“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4: 8; NLT)
Thanksgiving is a natural opportunity to purposefully focus on those things in our lives for which we are thankful, despite the many challenges and difficulties that we may otherwise experience. At times in my life, I have negatively viewed this exercise of “counting your blessings” as an invitation to avoid, deny, or dishonour the painful realities of life. However, as a counselling psychologist, I have come to see the deep wisdom of this passage in Philippians – indeed, I have seen over and over how integral it is to both mental and spiritual health that we develop the skill of focussing on those things that are good, pure, lovely, and true. The good things in our lives are certainly just as real and true as their opposites; replete in our lives and the world around us, if only we have eyes to see it.
Following this verse, Paul seems to link this exercise of fixing our thoughts on praiseworthy and excellent things to the experience of peace and contentment. Indeed, he writes about how he has learned to be content in any and every situation, whether he has little or plenty, or whether his stomach is empty or full (Philippians 4:11-12). I don’t get the sense that Paul is denying or avoiding any of the harsh realities of his life, which were undoubtedly many. I can only imagine (with some shuttering) the numerous hardships and persecution faced by Paul and the other early Christians living in the first century Roman Empire. Rather, in this whole final section of his letter to the Philippians, Paul seems to be inviting his readers to join him in appreciating a much larger and deeper truth; that regardless of the hardships and struggles we face, there are also beautiful, lovely, and good things that we should not forget. These “glorious riches” (Philippians 4:19) are gifted to us through Christ, eternally supplied, and our ultimate inheritance as God’s children. Even the temporary good things of our lives are but a foretaste of that eternal shalom which Paul reminds us is our ultimate destination. The truth is, the adversities and painful experiences in the “not yet” of the present age are temporary, and will ultimately be swallowed up by the goodness of that shalom.
So, back to “counting your blessings”. I have a renewed appreciation for this exercise, not as a means of negating or erasing the distressing and difficult things in my life, but as an important (dare I say integral?) skill that I need to purposefully exercise in order to remind myself of deeper and more eternal truths; that the glorious riches of God are already present in my life and await me in their fullness when Christ ultimately restores all things. But let’s be practical - how can I grow this skill of “counting my blessings”? Maybe when I catch myself ruminating or anxious about a painful experience or struggle in my life, I can purposefully direct my attention to answering these questions: “Is there a goodness from God that I can see within this struggle? Is there a gift or blessing from God that I can appreciate in the midst of this pain? What can I remind myself of right now that is beautiful and lovely in my life?” Even in the asking of these questions, I sense a peace and contentment growing in my spirit, inviting me to savour the foretaste of that shalom that will one day be my feast.