Discernment / Ordinary Life / The Skill

Babylon Series: Part 7 Finding the True, Noble, and Pure in Babylon

It’s a good thing the Bible identifies sin as folly, because sometimes it’s almost impossible to keep from laughing. Relativism may be a deadly philosophy, but it can produce events of stunning absurdity. Consider this, for example, which appeared a few years ago in an article by John Leo in U. S. News & World Report. “In his new book, Leading with My Chin, Jay Leno tells a mildly embarrassing story about himself on the old Dinah Shore television show. The only problem with the incident is that it didn’t happen to Leno. It happened to another comedian, Jeff Altman. Leno told Josef Adalian of the New York Post last week that he liked the story so much he paid Altman $1000 for the right to publish the tale as his own.” If this wasn’t a true story, it wouldn’t be funny—it wouldn’t even be believable.

We don’t need stories of ethical absurdity to remind us that anyone committed to holiness will have serious concerns living in Babylon. After all, Babylon is a society in which the Bible is considered to be merely one religious book among many, and the law of God to be nothing more than the primitive moral code of a religious minority. It would be different if we were living in Jerusalem, of course, but we aren’t—we’re in exile, to adopt a biblical metaphor, living among people who increasingly do not share our deepest convictions and values.

Given this reality, how can we live in a post-Christian culture without being contaminated by the fallenness around us? One common answer is that we should make Philippians 4:8 the standard for our involvement with the non-Christian world. In that text Paul tells the believers in Philippi that “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.” This verse, then, provides us with a straightforward list of qualities by which we can determine exactly what we should allow to fill our minds. If the book or joke or TV show or pop song fails this simple test, then the Christian should set it aside. Besides, who would want to give precious time to something not characterized by the qualities in Paul’s list?

This understanding of Philippians 4:8, of course, would call into question some of what we publish in this newsletter. For example, since the music of Nine Inch Nails doubtlessly fails this test, is it wise for Dr. Seel to expose himself to it in order to write his review found in Critique #7-1999? How can we suggest that films be a window of insight to help us understand our culture when so many include material that even some non-Christians find objectionable? Would I say that watching The X-Files regularly is filling my mind with whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Critique #3 – 2000)? How then should we understand Philippians 4:8?

Our heart’s deepest desire
First, we need to remind ourselves that not only must we have a concern for holiness, we must yearn for it. Jesus expects this of his people. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Luther describes it as a “hunger and thirst for righteousness that can never be curbed or stopped or sated, one that looks for nothing and cares for nothing except the accomplishment and maintenance of the right, despising everything that hinders this end.” The apostle Peter stresses the same thing when he teaches us to be holy, and then repeats himself to drive the point home. “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:14-16).

Those who teach that Philippians 4:8 is the standard for holiness by which to measure our involvement with the non-Christian world are to be commended for desiring holiness. If we love the Lord Christ as Savior we can never be complacent about evil. It is not enough that I believe that sin is bad in some vague theoretical sense; rather I must be mortified at the sin I see in myself. I must resist excusing myself, and by God’s grace never grow comfortable with those sins which particularly plague me. “There is an old comedy,” James Packer writes, “in which an escaped lion takes the place of the shaggy dog beside the armchair and the comic affectionately runs his fingers through its mane several times before realizing that, as we say, he has a problem. We act like that with regard to our sinful habits. We treat them as friends rather than killers, and never suspect how indwelling sin when indulged enervates and deadens. This, one fears, is because we are already its victims, never having known what it is to be really alive in our relationship with God, just as children born with crippled legs never know what it is to run around, as distinct from hobbling.”

