Whatever is true…

In my recent blog post ‘Guard your heart’ I considered a verse from the book of Proverbs, and pondered what I’m doing to “guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23).

I have to admit that if there is one verse in the Bible that has in the past struck me as being very silly, it’s Philippians 4:8. Towards the end of his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul writes: “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.” I used to not understand this verse AT ALL and couldn’t have even begun to apply it to normal life. I mean, did this verse suggest that we’re to turn our faces away from the injustice and cruelty we see in the world, and do nothing about it? Did it imply that we should, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to, cosset ourselves in a bubble of niceness and try to forget how others suffer?

In recent months though, as I’ve begun to think about how best to ‘guard’ my heart, this verse has appeared to me in a new light. As I explained in that post, for me a big part of heart-guarding has been how I ‘feed’ my heart. Now on the face of it this could sound introspective. But it is important that we care for ourselves and feed our hearts in positive ways, and one (though not the only) reason it’s important is because as God’s church we are now his ambassadors, privileged with the task of making Jesus known in the world. And where does this task begin? In us, in our hearts! By fixing our gaze on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy, we can serve as channels for that truth, nobility etc to a needy world. The supreme embodiment of all these qualities is the living Jesus. So I don’t find, in Philippians 4:8 or anywhere else in the Bible, an excuse to steer clear of the sad, ugly, messy stuff that isn’t part of God’s design for his world. Rather, this verse is our way in to tackling it. It points us, lovingly, to the transformation that God loves to bring about in us so that we can then effect his transformation elsewhere.

Increasing what’s good for us surely goes hand in hand with reducing what’s bad for us. The opposite of true is untrue. The opposite of noble is *checks dictionary* ignoble?! Anyway, you see where I’m going! If we let negative content into our hearts, that process of transformation will of course be slowed down. It’s not that it can’t happen at all, because all things are possible for God. It’ll just take longer. And why oh why would we want it to take longer when we could live life to the full right now?!

So, we may need to break away from those things that just aren’t doing us any good. For some people this could be something quite complicated like extracting from a damaging relationship. It might involve breaking free from a bad habit or addiction. Or it might actually be those activities which masquerade as leisure pursuits but lead us into negative thinking.  For example, I mentioned that Facebook is something I have recently decided to decrease. I find some elements of Facebook very useful. In a world that offers us a bewildering array of social media to choose from, I hereby crown Facebook as the best contender for staying in touch with people I don’t see regularly! The ability to post photos is particularly brilliant in this regard, as is the Messenger function. Facebook is also an utterly brilliant medium for tracking down details of local events, and for making others aware of said events too. A couple of my communities organise themselves exclusively on Facebook (my book group, neighbours on the street where I live) so if I miss it, I miss out! And of course, let’s not forget that this blog boasts a Facebook page which is the primary means by which many readers engage with the blog. These are all good things!

However, there are some things I have seen on Facebook, while aimlessly scrolling away, that I didn’t like, and which have stayed with me in an unhelpful way. So I made the decision a couple of months ago to get Facebook working for me, rather than the other way around! I decided to skip the newsfeed, and turn on notifications or use the search function for things I DO find practically useful and/or heart-feeding. I guess the heart of the matter is that I don’t wish to allow Facebook total access to my life! If my life was a house, I’d let Facebook into this room and that room, but not every room in the house.

There is someone who deserves access to every room in my house, someone who can be trusted to feed my heart in the ways I need. I want to offer Jesus access to every room in the house! I don’t want the stuff that does me no good. I want to think about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – anything that is excellent or praiseworthy. That’s who he is. That’s how we can progress as his disciples. That’s how his Holy Spirit can bring transformation.

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Who(se) are you?

During the last couple of weeks a particular passage from the gospels has kept cropping up in my day-to-day life. It came up at a worship event at church, on a blog I follow, in my house group, and in a chat with my lovely Dad. Sometimes it just came into my head on its own. It was a passage from John 15 – the vine and the branches.

John records some words Jesus says to his disciples about fruitfulness. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself using the “I am” metaphors – “I am the light of the world”, “I am the bread of life”, “I am the good shepherd”, and so on. Here in chapter 15 he describes himself as a vine, God the father as a gardener, and his disciples as the branches.

He uses these metaphors to show the disciples (which means not just the Galileans he hung out with during his earthly ministry but those who follow him now!) how they can bear good fruit for him. His goal for his followers in this regard might come as a very pleasant surprise! He doesn’t say “Make a list of jobs you need to do for me”. He doesn’t say “Keep thinking of new stuff you can do for me”. He doesn’t say “Wear yourself out for me”.  He simply says, like branches in the vine, we are to “remain” in him. He uses the word “remain” ten times throughout the short passage! Remain. Remain. Remain. The Greek verb is “menó” which can also be translated, as some versions of the Bible do, as “abide”. He’s asking us to stay close to him, indeed to live with him, in order to bear fruit and thus glorify God the Father.

Sometimes we can make our lives sound very task-orientated, a list of the things we do day in and day out. This is perhaps understandable if we believe that the world says we need to be defined by these things – our jobs, our charitable work, our family set-up. The world says “Make a to-do list”. The world says “Here is our organisation’s vision for 2016”. The world says “Put it in your diary”. The world says “Have two children”.

I think the trappings of the world can, if we’re not careful, easily snatch us away from the “remain in me” that is Jesus’ best for us. Maybe that’s why he says it ten times.

“What do you do?” 

This is a question that we ask, in our culture, perhaps when we’re meeting someone for the first time or talking to someone we don’t know very well yet. When I’m asked this question, I tend to reel off the various church-related ministries, school things, and family responsibilities I am involved with. I believe those roles are valuable, I believe I was created for them, I believe that they make Jesus Christ known in the world, and I do them out of love for him and for the people that are served by them – not out of duty. What’s more, provided I look to his strength (rather than my human strength) to carry out these roles, they bear fruit. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (verse 4).

But these ministries won’t last for ever. I mean, look at verse 2 – “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful”. While we’re living here on earth, there might be times of cutting and pruning to ensure that we’re really remaining in Jesus as we serve him. And ultimately, when we go home to Jesus, we won’t take them with us. All we will bring before him is our character. All we will have left is our relationship with him.

I once heard a talk given by a very lovely church leader who is currently based in the UK but spent some time living in New Zealand. He said that when New-Zealander Christians are asked the “What do you do?” question, they don’t reply with a list of “things”. They simply say “I’m a Christian” (OK, so there are bound to be some Christians in New Zealand who respond in this way and some who don’t – but you get my point, yes? Good!) And why not respond this way?! That’s exactly who we are. That’s our identity – people who are “in Christ”. The Bible is our story just as much as it is the story of the Galileans who walked the earth two thousand years ago. Whether we work for an organisation, run an organisation, do voluntary work, bring up children or whatever, the Bible tells us we are in Christ. So we can be sure of it! We can choose to remain in him and be expectant to see what blossoms out of that.

Have a think:

  • Are you being fruitful for Jesus? Does something need to be pruned, or cut out?
  • Would you, like me, secretly love to answer “I’m a Christian” next time a stranger asks you what you do?! I dare you!