As Paul closes this letter to the church at Philippi, he provides believers with several very practical guides to living a life formed by the Spirit of God. When we think of spiritual formation we often, and unfortunately, think of esoteric practices engaged in by people who are gifted spiritually and who have the time to separate themselves from the “real world.” In stark contrast to this caricature, however, the life of the ordinary believer outlined in the New Testament is one that is being constantly formed by Christ amidst the contours of our daily lives. Each and every Christian is called to be a disciple of Christ-no matter your station in life or your personality.
To truly gain a handle on verse 4, we need to recall Paul’s and the Philippians’ condition. Paul is in prison on his way to the executioner and the Philippians are under persecution, possibly severe persecution. Given these realities, Paul says:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Why rejoice? Certainly it is not because of his or the church’s circumstances; Paul doesn’t even know if this imprisonment will result in his death or his release, so he isn’t basing his rejoicing on the possibility of his legal and political freedom. Paul has learned to rest his reasons for rejoicing on more solid ground. His purpose, his meaning in life, his reason for being content and thankful is founded upon nothing else but Jesus Christ.
And this is the first lesson of this passage: Attention determines perspective. If Paul’s attention were wrapped up in his dire circumstances, he would have no earthly reason to rejoice. It is the same lesson Peter so clearly learned when he got out of the boat to walk to Jesus during the storm. As long as his attention was on Christ, he was able to do what made no earthly sense. When his attention was diverted to the storm, what seemed only natural happened-he began to sink.
The injunction in verse 6 to not be anxious is both very difficult to follow and repeated over and over in the New Testament. Anxiety is not becoming of a follower of Christ, but it is one of the most natural reactions to life that we all have. Paul’s antidote to anxiety is simple-prayer. When we pray and turn our attention to Christ in thankfulness and supplication, the result is the kind of peace that only makes sense if God exists and is truly in control. We enter prayer full of anxiety. We exit it with the peace of God. Paul notes:
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (vs. 7)
The second lesson, then, rises to the surface: Attention determines my peace. The promise of prayer and the exercise of my faith in God’s Lordship is the kind of peace that transcends my circumstances.
Then Paul enjoins the believers to turn their minds and lives toward things, ideas, and people who exemplify the qualities of God. When Paul says, “think about these things,” he intends us to dwell upon, even take account of these kinds of things. In order to live out the commands of 4:8 and 9, we need to take time to list, count out, settle our minds upon, the kinds of things and people who bring glory to God. We need to do this because what our minds dwell upon shapes our souls.
The third lesson: Attention determines the shape of my soul. In a set of recent polls, it has been shown that young American males find very few things offensive. They have been so over-exposed to debauchery, filth, violence, and the sort, that their consciences are no longer pricked. Because their minds have been so filled with rubbish, their view of what is normal, even moral, has become deeply maladjusted.
On the other hand, when I turn my mind to the kinds of things and people listed by Paul, my soul is formed in the image of Christ, I become more and more human, and I learn how to find God’s fingerprint in creation.
To what am I paying attention today?