XVIII. THE THINGS TO FIX UPON.
"Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honourable [venerable], whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. The things which you both learned and received and heard and saw in me, these things do: and the God of peace shall be with you." — Phil. iv. 8, 9 (R.V.).
The topics last considered bring us naturally to the remarkable exhortation of vv. 8 and 9. This proceeds on the same view of the moral and spiritual situation, and completes what the Apostle has to say in reference to it.
If men are to live as citizens of a heavenly commonwealth, on great principles and to great ends, it is, as we have seen, a very practical question, What to do about the inevitable play and onset of this changing earthly life, which assails us with motives, and detains us upon interests, and inspires us with influences, of its own. These cannot be abjured: they are not easy to harmonise with the indications of that loftier and purer world; they are prone to usurp the whole heart, or at least a very undue share of it. This is the practical problem of every honest Christian. In reference to the solving of it the Apostle had suggested the place given to Christian joy; he had suggested also the place and power of prayer. These were indications as to the spirit and the method in which a believer might bring into play the resources of the Kingdom of Christ to control and subjugate those insubordinate forces. But might not all this seem to be too negative? Does it not speak too much of holding off and holding in? After all, do not all human experiences constitute the scene in which we are both formed and tried? What can we make of life unless we are interested in it? How otherwise can we even be religious in it? What is life, if it is not a scene of inquiry and of search set in motion by the objects around us, a scene in which we like and dislike, hope and fear, desire and think? The answer is, Yes, we are to be keenly interested in the experiences of life, and in the possibilities it opens. Life is our way of existing; let existence be animated and intense. But while the aspects of it that are merely transient are to have their place, and may attract a lively interest, there are other aspects, other interests, other possibilities. All the transient interests have an outgate towards such as are eternal. Life is the experience of beings that have high capacities, and can rise to noble destinies. It is the experience of societies of such beings, who mould one another, exchanging influences continually. The changing experience of human life, when seen in the true light, is found to add to all its lower interests a play of interests that are more interesting as well as more worthy. It is iridescent with lights which it catches from the infinite and the eternal. Every step of it, every turn of it, asks questions, offers opportunities, calls for decisions, holds out treasures, which it is the business of a lifetime to recognise and to secure. It has gains, it has victories, it has accomplishments, it has glories, which need not lead us to deny its lower interests, but which we may reasonably feel to be far the higher. Endless shades, and forms, and types of goodness, of being good, getting good, doing good, gleam reflected to us from the changing experience. Goodness is not one monotonous category embodied in some solemn phrase, and exhausted when that is learned. There is no end to the rich variety in which it is offered, and in which it is to be caught, understood, appropriated. And life, through all the manifoldness of its legitimate interests, and its illegitimate possibilities, is the scene in which all this passes before us, and asks to be made ours. The Apostle says to us, Think on these things. Take account, that is, of what they are, and what their worth is. Lay forth on these the care and pains, which spent themselves before on mere pain and pleasure, loss and gain. Reckon what these are, search out their nature, prove their capabilities, appropriate and enjoy them. Think on these things. So earthly life, through all its busy processes, shall acquire a nobler interest; and it shall begin, at the same time, to minister with unexpected readiness to your true welfare. Enter then, or press on, in this wide field. Be this your passion and pursuit; that which unifies your life, and draws all its resources towards one result.
We may be helped to fix more firmly the point of view from which this striking catalogue of good things is drawn up, if we observe that the Apostle collects all these excellences under the notion of "a virtue and a praise." Let us consider how men are trained to progressive conceptions of virtue and praise. For virtue and praise, both name and notion, have had a large place in men's minds and a great influence on their actions. How has this influence been sustained and made to grow?
Men are conscious of obligations; and they are aware, more dimly or more clearly, that the standard of those obligations must exist somehow above themselves. It is a standard not of their own creation, but such as claims them by an antecedent right. Yet if each individual could hold himself apart, forming his own conceptions of fit and right for himself without regard to others, the standard would tend downwards rapidly, because moral judgment would be warped by each man's selfishness and passion, excusing evil in his own case and putting it for good. Even as it is, this has taken place only too widely. But yet the tendency is powerfully counteracted by the fact that men do not exist, nor form their notions, in that separate way. A principle within them prompts them to seek one another's approbation, and to value one another's good opinion. Indeed the consciousness that what is law for me is law for others, and that they are judging as well as I, is one of the forms in which we realise that duty descends upon us all, from some august and holy source.
This principle of regarding the judgment and seeking the approbation of others, has had an enormous effect on men and on society. For though men are skilful enough, in their own case, in averting or silencing the admonition of the monitor within, they have little reluctance to make full use of their sense of right in scrutinising one another. They judge, in their thoughts about each other, with far more clearness, shrewdness, and certainty than they do about themselves. Men do in this way make requirements of one another, which each of them might be slow to make from himself. This is a great operative force in all cases; and in those cases in which, in any society, vivid convictions about truth and duty have taken possession of some minds, the principle we are speaking of propagates an influence through the whole mass, with effects that are very striking.
