Whatever is lovely…
Philippians 4:8 admonishes us to think about things which are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy. If you’ve ever sought to apply that kind of mindfulness, you may have emphasized (as I have tended to) so-called spiritual things. And you’d have good reason to do so. Most of the terms employed by the Apostle point in the direction of our relationship with God through the saving work of our Messiah.
Things that are “true” line up with what God has revealed through his word. The “noble” things become incarnated through practices encouraged in the book of Proverbs. That which is “right” conforms to the standards set by God’s character. “Pure” things show up in moral behavior that brings glory, rather than shame, to the name of our God. The vocabulary Paul selected for this verse has resonance with and allusion to teaching found throughout the Old Testament.
But two of the terms, “lovely” and “admirable,” come from other sources. Both words appear only once in the New Testament. Gordon Fee, in his excellent commentary says, “With this word [lovely] and the next [admirable] we step off New Testament turf altogether onto the more unfamiliar ground of Hellenism – but not hellenistic moralism…This word has to do primarily with what people consider “loveable,” in the sense of having a friendly disposition toward.”
In other words, part of the mental discipline of mindfulness or even “taking every thought captive” could include thoughtful appreciation for displays of beauty or order or goodness that God has woven into our world through his general revelation of creation. To be sure, we should be careful never to elevate general revelation above God’s special revelation of his word. But to dismiss physical beauty or any pointer to goodness, grace, and design, would be a failure to appreciate God’s hand in all of life.
Regarding this word, “lovely,” Fee goes on to say, “Here is the word that throws the net broadly, so as to include conduct that has little to do with morality in itself, but is recognized as admirable by the world at large. In common parlance, this word could refer to a Beethoven symphony, as well as to the work of Mother Teresa among the poor of Calcutta; the former is lovely and enjoyable, the latter is admirable as well as moral.”
After hearing his mention of a Beethoven symphony, I felt inclined to add a long list that includes things like a Dvorak aria, a Van Gogh landscape, a Monet footbridge, a Richard Wilbur poem, a vibrant sunset, Edwardo’s Chicago style deep dish elephant garlic pizza or even the way a dazzling white azalea plays off the earthen brown deck in my back yard.
Does this have any connection to the task of evangelism? I believe it does. Some of our non-Christian friends have a great deal of difficulty relating to our mentioning of “a personal relationship with God” or anything that sounds “religious.” But they do see and experience God’s general revelation all the time, even if they don’t acknowledge the Giver behind the gift. Perhaps our comments about how “lovely” things are could pave the way to discussions of where those things came from and why we, as image-bearers of the creator, find such things so worthy of praise.