by Pastor James Lee
Dr. Robert Somerville, in his autobiographical book If I’m a Christian, Why Am I Depressed? writes very candidly about his own recent struggles,
“Depression can often come from a spiral of worry and anxiety that lands a person in a morass of negativity. In a flash your thoughts can go down roads you’ll never actually need to travel and cross bridges you’ll never need to cross. You end up like Elijah in a deep pit of despair and depression in which there is no peace to be found! In my depression this was my state of mind. There was always an anxiety factor present. It manifested itself in a wild imagination. I worried about everything in life. I was never going to teach or preach or earn a living again. I would probably end up in my brother in law’s basement. Who would take care of my wife? I even experienced an anxiety attack for the simplest of directions… What was wrong with me? Yet in the negative grid of the depression they were overwhelming and impossible.”
Some of us understand what he’s sharing, I certainly do. In a time past, my heart was crushed, my fearful paranoid mind was twisted in knots, inventing living nightmares that sometimes had nothing to do with reality. My physical body was wracked in pain, I couldn’t function very well. The wounds of being deeply hurt by others accumulated over two decades of ministry, combined with the self-inflicted consequences of my own sinful responses and idolatries had taken their toll. I experienced breakdown and burnout. I’d alternate from staring blankly out a window to curling up in the fetal position, crying for hours, not knowing why. I wanted to run away and to die like Elijah. It felt like being buried alive, like drowning. The poet John Milton aptly described the vulnerability of our minds, in how they often fall short of the mind of Christ, “A mind is its own place, and in itself – Can make a heav’n of hell, and a hell of heav’n.”
And like with Elijah, like with Dr. Somerville, like with some of you, we need others given by the Lord to patiently, but firmly, come alongside us in love, to get us to stop listening to ourselves, and to hear and embrace the truths of His Word, so that we can eventually experience stability and peace and hope and joy of service once again. And life for me came back again! But it came by “coming home” to the basics of what it means to abide in Christ, of the gospel, of trusting the Lord for every little thing, but primarily via the means of the Word and prayer. The most productive, most beneficial, and most necessary thing one can do on a daily basis is to read and obey the Bible, and live out a prayerful reliance on Him each moment.
As our hearts and minds go, so all else goes. Proverbs 4:23 commands, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” And that’s where Satan attacks, when our hearts and minds are vulnerable and weak! That’s often where the battle is! Jesus Himself when He quoted the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 in Mark 12, made an important “addition”. Don’t just love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, but also fourthly, love Him with all your “mind”! With all our minds! Cornelius Plantinga comments, “If a 4 year old prayed outright: ‘Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my brain to keep’? You would notice.” That is what our Lord demands, that by His grace, we keep our minds! Sometimes, honestly, we are out of our minds! John MacArthur exhorts, “Spiritual stability is directly related to how a person thinks about God.”
The problem is not, that we don’t think, but that we don’t think well. The states of our mind and heart impact whether we will respond out of a well which is saturated by the Scriptures, or react from the sewer of our flesh. The beloved doctor, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, comments, “Faith, according to our Lord’s teaching is primarily thinking, and the whole trouble with a man of little faith is that he does not think. He allows circumstances to bludgeon him… Christian faith is essentially thinking… The trouble with most people, however, is that they will not think. Instead of doing this, they sit down and ask, What is going to happen to me? What can I do? That is the absence of thought; it is surrender, it is defeat. Our Lord here, is urging us to think and to think in a Christian manner.” By the way, that’s really the conclusion to Paul’s magnificent epistle on joy, in the fourth and last chapter of Philippians. That’s also a primary aim of biblical counseling, the fruitful one another ministry of the body of Christ, to help each other think rightly.
So this is the place we’re going to drop our anchor and pitch our tent. There’s a time for slowing down, stopping, getting out of the car for a longer and more careful look. And that’s, in fact, what Paul is directing us to do at the end of his letter on rejoicing! Everything in the letter is food for our meditation, but the end of v. 8 explicitly tells us and commands us to, “let your mind dwell on these things.” The ESV translates, “think about these things”, the NKJ similarly says, “meditate on these things.” Dwell! Think! Meditate!
It’s just one Greek word, but large doors swing on relatively small hinges. Let your mind dwell, think, meditate – the word is logizomai and it’s not merely to entertain thoughts superficially. But it means to seriously and slowly evaluate, consider, calculate, set your fullest faculties upon, take them into account, give them weight in your decisions, ponder deeply, reflect upon them so as to shape your conduct.
So the next question becomes, what are “these things”? Certainly it’s everything just stated in v. 8 already, whatever is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, anything excellent and worthy of praise. But it really includes everything Paul has previously said in this letter. Things about the necessity to be joyful and how to be joyful, even in the face of imprisonment, persecution, friends slandering you and abandoning you, of knowing to live is Christ and to die is gain, of what it means to be humble and considering others as more important than ourselves just as our Lord humbled Himself, even to the point of death on a cross, so that we are to do all things without grumbling or disputing with others. But we instead fully pour out our lives as a drink offering, because we put no confidence in the flesh, and we want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, forgetting what lies behind and pressing on in the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, as citizens of heaven, and not as enemies of the cross… That’s kind of this quick fly by, and there’s a lot more we jetted over. But for this series on “Renewing Our Minds for Rejoicing”, let’s limit ourselves to the more immediate context:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, 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 your minds in Christ Jesus. 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. (Philippians 4:4-8)
We’re going to take some extra time to unpack that, because we can’t do that quickly or we might miss it. So I’m going to put the car in reverse to take a closer look on a monthly basis, but from the particular perspective of his command to “think continually on these things.” But as we do, my prayer is that it will profit us, strengthen us, so as to be better equipped in life and ministry for the joy that is ours in Christ.
