If you’re a leader and anything like me, joy is a reluctant resident within the soul. Occasionally, joy slips the bonds of preoccupying responsibility and comes out to play. The day brightens, the heart lightens, and I see Aslan everywhere. But on most days, joy remains a recluse. Weeks reduced to duty by the absence of delight.
For me this is a life thing. When left to myself, the trenches of my mind have always flowed towards gloomier pools of thought. The fight for joy is uphill and hard-fought. Yet I have seen progress through the determined application of one slice of Scripture:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
The War over “Whatever”
My journey started with seeing the repetition of one word within this passage: “whatever!” Few words capture our culture of contempt nowadays than this prickly exclamation. We hear it often, even among leaders — a small group leader’s quiet retort to people’s poor attendance; a church planter’s mumble when he’s told no one volunteered for service; a pastor’s heart-reaction to a criticism leveled at his ministry; a director’s eye-rolling response to her supervisor’s direction.
“Whatever” has become our verbal wave of dismissal, the armor of apathy that we slip on —sometimes with only a whisper — that shields our heart from the hassle of other people’s expectations and agendas.
But in the fight for joy, God wins the war in defining words. Read Philippians 4:8 again. Here God refashions “whatever” into an invitation — what do we really see when we survey our world? Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable — it’s all out there.
Trace the Hand of God
The Bible assumes there is blessing, virtue, and delights in the world. Look around: do you see any signs?
There is beauty. The sparkling path of a sunbeam, the hue of an autumn leaf, the rippling water of a creek as it cascades across glistening stones. Keep looking: there’s much more. Paul said, “Whatever is lovely.” When God ordered creation, lovely was stamped on everything from particles below to the planets overhead. Dewy grass, Spanish moss, stingrays and beach sand, bumblebees pollinating, hummingbirds hanging suspended in midair. Creation reflects glory. Can you see the splendor?
There is common grace. Sin is confined, natural laws upheld, gifts and talents are distributed — God conveys unmerited blessings upon all people. Can you see grace shining through people outside of your church? How about outside of your faith? A soldier defends his homeland, a wealthy woman supports orphans, an accountant courageously stands against his company’s illegalities. There is virtue, honor, justice, commendable acts of conscience — God’s image bursting from fallen creatures.
There are things in the world worth perceiving and praising. “Whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise.” Leader, can you trace the hand of God?
The Highest Thing to Consider
The epitome of Whatever has a name: Jesus. The Alpha and the Omega — the captain of our salvation. Wonderful Counselor, Redeemer, and eternal Son. He is the Lamb of God who offered himself as a substitute for our sins. Jesus upheld the law of God. Where Adam failed, Jesus displayed perfect obedience. By becoming the second and last Adam, he succeeded where we faltered.
By his obedience, Jesus earned a super-stockpile of righteousness, imputed to us through Christ’s death and resurrection. This makes him the ultimate “Whatever,” fully embodying the perfection of every quality listed in Philippians 4:8. Our Savior is perfectly true, impeccably honorable, inestimably just, blazingly pure, indescribably lovely, and eternally excellent and commendable.
“It is by beholding the glory of Christ by faith,” said John Owen, “that we are spiritually edified and built up in this world.” For leaders like me who touch joy less often, beholding Jesus more often helps in the fight for joy.
Sure, the good whatevers are more difficult to see, at least at first. There are internal distractions — the white noise of swirling thoughts competing for supremacy. But stay with it. Listen, touch, taste, smell — there is splendor, courage, honor, purity, things that are admirable and praiseworthy. Can you see any of them? Are you able to spot the good? To discern these blessings is to find a path to joy.
Think About These Things
An elder I know has a personal soul-exercise he calls his “attitude adjustor.” When his whatevers grow dark, he simply sets aside ten minutes to write down the areas where he sees God’s goodness at work. He says it’s an act of subversion. By returning to the redeemed whatevers, he stokes a fire in his heart that consumes the bad and animates the good. “It helps me,” he once said, “to see things from God’s perspective.”
What about you? Do you ever slow down long enough to scrutinize your thinking? Philippians 4:8 takes us there. Where is my mind? Upon what do I tend to dwell? Which whatevers grab most of my attention?
Face it: a fallen mind is always vulnerable to godless thoughts. And to be awake is to be in a constant conversation with yourself. We each have an internal data line from our mouth to our ears, carrying an unending flow of information towards our brain. I’m constantly amazed at how far down the road I can go with unbelieving, God-denying, depressing thoughts before I even realize what I’m doing. But as we stop to examine our mental path, we uncover which whatever we pursue.
Think on These Things
God has not left us without help. In this passage, he tells leaders to move beyond perceiving to pondering. God says, “Dave, you’re prone to wander. You stray from God-centered, soul-edifying thinking. Let me help you. ‘Think about these things!’” God guides us in how to fix our mind to rescue us from cynical cycles and depressing preoccupations. God says, “Take the good, just, and lovely things you see, and park your mind on them.”
The beauty here lies in its simplicity — a step of wisdom so accessible that even a child could manage it without dropping milk or cookies. It’s echoed in Paul’s words to the Colossians, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2). The more we bend our mind towards commendable things, the more we will enter into joy.
Leaders Must Look
Do you see the path? For me it’s made a huge difference, illuminating the right thoughts and moving me more deliberately towards God.
Leader, if you can identify with my struggles, let me encourage you. Acquaint yourself with Philippians 4:8. Fight to find that path. Then fight to stay on it! When we ponder the right things, we proceed in the right direction. And along the way, we discover something truly remarkable: When whatever is redeemed, joy comes out to play.