How to Escape Demanding Thoughts (Philippians 4:8)
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
Where do your thoughts come from?
They obviously come from somewhere. But my guess is, much of the time it’s not at all obvious to you where your thoughts are coming from. Especially those compulsive, negative, even sinful thoughts that have a gravitational pull on our attention, making it difficult to resist going where they want to lead us, even if we don’t want to go there. Where are these coming from?
Something is fueling them. And until we know what it is, we will have a very difficult, if not futile, struggle to change how we think. Paul wants to help us in this common struggle.
What Our Thoughts Tell Us
In order to identify where our thoughts are coming from, the first thing to examine is our emotions. What specifically are we feeling—fear, anxiety, anger, disappointment, discouragement, grief, sadness, hope, excitement, pride, joy, desire, anticipation?
These kinds of powerful emotions push or pull our train of thought along a certain track. But what is the engine powering these emotions? Our beliefs—what we’re believing at any given moment, even if we’re not consciously aware of them (which is often)—are what's fueling our emotions and influencing our thoughts.
We all have *official beliefs* (like a company’s mission statement, core values, and policy handbook) and *functional beliefs* (like how a company actually operates). If we want to know what a company really values, we look at its operations. If we want to know what we really believe at any given moment, we look at our functional beliefs. And the quickest way to see our functional beliefs is to examine what we’re thinking and the emotions driving those demanding thoughts.
Think About These Things
Am I getting all this from Philippians 4:8? No, I’m drawing it from the incredible psychology text called the Bible. It’s filled with belief-fueled emotions and thoughts. Ask yourself: Why did Gideon think to hide his wheat in the winepress (Judges 6:11)? Why did David think sleeping with Bathsheba was a good idea (2 Samuel 11)? Why did Peter think he should deny Jesus to the servant girl (Matthew 26:69–70)? Why did the anguished father think to say to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)?
But Philippians 4:8 is definitely pointing to this reality. Note the last four words: “think about these things.” Why does Paul give us this command? Because God has provided us a way to free us from our negative compulsive thoughts: by thinking about “these things.”
Okay, but how does Paul’s list help us? The last time you struggled to escape from a compulsive train of thought, how much help were abstract concepts like truth, honor, justice, purity, excellence, etc.? To the degree they remained abstract, probably zero help.
But Paul never intended these concepts to remain abstract. That’s why he wrote “whatever is” before each one. Paul knew that giving rise to our negative, sinful thoughts are specific false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, ugly, disgraceful, and detestable functional beliefs. Wherever these functional sinful beliefs (or unbeliefs) exist in us, manifesting in our demanding sinful thoughts and emotions, they must be confronted and replaced with “whatever is” the appropriate, God-dependent belief. We must do the work of taking specific promises God has provided in Scripture and concretely applying them to the specific sinful functional beliefs powering our emotions and fueling our thoughts.
No One Said It Would Be Easy
Yes, this is hard work, especially if we’re out of practice or have never really made this a consistent practice. It’s called the fight of faith for good reason (1 Timothy 6:12). We should expect it to be particularly difficult. Establishing new healthy habits always is.
But difficult isn’t impossible; “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). And biblical discipline is not, in the long run, the denial of joy, but the pursuit of joy (Hebrews 12:10–11).
When we are struggling with distracting, demanding thoughts and emotions, God is telling us through Philippians 4:8 that we’re not helpless victims who must simply endure the miserable ride on the train of our thoughts. He’s showing us how to seize the controls he’s given us, switch tracks, and head in a faithful, joyful direction—by thinking about these things.
Jon Bloom serves as co-founder and teacher at Desiring God. He is the author of four books, True to His Word, Not by Sight, Things Not Seen, and Don’t Follow Your Heart. Jon and his wife have five children and three grandchildren and make their home in the Twin Cities, MN.