This mutual criticism of men "accusing or else excusing one another," has had a great effect in sustaining what we call common morals. But especially let it be observed that this criticism, and the consciousness of it, stimulating the higher class of minds, sustains and develops the finer perceptions of morality. There are minds that eminently strive for distinction in things that are counted for a virtue and a praise. And through them is developed in the general mind the approving perception of more delicate shades of worthy conduct, which in a coarser age were unperceived or unheeded. These come up in men's mutual judgments; they are scrutinised; they interest the mind and take hold of it. So, whether in the case of those who begin to pay respect to such forms of good because they perceive that others approve of them, or in the case of those who, when those forms of good are thus presented, perceive a worth in them and take a pride in living up to them for their own sake, — in both cases, the creating and sustaining of the higher standard depends on the principle we have now before us.
Thus there arises, for example, the code of honour, the fine perception of what is socially right, becoming, and graceful. Men, no doubt, are always to be found who cultivate the nicest sense of this, not from a mere desire that others should know it, but because they see it to be desirable in itself, and because they shun the sense of inward disgrace that follows when they fall below their own standard. Yet it is the process of mutual criticism which develops the consciousness, and it is this which, on the whole, sustains it.
Thus we find in the world not merely a sense of duty, but something that has spurred men on to things counted for a virtue and a praise. Outside of all Christian influences, wonderful examples are found of self-sacrificing devotion to the noble and the true. Men have eagerly pursued the nicest discriminations of duty and honour, that they might be, and might show themselves to be, accomplished, finished, not merely in some things, but in whatever things were counted to be the proper tokens of a noble mind.
Well now, the Apostle is not shutting out from his plan of mental life the attainments made in this way in the true or the good, even apart from Christian teaching. Far less is he excluding the human social method, in which mind whets mind, and one stirs another to discern and appropriate what is for a virtue and for a praise. He supposes this mode of influence to go on in Christianity more successfully than ever. And he is not at all excluding the natural life of men; for that is the scene, and that yields the materials, for the whole process. But he does suppose that now all old attainment shall be set in a new light, and acquire a new life and grace, and that new attainment shall come wonderfully into view by reason of the new element which for us has entered into the situation. And what is this element? Is it that we recognise around us a society of Christians with whom we share a higher standard, and with whom we can give and take the contagion of a nobler conception of life? Yes, no doubt; but far before that, the great new element in the situation is the Lord — in whom we trust and rejoice.
It is always human duty to have regard to the will of God, however it may reach us. But when you are called to know the Lord and to rejoice in Him, when He vouchsafes Himself to be yours, when you begin to enjoy His peace, and to walk with Him in love, and to have it for your hope to be with Him for ever, then you are placed in a new relation to Him. And it is such a near and dear relation on both sides that much may be expected from you in it. If this be so, you are now dealing with Him always; not merely in direct acts of worship, but in your thoughts, your feelings, your words, your business, your common dialogue with men, and all your daily life, you walk with Him. You cannot repudiate having so much to do with Him, unless you will repudiate your Christianity. Then, if so, something new is expected. A new test of the becoming, of that which is for a virtue and for a praise, has come into operation, and has become intelligible to you; and it is a test of new delicacy and new force. It is expected we should recognise it. Not now the mutual judgments merely of erring men, but His mind and His will, what He delights in and approves, — this begins to solicit us and press upon us, for we walk with Christ. That this "walk" of ours may escape being mean, coarse, offensive, we have great lessons to learn. We have to learn what, in His judgment, as seen by His eye, as tried by the sensibilities of His heart, are the things that are true and venerable and just, what with Him counts for a virtue and a praise.
And here, indeed, is our crown. The crown of honour which man cast away when sin gained him, was the approbation of the Lord. But now we are set on afresh to seek it, testing our ways by the perception of that which He approves; or, on the other hand, what He counts to be mean and degrading, fit to be recoiled from and rejected. It is our calling (whatever our attainment may be) to be more sensitive to the nicest touches of truth and honour towards our Lord than ever we were towards men. And this does not apply only to some narrow field of life. It goes through all relations, up to God and Christ, and out through all duties and ties. The great calling reaches wide and far; it is very high and noble: we cannot pretend to disclaim it, unless we disclaim the Lord. This way lies God's crown. Win it; wear it; let no man take your crown.
When our Lord's mind and heart are said to be the test, this does not exclude our profiting by our fellows, accepting the admonition contained in human judgments, and especially in those of Christian people. Great good comes to us in such channels. Only now the judgment of our fellows is to refer itself always to a further standard; and a new Presence brings new tenderness and grace, new depth and significance, to every suggestion of right feeling and worthy life. This is the light and this the influence under which we are to learn what shall be counted for a virtue and for a praise. And we must bend our mind to think upon it, if we are to learn our lesson.
