Happy Thoughts and Joy?
“Just think happy thoughts!” The advice seems so simple and shallow. And of course for believers, we know that simply changing thoughts is not the ultimate source of ultimate hope and salvation. However, is there anything to be said for how we think, and what kinds of things we think about? When it comes to fear, depression, irritability, doubt and more, what we engage our minds with is of great importance. The Apostle Paul gives at least five components regarding our thinking and related action(s), which serve as a necessary foundation for the Christian mind:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all men. The Lord is at hand. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:4-9 (NKJV)
First, we should continually pursue joy in God (Phil 4:4). Notice that the command is to “rejoice”, “in the Lord.” Within the letter to the Philippians, Paul already gave this command prior to this specific text (Phil 3:1) and gives it again here, a chapter later. The instruction is not that we are to be happy with every circumstance, but that within every circumstance or aspect of our lives, we are to rejoice in the Lord. This idea is found throughout the pages of Scripture, particularly in the Psalms: (Ps 37:4- delighting oneself in the Lord, Ps 44:19- finding comfort in God, Ps. 54:34- there is sweetness in meditation on Him.) Is it not true that in every situation, circumstance, mountaintop or valley, our joy should be sought in the Lord and that there is reason to rejoice in Him? In His commentary on this passage, Matthew Henry wrote “There is enough in God to furnish us with matter of joy in the worst circumstances on earth.” Paul, writing under divine inspiration, instructs the Philippian believers, and all believers down through the ages, to rejoice in God. This must be a constant resting place for our minds. And notice this is a command. We do not usually wander into joy…we must fight for it.
Secondly, we must choose in our minds to live a life of gentleness with others (Phil 4:5). This verse speaks to handling people and circumstances with a patient steadiness. Gentleness is not only an action that others perceive in us, it is a frame of mind that we must choose. Paul already spoke to this frame of mind earlier in his letter in Philippians 2:14 when he wrote, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself.” When we fight for our own rights, our own way, or our own expectations only, we will be dampened in joy. But of course we know the rest of Philippians 2 don’t we? Christ is the ultimate model given and thus we can be gentle and reasonable with others because the Lord is with us. How often our minds lack joy and are filled with restlessness and anxiety because of how we relate to others. If I think a person must treat me as his or her idol, when he or she does not, I’m going to wrestle in my mind, and I will likely demonstrate a fear of man instead of a fear of God.
Thirdly, we must handle our fears with prayer and thanksgiving. In verse six and seven, Paul speaks specifically to our anxiety and he gives us an antidote. However, he does it in a way that we might not naturally gravitate towards. Of course he instructs us to pray, however he notes that we are to do so with thanksgiving. If I’m honest, giving thanks is often far from my mind when I am worried, afraid, or in need. And yet isn’t a constant state of remembering all of God’s goodness, His covenant and His past blessings exactly what my anxious mind needs in the fight for joy? Peter connects to this theme of worry as well when he writes, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6-7). Humility (not seeing myself as God) and thanksgiving (remembering that I am the recipient of constant care and blessing by God) are the two things my mind desperately needs in even my worst of fearful moments. And Paul points us to the peace of God, which guards our minds as we live lives of thanksgiving in prayer. Isaiah pointed to this same theme several centuries before (Isaiah 26:3).
Fourthly, we must proactively engage our minds on the good. Paul says at the end of verse eight that we are to “meditate” on specific things. Notice that we don’t simply avoid evil thoughts, rather, we must proactively go after positive and wholesome thoughts. We are to regularly fill our minds with those things that are true vs. untrue, noble vs. dishonorable, just vs. unjust, pure vs. impure, lovely vs. ugly, commendable and excellent vs. negative and critical. This proactive mental work must be done by setting our minds on these kinds of things regularly throughout our days. And the media and the pagan world will not fuel our thought life with a view to Christ. Consider then: what do you watch? What do you laugh at? How much of what you look at on social media is wholesome, and how much of it is dark? Do you need every gory detail of a crime reported? Do you have a curiosity that causes you to seek out controversy, gossip and the failings of others reported online? If Christ is our joy, Savior and passion, why do we spend so little time in meditation on Him, listening to Him in His word, reading solid books about him, and rather spend time dilly-dallying with the input of this world? We must proactively arrange input on those things that are good. Perhaps an experiment of sorts would benefit each of us: Consider turning off or cutting down massively on social media, TV, movies, and instead, use that time for the study of the Word, doctrine, Christian books, wholesome family movies, missionary documentaries, and see if after 30 days your mind and heart are not a). more joyful and b). your conscience more sensitive to sin. This is not a call to legalism, but a careful quest for watchfulness over those things that affect our hearts. And let us not forget Paul’s call to focus on that, which is “helpful” (1 Cor 10:23).
Lastly, let us not forget to consider the teachings and apostolic patterns found in the Scriptures. How easy it is for us to forget to consider not only literal Scriptural verses, but the patterns found within as well. In our consideration, we must put into action the biblical principles, commands and patterns that we see. Whether this is our weekly rhythm of Sabbath, or our practice as members of a local church, or our consideration of the ordinary means of grace, what we see in the Scriptures we must consider and act upon. Paul instructs the Philippian saints to practice the things that they had seen and observed in Him. We too must consider these things and decide to act accordingly with a regular pursuit. And we must not forget God’s promise to be with us as the God of peace (Phil 4:9).
Just think happy thoughts? Not the way the world suggests, but the way the Scripture suggests—a regular engaging of the mind in a Philippians 4 kind of way. Perhaps our problem is not that our minds are unengaged, but rather that with which we engage our minds…