Why "watching your thoughts" isn't the point
I have a t-shirt from Youth Enterprise that has the word, “Whatever” written on the front with this passage written on the back:
“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
The truth is, I haven't worn this shirt in years. Now, that's partly because it's old and worn-out, but it's also partly because my theology has shifted in the years since I bought it.
Today, more often than not, this passage troubles me, not because of what it actually says but because of how it often gets used in youth ministry contexts.
Take, for example, Ashley Fordinal's recent post, “Watch Your Thoughts” at More than Dodgeball. In this blog, Ashley suggests several ways to monitor our thoughts in order to determine whether we're truly living out Philippians 4:8 by thinking about whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. Her suggestions for monitoring our thoughts include blasting Christian music (and you already know my issues with that), posting scripture passages everywhere, and my personal favorite: Setting an alarm to “go off every couple of hours throughout the day. When it goes off, hear what you were thinking. Chances are, they need to be redirected. Redirect them!”
Ashley concludes her post by saying, “negative thoughts will do anything they can to gain control over your mind. To keep them from taking over, you have got to check-up on your thought life as an ongoing, minute-by-minute basis because your thoughts become words and ultimately your destiny. What are you thinking?”
To be honest, here's what I'm thinking: How can using these methods to teach students to monitor and redirect their thoughts (which according to Ashley, seem to always be in need of redirection), lead to anything other than paranoia? How can such methodologies be helpful to students in their long-term faith formation? Can such things really be what Paul had in mind when he wrote these words to the church of Philippi?
It seems to me that such tactics only do one thing: Guilt or shame kids into modifying their behavior, or perhaps even worse, into trying to control their every thought. It's behavioral modification at it's finest.
What I've come to realize about behavioral modification is that it doesn't work. It might produce temporary changes in behavior but it rarely, if ever, produces lasting ones. To teens coming of age in a postmodern world that values experience and is already skeptical of the church, such tactics feel cheap and dishonest. Worse yet, they often leave teens feeling resentful of not just the church, but of God.
So what's the solution?
Contrary to what you might assume, I don't think we should disregard this passage. In fact, I think we should honor this passage. I just think that's a lot more likely to happen when our starting point doesn't include thought-police, constant paranoia, or the idea that our every thought makes us a failure but is instead rooted in our identity as children of God.
When our starting point is our identity as children of God, everything changes.
As children of God, both we and our students are holy – not because of what we do or think about – but because of whose we are; Because God has already set us apart and he, through Jesus' death and resurrection – has made us holy.
If we already are holy, then it stands to reason that at least some of what we think is “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, & admirable”. After all, God created us and when he did, he made us in his image. What could be more “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, & admirable” than that?
Now, lest you disregard me because you're thinking, “What about the fall?” let me say this. The fall certainly changed things. With it, sin entered the world. Even so, the fall didn't change our fundamental identity as children of God, nor did it change God's love for us. It also didn't change the fact that through Jesus' death and resurrection, God redeemed us and is still redeeming us.
Accordingly, even when our thoughts aren't “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, & admirable,” we're not evil people. We're simply people in-process, who are not yet complete but who are still loved, forgiven, and redeemed by God.
As children of God, living out Philippians 4:8 requires us to know our sacred family's story. This means that rather than obsessing over our sinful thoughts or even the random scripture passages Ashley encourages us to write on post-its and affix everywhere, maybe instead we should fix our eyes on Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Hebrews 12:2).
Finally, as children of God, let's remember that we are but one part of God's story. In the same way, Philippians 4:8 is but one verse in one book of God's story. So please, oh please, can we put this verse back in context – even a little bit?
When we do that, here's what you'll find:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:4-9).
Now, I'm no Bible scholar, but what I see here, even when I zoom out just a little, is a passage focused on giving thanks, prayer, and the resulting peace. It seems logical to me, then, that whenever we use a verse from this passage, like Philippians 4:8, to intentionally or unintentionally create paranoia and anxiety, we're likely doing the opposite of what Paul intended.
If that's the case, then maybe rather than “watching” our every thought as Ashley suggests, we instead need only to remember who Christ is and who we are as his children.
It seems to me that if we do that, we can trust that “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding" really will guard our "hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”