“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.” (Philippians 4:8)
How do we direct our thoughts well in a world that pulls our thinking in a hundred different directions?
Every day we have so many competing demands on our limited attention. We have input on our TV and computer screens directing our thoughts, feelings, concerns and cares. We are invited to believe this, get angry about that, care deeply about something else or dwell on another idea entirely. We are bombarded with more thoughts and ideas than our minds can handle. How are we to make sense of it all and work out what to think?
The apostle Paul gives us some directions on how to think well in Philippians chapter 4. He tells us to “think about such things” and his list includes what is right, noble, pure and lovely. I have found the following three questions, which I have seen in various books and online articles, useful in directing my thoughts in the ways Paul is encouraging:
Is it true?
First of all, we can ask ourselves whether this thought is true or not. In a world of fake news, online conspiracy theories and viral memes this a very useful yardstick. Is what I am being presented with true or not? Do I know it to be true? If not, then I need to reject this thought or idea.
This can be useful to direct our thoughts when reading articles online. It is also a useful guide when thinking or speaking about others. I may have preconceptions about another person, but are they actually true? Do I know that rumour about a colleague to be true or am I simply repeating what someone else has said?
We can use this question to guide our own thoughts about ourselves too. I think plenty of thoughts about myself, but are they all true? Very often they are not. I need to recognise and reject the ideas I perpetuate about myself that are simply not true.
Is it good?
There may be things that are true that aren’t actually good. We may be presented with something that isn’t factually untrue but isn’t a good thing to be dwelling on nonetheless. We have limited capacity in our minds and limited bandwidth in our thinking. Why waste that on things that are bad? Let’s filter out anything that isn’t actually good.
Paul calls those things that are good ‘pure’, ‘lovely’, and ‘excellent’. Celebrity gossip might be true (although I often have no way of telling) but it is rarely pure and good. What I am being told about a friend might be true, but if it’s not good, if it doesn’t help me appreciate them more, then do I really need to know it?
Once again, we can apply this to thoughts about ourselves too. Once I have filtered out the thoughts that are untrue, I can still focus on the thoughts that are bad. I can dwell on the negative aspects about myself, or the bad things that I have done. Self-knowledge is helpful and it’s not good to cover up our own mistakes. But spending our thinking time on the negative doesn’t help us learn or grow. We need to filter out the bad and let in what is good.
Is it helpful?
Once we have removed those things that are neither true or good, we still have to ask whether these thoughts and ideas are helpful. I can spend my thinking time on what is not actively untrue or bad, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily helpful. Does it help me learn and grow as a person? Does it develop my mind, my joy, my appreciation of beauty and my knowledge of God?
We need this filter when it comes to interpersonal relationships. We may not be speaking something untrue or bad about another person, but is it actually helpful? It is helpful to them or to us? If not, perhaps it’s best not thought or said at all. Equally we think plenty of things about ourselves that are good and true, but not necessarily helpful to ourselves or others.
Here are three questions that can help direct our thoughts well: Is it true? Is it good? Is it helpful? In reality they are intertwined and rarely have to be asked one after the other. But as we ask them we get closer to the kinds of thoughts Paul is urging us toward, the kind of thoughts that reflect God’s truth and mirror God’s thinking.