The apostle Paul asked this of the Philippians in the context of suffering, likely from persecution (Phil. 1:29-30), attacks from circumcision legalists (Phil. 3:2-3), and internal disunity and dissension (Phil. 4:2). Despite all that, Paul’s letter is full of references to rejoicing: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). Without ignoring the problems, Paul called the Philippians to focus instead on having the mind of Christ and on these excellent virtues. As if to practice what he preached, Paul’s list of virtues was almost identical to similar lists common to ancient Greek moralists. Paul found and used what was true and good even among pagans.
I confess I need to heed Paul’s advice more often. It is too easy for me to take inventory, not of what is excellent but of what is wrong, mistaken, or faulty in sermons, books, or articles. I have a critical mind, which can be very helpful but is not spiritually healthy if it grows a critical spirit in me. It kills my joy.
Does the Christian Reformed Church also need to take heed of this? My observation is that our culture, as a whole, tends to default toward being critical. (I know it’s ironic that I am being critical!) We are very good at critiquing ideas, plans, and actions. Critical thinking is important; we do not want to be naively optimistic. But have we crossed that line into fault-finding and a critical spirit? Are we quick to point out disagreements and slow to find common ground?
We are all sinners. As the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, “Even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin” (Q&A 62). Therefore it is easy to find fault, and it is important to correct each other in the Lord. But if we focus only on those things, we are not extending grace to one another. We aren’t building each other up but tearing each other down. And that doesn’t lead to much joy or peace in our hearts.
I pray that we may adopt this more positive attitude, taking inventory first of what’s true, noble, right, and pure—even in ideas that we disagree with. And looking ahead to Synod 2017 next month, I pray that our delegates will have the same mind as they consider various proposals. I don’t think it would hurt us, in the midst of our tensions, to follow Paul’s advice, trusting in the Holy Spirit’s work and providence.