(We encourage you to read all of Philippians 4 each day this week. As you do today, focus on verses 8-9, printed below.)
8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. 9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
If we read this passage abstractly, it may sound syrupy and naive. But again, the apostle Paul wrote, not in some peaceful meadow or Sunday School room, but in a chilly, damp Roman prison cell. God’s people have proved Paul’s challenging words true over and over through the centuries. What we train ourselves to focus on can weaken or strengthen our relationship to God and to other people.
Lord Jesus, teach me how to think your thoughts. Guide me into a thought life obsessed, not with fear, anger or ugliness, but with all that is excellent and admirable. Amen.
* I-Jin Loh and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. New York: United Bible Societies, 1977, p. 134.
Science has helped us understand the power of these words in Philippians 4:8-9. Neurologists tell us that whatever we pay attention to will create neuro-pathways in our brains, and the more we pay attention, the stronger those neuro-pathways get. As they get stronger, these neuro-pathways, in turn, bring our attention to the very things that strengthened them. It becomes a closed system, reinforcing itself.
That’s why companies pay big money to have access to our attention. Advertising, product placement, influencers on social media, trillions spent to move into our brains and take over some real estate.
If we surrender our awareness to the toxic, the smug, the eviscerating, the scandalous, the exploitive, then we will have neuro-pathways that lead us in the future to automatically “focus our thoughts” on the toxic, the smug, the false.
To break these cycles, we must intentionally turn our attention to what is real, just, admirable. To “focus our thoughts” (v.9) means more than just having ideas in our heads. We allow our lives to be shaped by these new neuro-pathways. The real, the just, the good sinks into our bones, shapes who we are.
To be clear, this does not mean we refuse to see the deep suffering and brutal injustice of the world. In fact, quite the opposite. Much of the toxic, the eviscerating, the scandalous distracts and numbs us to the deep suffering and brutal injustice of the world. Instead, when we focus on the real, the just, the excellent, we know in our bones that suffering and injustice will not have the final word and that we are called to respond in love.
Christian mindfulness practice can help us be attentive in the moment, to wake up from these automatic cycles of negativity. Take a moment today to pause, breathe and “focus your thoughts” on one admirable thing. “The God of peace will be with you” (v. 9).
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