Saturday, 22 April 2017

Pure in heart and mind

Finally... 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

I knew somebody once who had a particular sense of humour which didn’t always go down too well. It wasn’t that it was coarse or vulgar. No, in fact it was clever and witty, even quite intellectual, but it had a slightly acid, sarcastic tone; it had the effect, sometimes, of putting you down, making you feel small.

I knew this person well; and I knew that he was a nice person who would not deliberately set out to wound or humiliate. So it puzzled me that he should have adopted this particular style of humour. I wondered where he had got it from.

Then one day I happened to be reading a novel that was very popular around that time. And suddenly the scales, so to speak, fell from my eyes. Yes! Here it was in the character of the main person in the book - exactly that slightly disagreeable type of humour. I also happened to know that my friend rated this book highly, and was a fan of the author.

All right, it could have been just coincidence. But I doubt it. I strongly suspect that my friend had subconsciously absorbed that mentality and made it his own.

And if I am right, then it is actually quite frightening. Because, of course, this wouldn’t apply to just my friend, but to all of us who open our minds to outside influences (and which of us doesn’t - you can’t avoid it, can you?).

The point I’m making is simple: Eat bad food and your body will get sick; and, by the same token, absorb bad influences and your mind will get sick. Not, of course, in the sense of mental illness, but in the sense of being tainted, soiled, tarnished.

In Philippians 4, as Paul draws this short, affectionate letter to an end, he urges his Christian friends in Philippi to become a particular type of people: a rejoicing people (verse 4); a gentle people (verse 5); an unanxious people; a praying people (both verse 6). And then he offers them (verse 8) this beautiful list to soak up: true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. “Think about things that are like that,” he says. “Focus your minds on them” - as The Message puts it, “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.” Take care what you allow into your mind!

All the words in Paul’s list are worth reflecting on. The one translated “noble” occurs hardly anywhere else in the New Testament, but perhaps it sums up well what kind of people Christians should be: “noble-minded”.  (And if that sounds old-fashioned, so be it.)

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined nobility as “a mild and seemly gravity”. (That probably sounds old-fashioned too - but never mind!) “Mild” suggests humility and meekness. “Gravity” suggests a basically serious attitude towards life, shunning everything shallow and vulgar. “Seemly” suggests an awareness of how to conduct yourself in a dignified and appropriate way in differing situations. I see Jesus there, don’t you?

The prophet Hosea scolded Israel for turning to false gods, and commented that “they [Israel] became as vile as the thing they loved” (Hosea 9:10). Yes, that’s what idolatry does to us; it destroys spiritual depth and moral purity.

In Psalm 115 the psalmist mocks people who create their own gods. Oh yes, he says, these gods have got mouths - but they can’t speak! Eyes - but they can’t see! Ears - but they can’t hear! Noses - but they can’t smell! Hands - but they can’t feel! Feet - but they can’t walk! And then he adds a comment which should make all of us sit up: People who make such gods will end up like them (verse 8). And what precisely does that mean? In a word: Dead.

We end up resembling the things we most admire - and that is bad news if those things are not good.

Well, I’ve come a long way from a novel which, if my suspicion is correct, had a corrupting influence on someone’s character. But the question is there and isn’t going to go away: What bad, deadly influences are we permitting to poison our minds? How noble-minded are we?

Let’s remember the words of Jesus: Blessed are the pure in heart. And let’s remember too that another way of saying “blessed” is “happy”...

Lord Jesus, I so much need the beauty of your person and the power of your Spirit to maintain my purity in this corrupt and fallen world. Give me, I pray, a true hunger and thirst for righteousness. Amen.

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