A heart’s desire for holiness, a hunger and thirst for righteousness is not optional for the believer. This means that we must know ourselves, identify those areas in which we are weak, and resist temptation. Living in a fallen world means we are living among those whose lives and art express both something of glory, for they are made in God’s image, and something of the Fall, for they too are rebels against God. Living in Babylon means that many of our neighbors and friends may mistake evil for good, and may disdain what is good, mistaking it for weakness or prudishness. “Nearly all the wisdom we possess,” Calvin says in the first line of his Institutes, “consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” As we get to know God, we love him and desire to be like him, and he is holy. Knowing ourselves means, among other things, we will take our disposition to sin with deadly seriousness, making sure we are part of accountable relationships in the community of God’s people, and seeking to grow in grace by the Spirit’s sanctifying power.

Taking holiness seriously also means we will be discerning about our culture’s lust for entertainment. If entertainment means allowing something which amuses us to wash over us as we relax and give ourselves mindlessly to it, then there is no place for entertainment in the Christian world and life view. We live in a fallen world. At no time can we cease to be discerning, whether watching a movie or the news, reading a book bought at amazon.com or at a Christian bookstore, undergoing training at work, or listening to a sermon. This does not mean that novels and films can not be enjoyed, but rather we must be discerning as we enjoy them. In fact, I would argue that the more we engage the book or painting or film or whatever thoughtfully and critically and biblically, the greater can be our enjoyment of it.

Misunderstanding Philippians 4:8
If holiness is so important, it seems reasonable to argue that we should withdraw from anything that fails to measure up to the standard Paul gives in this text. Anything that is not true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy is, therefore, out-of-bounds for the believer, and must be set aside. And, since precious little in Babylonian culture comes even close to passing this test, it is inappropriate (at best) and dishonoring to Christ (at worst) to get involved with it, regardless of the reason.

I believe this understanding of Philippians 4:8 is mistaken. Let me explain why.

We live in a fallen world. A world which, though created by God and declared to be good by him, is now abnormal and under his judgment because of our sin and rebellion. It’s not merely that human beings occasionally commit some sin, but that by nature we are sinners. It is not surprising, then, that the effects of the Fall permeate all that we are and do. Since we are created in God’s image we bear true significance, but we are also fallen which means that everything about us is tainted by sin. It’s not just non-Christians of whom this is true, but Christians as well. We are all sinners, and thus all fall short of God’s glory. Even if we are redeemed by God’s grace and deeply desire to honor our Lord above all, we realize that even our worship is incomplete, at best, and flawed, at worst. We seek as believers to live to God’s glory, but we are well aware that this can occur only by grace. Until our redemption is consummated, even our service to him is imperfect, affected by the inevitable ripples of the Fall.

This means that nothing anyone does or makes in this fallen world (except for Christ, of course) measures up fully to the list Paul gives in Philippians 4:8. Everything falls short in one way or another. As a result, trying to use this text as a measure by which to draw lines for our involvement in a non-Christian world ends up being a rather subjective affair. We don’t intend that, of course, but how could it be any different? If nothing in this bent world fully meets this standard, we end up drawing our lines arbitrarily. We rule out the things we tend to be uncomfortable with, and then conveniently, we tend to ignore the fact that what we have ruled “in” doesn’t meet the standard, either.

This is not, of course, an argument for not making distinctions. Some things do partake more of purity than do others, and that is significant. Christians need to be discerning in such things. On the other hand, the reality of living in a fallen world means that if Philippians 4:8 is to be used as a standard by which to measure involvement in a post-Christian culture, we should be honest enough to admit that our application will be, by definition, both subjective and arbitrary.

Let’s take literature as an example. No doubt some evangelicals would be troubled by the language in Foreign Bodies, a novel that is not featured on the shelves of Christian bookstores. Yet, it is a deeply Christian story, by which I mean that it not only is written from the perspective of a Christian world view, but the main character is an outspoken believer who leads a friend to faith. It’s a postmodern novel, written by a Gen-Xer, and yet the gospel of Christ is expressed clearly. Many would argue that the rough language, examined in light of Philippians 4:8, fails the “pure” test, and so the novel must be ruled out-of-bounds. Yet, I would argue the language is realistic for the sort of non-Christian character speaking in the story. Does not that make it “true?” Many of those who are uncomfortable with Foreign Bodies, on the other hand, have no trouble with the poorly written fiction hawked in religious book stores. Yet, do not these novels fail to be “lovely,” a term which includes the notion of aesthetic excellence? In terms of quality of writing they are neither “excellent” nor “praiseworthy.” The truth of the matter is that we are more comfortable with the one than with the other.

