Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 9, 2011
“The Battle for the Mind” (Philippians 4:4-13)
There’s a battle going on, a fierce battle, although the battlefield is relatively small. It’s only about six inches wide, that battleground. It’s the space between your ears. Yes, your mind, a Christian’s mind, is the place where the warfare is waging, and you are not exempt. There are various forces at work, seeking to take control of your mind, whether you like it or not. The devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh are conspiring to take your mind captive. Will you let them? Are you going to surrender those six inches of space to the enemy, or, instead, will you claim them for your rightful master, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Oh, make no mistake, every Christian is called to active duty in “The Battle for the Mind.”
What brings this to my mind today is our Epistle reading from Philippians 4, particularly verse 8, as follows: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
St. Paul here is instructing us Christians to direct our minds, to direct our thinking, to certain things and not to others. He is stating the positive things we should be focusing our attention on, but in so doing, he is also suggesting that we not devote our minds to things that do not live up to those qualities. Implied is that there is a battle going on for our minds, that our thinking could be led astray to those other things. Thus, the battle for the mind.
But notice also, St. Paul, by giving us this instruction, is expecting that we Christians can do what he tells us, that is, to direct our minds and orient our minds toward these more excellent things. And that is because he is writing to Christians–to you, to you who have been born again, who have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, to you whose minds have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit, so that now you are new creations in Christ.
Now of course you and I will often fail to live up to the calling to which we have been called. Time and again we fall into the old patterns of thinking. We let the devil whisper in our ear, and we go along with him. We let the world pour their sewage into our brain, and we like it, we find it entertaining. We yield to the sinful desires of our own flesh, letting our baser instincts get the better of us, and we let our minds stay there, for far too long.
So we don’t always do such a good job in this battle for our mind, and that is sin, and for that we need God’s forgiveness. Always. We never outgrow our need to be forgiven, as long as we live this side of heaven, for we daily sin much, in thought, word, and deed. And today we’re focusing on the thought, for the thought is the father of both the word and the deed.
Truly, we always and desperately need God’s forgiveness. I am keenly aware of this, for I know how poorly I have performed in this battle for my mind. And I suspect you don’t do a whole lot better.
And here I have good news for all of us. The sins that Christ died for on the cross–these include also the sins of an unclean mind. Christ’s cleansing blood washes all those sins away. Our Savior purifies us, his holiness poured out on our behalf washing us clean in body, mind, and soul. There is not a part of you that God in Christ has not redeemed. There is not one sin that is left unforgiven. You are free and clean and pure, my friend. Christ the cleanser makes it so. Believe it, it is God’s gift to you!
So now you are a new person in Christ, and constantly being renewed. Remember how Paul said in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” “By the renewal of your mind”! God wants to reorient your thinking. The way the world thinks misses the mark, so don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold. Instead, there’s a shift going on, so that you will not think like the world thinks. The renewal of your mind is what Paul now gets at, in more specific terms, here in Philippians.
Let’s look at those terms once again. “Whatever is true”: What are the things that correspond to reality, that are the genuine article, the real deal, according to how God has arranged life and made his truth known? Think on these things, not on the false or the fraudulent, the phony or artificial. “Whatever is honorable,” that is, that which is noble or worthy of respect. Let your mind go over things of that nature, and not on the disreputable or the shameful. “Whatever is just,” or righteous in God’s sight: The things that line up with what God judges to be right, nothing crooked or out of line. “Whatever is pure,” unpolluted by filth, but rather clean and pure, not the stuff that you would regret or should be ashamed of thinking about. “Whatever is lovely”: What are the things that ought to draw you to them by their wholesome, beautiful, and appealing nature? Let your mind be drawn to them, and not to the ugly, base, and squalid underside of life. “Whatever is commendable,” of good report, spoken well of. These are the things you should be thinking on.
And then Paul adds: “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise.” You know, there are a lot of good things we can be filling our minds with, many things of virtue and not of vice, things to be praised and not to be condemned. But here I want to stop for a moment. As I hear Paul run through this list of virtues, if I didn’t know better, I might think I’m reading an excerpt from the Greek philosophers. Those pagan Greek philosophers would rattle off lists of qualities and virtues that sound a lot like what we’re hearing here. They would write encomiums with titles like “In Praise of Virtue” or “In Praise of Excellence.” So what’s the difference between reading Philippians and reading the philosophers?
Big difference. While the pagan Greek philosophers might recognize certain truth or wisdom in the way that people ideally ought to live, while they might admire the good and the beautiful in human behavior and in nature itself, while the Greek philosophers could see that it is better to fill your mind with high and admirable thoughts rather than with low and ignoble thoughts–the difference is that the pagan Greek philosophers were not connected to the power source to actually accomplish the good and the beautiful, nor did they know the way to be forgiven when they fall short. That power and that knowledge come only in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Which you have and you know! It is in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that we are able to respond positively to the instructions Paul gives here. It is in Christ, through faith in him and his completed work, that we have forgiveness for all our failures. The philosophers did not know these things. The Philippians did, and so do you.
Likewise, what Paul gives us here in these instructions–this is more than mere positive thinking. You know, there have been some famous American religious teachers who have popularized various forms of a positive-thinking message. Names like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyer come to mind. However, all these false teachers fall short for the same reasons the Greek philosophers did: They do not give us enough Christ for the forgiveness we will inevitably need when we set out to live a righteous life. They put the pressure all on you, to look inside yourself for your power instead of looking to your gracious Lord. The late Norman Vincent Peale was known for his philosophy of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” But if you compare what Peale taught to the truly Gospel-saturated teaching of St. Paul, I would have to agree with the person who once said, “I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling.” And the same would hold true for the positive-thinking gurus of our day: They can’t hold a candle to the Christ-centered message we find here in Philippians and in the rest of the New Testament.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Right now, if you’ve been reading the news, there’s a movement going on called “Occupy Wall Street,” with hundreds of people camping out and taking up space in the financial district of New York. That’s “Occupy Wall Street.” But the more important question is this: Who or what will occupy those six inches between your ears? Will it be Christ and the things of God, the truth and the beauty and the goodness that God has built into his design for human beings? Or will it be the crass and the base and the shameful things that the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh are pumping into our brains? This is the battle for the mind that is going on inside all of us.
How are we going to orient our thinking? In what ways do we need to change our minds and get lined up with God’s thoughts? This calls for repentance, to recognize how our thinking has been out of line. This calls for faith and prayer, to receive God’s forgiveness and to seek our Lord’s help. This calls for filling our minds with the Word of God, to know what God would have us to think and to do, to have his Word to meditate on and mull over, to consider how we can apply his Word to our lives. And when God transforms and renews your mind, it will indeed change the way you live. God will help you put these good and praiseworthy thoughts into practice.
The secret is not in stringing together a laundry list of commendable virtues. Even the Greek philosophers could do that. The difference is in being connected to the God who forgives our failures and empowers new ways of thinking and living. This connection comes in the good news of your Savior Jesus Christ, and it is in him that you win the battle for the mind. For truly, as Paul says in our text and as I say at the close of every sermon: “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”