By Dave Harvey:
“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.” -Phil. 4: 8
“Whatever!” Few words capture our culture of contempt more than this prickly exclamation. We hear it often – a students’ eye-rolling response to her teacher’s direction; a church planter’s muttered protest when he’s told no one volunteered for service; a harried moms’ exasperated murmur when her husband says he can’t pick up the kids; a pastor’s heart-reaction to a criticism leveled at his ministry. ‘Whatever’ is a verbal wave of dismissal, the armor of apathy that we slip on—sometimes with only a with a whisper —that shields our heart from the hassle of other people’s agendas and opinions.
‘Whatever’ is the flushing sound of your wants down my mental toilet.
But our words betray our heart (Luke 6:45) and ‘whatever’ is often the traitorous voice. When a root of bitterness breaks ground (Heb. 12:15), it sounds like ‘whatever’. It’s hostility with a harness; a subtle resentment that pouts with irritation; the distant tremors of a heart growing hard. Cynics say ‘whatever’ to convey indifference – a disheartened echo from a soul under protest. When pessimism goes dark, it sighs ‘whatever’ late into the night.
‘Whatever’ may be loud or lazy, strong or subtle, bold or brittle, but it’s cool detachment masks a thousand disillusioned’ slights.
How does God reach us when our heart staggers mindlessly into the grey dusk of ‘whatever’? What can a pastor or church planter do when he’s uncovered a hopeless heart – in himself or others – that hides behind this vacuous word?
God Flips ‘Whatever’
‘Whatever’ is a problem of perception – what do we really see when we survey our world? Read Phil. 4: 8 again. Now look around again through the eyes of this passage. Has anything changed? As the Author and Source of language, words always bend to God. So in Phil. 4, God flips the story on ‘whatever’. “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, whatever is commendable..” – it’s a long list. But here ‘whatever’ is aimed in a different direction. It’s the voice of hopeful reflection and attentive consideration. The Bible assumes there is beauty, good, and virtue in the world – look around, do you see any signs?
As the soul coarsens, ‘whatever’ corrupts. We become blind to virtue and deaf to the sound of creation speaking. But God wakes us to another ‘whatever’. But to see it, we must rise and look around.
Excellent things surround us; sublime stuff that’s worthy of praise and just waiting to be detected. Pump up the mental balloon and release it to think. Most of Paul’s verbs are present tense (whatever “is”). God invites us to take stock of reality, not theory. It starts right where you are, in the pain or pleasure of this very moment.
Admittedly, the good ‘whatevers’ are more difficult to reach. There are at first 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?
God Defines ‘Whatever’
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. Can you see the splendor? Dewy grass, Spanish moss, stingrays and beach sand, bumble bees pollinating, hummingbirds hanging suspended in midair. Creation reflects glory.
“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made”. (Rom. 1: 20)
In a fallen world with powerful forces stirring our appetite for corruption, we must feed on things that are ‘lovely’. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). What are you feeding on this week? Recently, I stopped on a Facebook post where a fistfight was recorded. It was pretty mild as fights go, and so I lingered there until a little blood was shed. Later that evening, I felt strangely sullied; like I had been defiled in some coarse and understated manner. Though a jawbreaking blow may be at times necessary, violence is not beautiful, nor does it foster the peaceful blessing of God. “Let evil,” prayed David in Psalm 140, “hunt down the violent man speedily!” Evil hunts violence, according to David. When they meet and I sit perched as a spectator, there’s nothing beautiful to see and righteousness is not being fed.
There is common grace. Sin is confined, natural laws upheld, gifts and talents are distributed, God conveys unmerited blessings upon all people. “He makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”. (Matt. 5:45) 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. “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Ps. 117: 21)
There is God’s Word. Poignant, pointed, and precious, revealing God’s heart, God’s plan, God’s law and God’s Son. Do you part the pages and look for the treasure? The very words of God lie within – “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). The Scriptures revive the soul, convict the heart, and correct the sinner. If we search for whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable, our Bible is our keystone. If the good ‘whatevers’ are hard to see, ask God to, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law”. (Ps 119:18)
There is Jesus. The Alpha and Omega, and Captain of Our Salvation. The Rose of Sharon, 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 Phil. 4:8. Our Savior is perfectly true, impeccably honorable, inestimably just, blazingly pure, indescribably lovely, and eternally excellent and commendable.
Do you see Jesus this way? I hope so. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I wanted to talk about this passage. “It is by beholding the glory of Christ by faith,” said John Owen, “that we are spiritually edified and built up in this world”.
As we behold Jesus, God flips ‘whatever’.
In part 2, we will discover that when Jesus redeems ‘whatever’ for us, it transforms the way we think and the way we live. Don’t miss it!