That’s certainly part of what it means to dwell on these things, think on these things. It means we’re thinking intentionally, deliberately, purposefully, directionally, joyfully, not haphazardly. The idea of our mediating, of course is not eastern mysticism – it is not emptying our minds, but filling up our minds with healthy and true thoughts. It’s to analyze and mine it from every angle, to chew the cud extracting every ounce of nutrient and flavor. So to think well is to think intentionally for God’s glory. 2 Cor 10:5 says positively, “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” Colossians 2:8 adds negatively, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception.” Both ways, be purposeful.
How many of us have said, after something foolish we’ve done, like buying a used car way under market value in a back alley with no pink slip, like forgetting our keys in the front door, like taking an extra helping at the buffet… “What was I thinking?!” We way overvalue spontaneity and quickness. Truth is that we’re so impatient in our microwave, 4G LTE, click it and Amazon Prime has it on your door step culture. We’re not filling up our hearts with the things that will prepare us to respond, rather than react. We’re not consciously putting off self-exalting thoughts and putting on God-exalting thoughts. We have to be deliberate in our holiness, because our default state functionally is not holy; it’s selfish!
When we’re not intentional about thinking how to glorify the Lord in any situation, then we’re only listening to ourselves, our desires, our feelings, our idols, our pain, our discontentment, our hurt, and guess who we’re not trusting? The Lord! We come up with our own terms, timing, and talents, while we blaspheme the sovereign love and perfect wisdom of God by taking matters into our own hands. It’s like attempting to solve a million piece jigsaw puzzle in 30 minutes without the picture on the box, or building a complicated robot while deliberately throwing away the instructions and manual while spitting in the face of the designer. And we wonder why all our prideful efforts have not worked out? Even more, we all are guilty, at the foot of our idols, of having the audacity to blame the Lord and everyone else and everything else? We all think, but do we think rightly or wrongly? We all think, but we’re not all thinking well.
One of the terrible counselors we listen to instead of the Lord and godly people is ourselves, namely our feelings. There is nothing wrong with having feelings, but when our feelings control us and drive us, against the Word of God, the Bible calls it carnality. Eric Davis points out, “Feelings are the golden calf of our day. We worship our feelings and hold them higher than anything, especially truth. Our feelings become the determiner of what is good and bad; judge of what is right and wrong. If you hurt my feelings, then you are a villain. Never mind that I probably needed wounding (Prov 27:5-6). And never mind looking at what idols and sinful cravings might be fueling my hurt feelings (Jam 4:1-2). And if you hinder this cause, and do not help it, then you are labeled ‘unloving.'” That’s why counseling is difficult, because it’s not a mere problem of deduction, but a problem of depravity. Usually there is a combination of sin and suffering, so when ministering to fellow sinners caught up in life-dominating dysfunction, we’re concerned about both their sin and their suffering. But listen, suffering doesn’t cause sin, rather sin causes suffering. It’s why the Bible doesn’t coddle us, but it often confronts before it comforts, saying what is needful to address the heart of problems, rather than just symptoms. Otherwise, we’re caught up in repeating a cycle of death.
Let’s take for example Paul’s command back in v. 4, to “rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice!” He commands us to do that, precisely because it’s not easy or natural for us to do, for often we don’t rejoice. Note that this is the 3rd time we’re commanded to rejoice in the letter. Question: Are we pondering it purposefully, or do we just let it go in one ear and out the other? Do we nod in agreement and then forget it, or do we find ourselves thinking about what it means to rejoice throughout the day and the week, especially when we’re pressed hard, so that we’re preaching to hearts, “Man, you need to rejoice!” Some of us don’t think that makes a difference, but it really does. Implicit in the command is the call for each of us to intentionally think that we need to be joyful always. So that when we’re fighting for our joy, asking His help, we’re thinking intentionally and purposefully as to why we’re not and why we must.
Our trials ask, “Is Jesus enough for my life?” Yes, trials test us… but are we thinking accurately by faith that they will be used to strengthen us and bless us as the Lord delights to do? Contentment will say, “Yes”, while discontentment, anger, envy, anxiety, will want to say “No.” Where is the source of our joy? Where do we place our hope? What will make us truly happy? How do we respond to disappointment, hurt, and failure? Hab 2:18 challenges, “What profit is the idol when its maker has carved it?” That old Johnny Lee song describes our culture, “I was looking for love in all the wrong places.” Jon Bloom says, “The power to change self-indulgent behavior is believing a different promise for happiness.” Part of why we don’t rejoice well is because we don’t think well, and because we don’t treasure well. We’re not considering all the facts in our favor, especially the fact of our Savior! But the sick mind can’t remedy itself, it needs Scripture’s medicine. All we see is what’s wrong, and we’re blind to all that is good. We’ve been saved, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, made rich in Christ, have a history of sweet providences! We don’t think about His unchanging grace and infinite power. So where there should be a defiant “nevertheless”, we’re whining about what we don’t have and who’s not giving it to us, as we talk back to the Lord, that we deserve better! The joy of the Lord is not our strength, there is no new song in our mouths, we don’t rejoice with joy inexpressible. But when we find Paul in prison singing, the elderly sister smiling with gratitude when you change her bed pan, then we’re being taught when our greatest desire is Christ, and see He’s all we need, everything pales and fades in comparison, and joy just explodes! Bring on the world! The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want!