Because we live in a fallen world, using Philippians 4:8 as a standard by which to measure our involvement in a non-Christian culture will always, by definition, end up being both subjective and arbitrary. The text does not tell us where to draw lines in a fallen world; it is used by believers to justify the lines they draw.

If Philippians 4:8 means we can only think about what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, it is impossible to have a thoughtful relationship with a non-Christian. If we compare Philippi-ans 4:8 with Romans 3:9-18 where the apostle describes the characteristics of the person apart from God, we find they are polar opposites. True: “there is no one who understands.” Right: “there is no one righteous.” Pure: “their throats are open graves.” Lovely: “their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” Admirable: “they have together become worthless.” Praiseworthy: “there is no one who does good.”

Yet, surely we do not believe that Paul is telling the Philippians never to think about their unbelieving neighbors and co-workers. Or that their relationships with non-Christians should somehow be mindless or thoughtless. Understanding Philippians 4:8 as a standard by which to measure the Christian’s involvement in a non-Christian world falls apart when we compare Scripture with Scripture—an important key in rightly interpreting the Bible.

And finally, if this is how Paul intended us to understand this text, why did he not live that way himself? In Acts 17 we find him reading Greek philosophers, thinking about what they were saying in order to discern truth in the midst of a work about the pagan god Zeus. And Paul expects us to model ourselves after his example, for the text we are discussing is followed by this: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put into practice” (Philippians 4:9). If we interpret Philippians 4:8 to be the standard by which to measure our involvement with the non-Christian world, we must first explain Paul’s failure to abide by his own teaching.

Even if motivated by a desire for holiness, this interpretation of Philippians 4:8 will cause us to live less than faithfully as God’s people in a fallen world. It will tend to make us withdraw, when we are called, instead, to engage, and will erect unnecessary barriers between non-Christians and the gospel.

Obeying Philippians 4:8
The apostle is not giving us a checklist by which to measure our involvement with the non-Christian world. Neither is he giving us a justification for withdrawing from the people and culture of Babylon. He is rather commending—and commanding—the development of a fully Christian mind and heart and imagination. When he tells us to “think about such things,” he is using a word which means to meditate and reflect on, to contemplate, with the result that what is meditated upon becomes so much a part of us that it molds our thinking, our doing, and our feeling. In other words, he is teaching us what is necessary to prepare us to engage the culture and people of Babylon with the gospel, without compromising, and without being seduced by Babylonian ideas and values.

The apostle’s instruction here is parallel to what he writes in Romans 12, when he insists that a renewed mind is required if we are to live transformed lives instead of being pressed into the mold of the world. The spiritual disciplines of solitude, prayer, and meditation on the word of God grounds us in what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy, preparing us to live faithfully in exile in Babylon. Just as Christ did not have to be withdrawn from a sinful world to be holy, neither do we. And the Gospels record numerous instances when Jesus spent time alone with his Father. We must follow his example.

This doesn’t make Philippians 4:8 easier to obey; in fact, I would argue it makes it much harder. It’s reassuring to be able to justify withdrawing from some activity or person or cultural artifact that I find offensive or uncomfortable. Far more difficult is the realization that not only am I called to engage the culture of Babylon with the gospel, but that I must nurture and grow in the spiritual disciplines. But who has unhurried time in the midst of our busyness to meditate, to pray, to wait quietly before the Lord? And yet the command of Scripture is clear: “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.”

Reading the Word and reading the world. Without the first, the second is not only impossible, it is dangerous.


John Leo on Leno quoted in When No One Sees: The Importance of Character in an Age of Image by Os Guinness (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress; 2000) p. 141.