|Image shows a pretty tree with the text of Philippians 4:8 written next to it. Image source.|
Today for Honest Lent, I'm reading Philippians 4:1-9.
Specifically, I'd like to talk about verse 8. "Finally, brothers and sisters, 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."
Okay, sure, there's something to be said for thinking about positive things rather than negative ones. This verse could be interpreted as encouraging self-care. It's good for your mental health to focus on the positive things in your life, instead of dwelling on bad things. That's good advice.
See, this is a bible verse. And that means, when I was a good evangelical, I would have viewed it as an absolute command, not a sometimes-useful piece of advice. And there is a world of difference between those two things.
If it's a bit of advice about mental health, then that means its purpose is to make us feel better, to give us less stress. It means we can understand the purpose, and we have the ability to judge whether or not this advice is worth following in our current situation. If following it would help achieve that purpose, then we should totally do it. But if there is a situation where it would not be helpful to try and force ourselves to think about "excellent or praiseworthy" things, if doing so would cause more stress, then we can make the choice not to follow this advice. In other words, when it's useful, we can do it and benefit from it, and when it's not useful, we can just ignore it. (The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.) When viewed in this light, this verse about focusing our thoughts on positive things is a very good and healthy principle.
But if it's a command from God, then everything is different. If it's a command, then when we fail to do it, we're sinning. The church taught me that sin is a big deal- committing any tiny little sin meant I deserve death, I deserve to go to hell, I killed Jesus. Any little sin is a serious rebellion against God, a vicious, heartless attack on the one who constantly showers us with love, mercy, and forgiveness. If you keep thinking about sad things and you can't help it, you're hurting God. You are a bad bad person. And if you have depression, first of all it's your fault; if you had been obeying God and thinking about "whatever is true, whatever is noble," then you wouldn't have depression. And now in addition to your depression, you should feel really guilty for your failure to obey what God commanded here. And in addition to that, you should try to force yourself to only think of good things, and then feel even worse when that doesn't work. (They tie up heavy burdens for others, but they themselves will not lift a finger to help.)
The difference between viewing this as a command and viewing it as a possibly-helpful piece of advice is enormous. If it's a command, any good it might have done is completely destroyed, and it heaps more guilt and self-hate on people who are already struggling.
But if it's just some good advice we are free to take or leave, that means we're in charge. We have the authority to decide when it would be helpful to follow it, and when it doesn't apply. But of course this would be unthinkable in the evangelical Christianity I learned. Believing that I had the ability to know the purpose behind biblical "commands" and I should choose to ignore them if they wouldn't achieve that purpose in my current situation? Ha. Of course not. Of course humans are so sinful, we can't trust our own minds, we're always looking for excuses to ignore the "clear teaching of Scripture."
Just because the bible says something doesn't mean you have to obey it. Only obey it if it's a good and healthy thing that makes sense. This stuff about forcing yourself to think about "positive" things and then feeling bad when you're not able, labelling your mental illness as "sin", doesn't help anybody. The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.