“Dwell on these things”

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:6-9

Let’s consider some of the topics and issues we may encounter if we go online, use social media, or even avail ourselves of traditional news sources: the covid pandemic, a war in Ukraine, anti-racism, climate change, rising fuel and food prices, the transgender movement, and now, most recently, a leaked US Supreme Court opinion about potentially overturning Roe v. Wade. Any one of these–and usually more than one at once–often has people from differing ideological viewpoints and worldviews literally screaming at one another and hurling insults and using inflamed rhetoric. Reason generally lags far behind emotion. And virtually all of our media will play to one side or the other, stoking fear and inciting panic for ratings and profit.

Our culture is by all appearances coming apart at the seams. Cue 80s rock band REM: It’s the end of the world as we know it. People use the phrase “culture wars” for a reason. And many become very invested in the outcomes of this conflict. Especially those whose horizon of meaning reaches no further than science, education, technology, and politics. Watch enough media and you will come away with the distinct impression that our southern neighbors aren’t far from another civil war or, worse, that all of Western civilization is on the verge of collapse. Whether the opinions (or the attitudes) of those yelling on Twitter or the evening news are actually representative of most people, perhaps it’s difficult to say. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that we live in divisive times.

Here’s my problem: by and large the church has not helped. And when I say church, I mean the church as a whole.
And what I’m getting at is the degree to which so many Christians, including so many prominent leaders, have accepted the secular terms of engagement of the culture wars. We have become willing to participate in the conflict, even using un-Christlike means to do so. If Christian engagement in the culture looks no different than that of your average political pundit or media outlet, how is this representing the character and will of Christ?

And more importantly, what is it doing to us, to our souls, to our hearts, to our minds, to our ability to participate in the world knowing full well that politics and culture are never ends in themselves? If we are followers of Jesus, then our horizon of meaning extends far beyond the earthly fray of our current experience. We are living in the “meantime” between coming into existence and entering eternity. That’s not to say we ought to ignore politics or eschew cultural engagement. What it does mean, however, is that the character of our engagement ought to be distinct. After all, God says we are to be holy as he is holy. This means to be set apart. It means to be distinct. It means not living as everyone else lives. Not because we are morally superior. Not because we are to escape into some holy huddle. But because the vantage point from which we understand and experience the world isn’t shaped by seeing political goals as the ultimate answer to any of our human ills. We are bound by the cross and the resurrection–and therefore bound to the one who was crucified and raised. And his kingdom agenda–and the means by which he seeks to fulfill it–cannot be circumscribed by political parties or our preferred media and news platforms.

All of this means that for those of us who are people of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, we need to be incredibly careful not to let ourselves get so caught up in the so-called culture wars–and the media we consume–that we forget how we are bracketed by creation and redemption. We must not be paying so much attention to the news and to what we see on social media that we essentially become spiritually myopic, conflating the winning of cultural and political points with participating in the reality of the kingdom of God. Because then what will happen? Everything in the news–from covid policy to economic policy to all of the cultural “sturm und drang”–will have the potential to throw us into an existential tailspin. Like how every national election is supposedly the most important election of our lifetime. Like how every news cycle requires a crisis. It’s as though the volume has been turned up to eleven on the amplifier of life.

But we have the choice of a more life-giving, flourishing way. And it’s why I began with the passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And at the very least Christians ought to be those who seek this way–and who also therefore are inviting others to seek it. If all the news and nonsense of our world causes you anxiety or anger; if you notice that scrolling for too long on Facebook or Twitter actually makes you feel worse and less at peace; and if your media consumption leads you to dehumanize and belittle (even if only in your mind) those with whom you disagree, perhaps it’s high time to begin dwelling on other things. Things that are true and beautiful, noble and just, praiseworthy and excellent–the deeper truths of reality we find in Scripture, truths that lend our lives dignity and hope, and that have the power to reconcile and heal, to relieve our despair, and to provide us with a kind of peace nothing else can.

If we only focus on the actions of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine or the actions of political leaders closer to home, we might have plenty of reasons to spend all of our time worrying. If we only focus on what this world says we need or should want, we might have plenty of reasons to feel anxious and insecure. If we allow what we see and hear in the media we consume to define what’s most important, to define our horizon of meaning, then we are all the more likely to become adrift in anger and frustration that the world isn’t the way we want it to be. And we will also find that this anxiety will become the undercurrent of our attitude, that it will bleed into our conversations, relationships, and the way we deal with our personal circumstances. We will become what we consume. Or to put it another way: You are what you eat.

Now, let me say, I battle with this myself. I also need to listen to what Paul says in Philippians. I need to learn to dwell on what Paul lists in the passage. I need to spend more time filling my heart and mind with what will nourish and bless me and those around me. I need to absorb more and more scriptural truth into my spiritual bloodstream. Because I don’t want polarizing political and cultural outrage to be what primarily shapes my patterns of thought, my mood, or the way I face life. Instead, I want to be able to be aware of and to engage in our common cultural life from a place of spiritual health and stability. And I don’t want to be shaken by events and issues that are often outside my control. I want my reaction to the world, and my interaction with it, to be more and more Christlike.

Notice how Paul exhorts the Philippians to pray instead of worrying. Prayer in the Christian tradition is part of a larger worldview in which we know ourselves to stand in relationship to the sovereign, holy, and loving triune God of the universe. If God is who he reveals himself to be, then worry, even if in fits and starts, ought to have less and less of a hold on my life. But if I want this to happen, if I want to get to a place where I can be at peace in this world even if not with this world, then I need to meditate upon, inwardly digest, and dwell on the God who created it. I believe this is possible, but only if we willingly and intentionally take time to separate ourselves from the noise of our cultural environment and allow ourselves silence and solitude, knowing that there–in the place where we might hear the still, small voice–that God is most likely to meet us. It’s in entrusting ourselves prayerfully to him that we will discover Christ guarding our hearts and minds, and providing the peace that nothing in this world can either provide or take away.

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