We must think upon it. For, on the one hand, it is not "some things," but "whatsoever things." What should we say of a man who proposed in his dealings with others to do "some things" that are honourable, but not all things, not "whatsoever things"? And, on the other hand, we may be further off from even a small measure of attainment in this field than we are disposed to think. Christians who, as to all social excellence, as that is commonly understood between man and man, are unexceptionable, may be sadly blind to the requirements of an honourable walk with God; may be sadly wanting even in the conception of what is due in all love and honour to Christ, and to men for His sake. Men may be the soul of honour and delicacy in their ways, judged from the world's point of view; yet not far from a savage coarseness in the manner of their life judged by Christ's standard. We would not needlessly wound another's feelings; but with what indifference have we "grieved the Spirit." We would shrink from saying anything to our fellows that is deceitful and hypocritical: can we say as much for our prayers? In our common life we maintain truth in the ordinary sense between men; but do we loyally express and act out the truth by which God's children live in our speech and action among men? Is there that fine congruity of our bearing to the truth we live by, which becomes a child of God?
We are greatly hindered here by the assumption we make, that when we have mastered the form of knowledge concerning the will of God, we then know all about our calling. It is a great delusion. We must not only sit down at the feet of Christ to learn from Him; but also, with a watchful eye on the phases of life, catching the lessons which things and men afford, we must be trained to know and sharpened to loving discernment as to our Master's mind, and so, as to what is honourable and right-minded, refined and noble, in a walk with God. We do not easily emerge from the meanness of our spirits; we do not easily shake off that insensibility to what is spiritually fair and fit, on which the angels look down with pity and wonder.
Therefore, says the Apostle, think on these things, the things which in the Lord's kingdom and under the Lord's eye are well-pleasing, and count for a virtue and a praise; think on those things which are related to His esteem, and to the esteem of persons who learn of Him, as various excellences are to the common judgment of the world. Do so, for here you are close to the genuinely and supremely true and good; and this, as was said before, is your crown.
The Apostle is thinking of a perception of duty and privilege attained not merely by studying a catalogue of virtues, but by a far finer and more living process — by life that is instinct with observant watchfulness, that is frank in self-criticism, that is recipient of the light flashing from the experience and the censure of others: all this under constant regard to the Lord, and leading us into fuller sympathy with Him.
That this is so, appears from the Apostle's way of arranging the particulars of his exhortation. He does not merely desire his disciples to discern what is right in general: but he would have them grow into a vital knowledge, so as to feel the right in those matters where the shading becomes delicate; where it may be difficult to distinguish argumentatively an absolute right and wrong, but where a mind purged and trained in the Master's school can well discern a difference. "Whatsoever things are true" — which includes not only veracity and fidelity, but also whatever in conduct and temper God's truth requires as agreeable to itself; and then "Whatsoever things are venerable" — the character that emerges when all that is congruous to truth, in its finest filaments and ramifications, has been developed, and has assumed its own place. "Whatsoever things are just" — rightfully due on all hands to God and to man; and then "Whatsoever things are pure" — the character that recoils from all that sullies, from the smallest shade or infection of iniquity. "Whatsoever things are lovely" — the dear or amiable, whatever draws out love, cherishes it, befits it; and then "Whatsoever things are of good report" — actions that can hardly be more discriminatingly classified than by saying that the heart is pleased to hear of them; it confesses that they are of a good name, of a welcome sound; they are like some delicate sound or odour on which you dwell with delight, but cannot definitely describe it. In a word, "If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." Study them, look out for them, learn to recognise them, to know their worth, to pursue them lovingly through all their manifestations.
Thus, let it be said once more, the Apostle is not open to the objection that he calls us to a mere retreat from energetic life. To such a call men have always replied, that they find in themselves capacities wonderfully adapted to grapple with life, and to do so with interest and with energy. Virtually the Apostle says, Yes, true; and life has aspects to interest the mind, and results to engage the will, which are its noble and its imperative possibilities: for the followers of Christ these become dominant; they afford noble scope for all human faculty; and all forms of life are dignified as they become subservient to these supreme interests and aims. Now, lay forth the care and pains that fastened before on mere joy and sorrow, hope and fear, on a certain thinking and making account of the true, the venerable, the just, the pure, the lovely, that which is of good report. Reckon what they are; search out their nature; make them your serious object. "O man of God, flee those things; but follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness."
But progress is not to be made in this line by mere subtle refining and contemplation. If there was any danger that the Apostle's call to "think" might be interpreted that way, presently it is corrected. The thinking is to be practical thinking, bending itself to action. "What things you have received and learned" — those practical points in which the Apostle always taught his Gentile converts to put to proof the grace of Christ; and "What you have heard and seen in me" — in a man poor, tried, persecuted, a man whose life was rough and real, who knew weakness and sorrow, who bore heavy burdens, that were not proudly paraded, but which brought him lowly and weary to Christ's feet, — these things do. That is the road to the attainments on which I bid you think.
"And the God of peace shall be with you." In those ways (for they are His own ways) God walks with men; and peace with God, spreading out into peace with men, becomes the atmosphere in which such wayfarers move.
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
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To the Philippians - R. Rainy
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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