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Ask Jayson: Finding the Good in Terrible People

typekeysDear Jayson,

I need some insight and help regarding 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.”

Can you describe the meaning of each word . . . ie . . . true, honorable, just . . . and how to daily put this verse to work.

This passage truly messes me up. What if someone has done many abusive things to you, or grossly lied about you, or hurt someone you love? It’s true they are a bad person. Its true they are toxic. Yet . . . what else. Noble? Praise worthy? Not sure how to correctly put this verse to work. Seeking because I want its promise.

Peace,
Perplexed

Perplexed,

I can tell this question is birthed out of some real, tangible turmoil. That being the case, I really want to answer your question while being sensitive to your (unknown) situation.

To be honest, I don’t know if analyzing words like true, honorable, just, and pure is going to help, but I think looking at the verse’s context might give us a bit of insight.

Bickering believers

This beautiful letter penned, ironically enough, from prison focuses intently on a believer’s positive, joy-filled attitude. Paul wraps this letter up by discussing some division that he’s been hearing about:

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”—Phil. 4:2–3

Whatever their disagreement is about (we’re never told), Paul wants these two to stand together on the thing they have in common—the Lord. So, the first question we need to ask is whether or not you and this individual share this same common ground? If so, this may be a first step to untying this relational knot.

We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche were at each other’s throats. And I can appreciate the fact that, although Paul probably knows, he doesn’t say. It doesn’t necessarily matter. Eventually the relationships of believers needs to grow out of the commonality of a shared sacrament.

As Paul says earlier in his letter:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”—Phil. 2:1–2

What if it isn’t that simple?

But what do you do when you don’t share a common savior? What do you do when the difficulties in a relationship are built on some sort of negligence or abuse?

*NOTE* As we continue in this passage from Philippians, I don’t intend to gloss over or trivialize abuse. I push forward in this passage because, although it may seem glib, there are definitely some principles that can be applied to many situations. My ignorance of the questioner’s situation (not to mention the situation of any readers) precludes more specific advice.

Also, if you are being abused by a “believer,” don’t concern yourself with finding some common ground based on your shared beliefs. Get help and get out of the situation. Do not let biblical admonitions like this be used to keep you in a relationship that is dangerous or damaging.  

Paul springboards from this animosity between Euodia and Syntyche into the next passage.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”—Phil. 4:4

How do we rejoice when we’re having a hard time seeing goodness in our lives? How do we rejoice when we’re at odds with an impossible and immovable person? How do we sit on the rubble of broken promises and crushed expectations and rejoice?

We rejoice in his promise that he is bringing good out of tragedy for the good of those who love him. We rejoice that he excels in turning our ashes of mourning into things of beauty. We rejoice in faith-filled hope for what we cannot yet see. We rejoice in the Lord.

Be known for being reasonable

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”—Phil. 4:5—7

Paul’s admonishment to be known for our reasonableness is a command that Christians often ignore. In this situation, Paul’s using Euodia’s and Syntyche’s disagreement as an opportunity to encourage us to outdo each other in our ability to be reasonable.

But reasonable doesn’t mean ridiculous. We don’t put people in positions to hurt or abuse us (or others), we just do our best to avoid the desire to retaliate or lash out.

And we pour our anxieties and fears out at his feet in anticipation of his redemptive work. As Paul prefaces his call to cast our concerns on him, “The Lord is at hand!”

Within that call to rejoice, be reasonable (when you’d rather beat someone with a bat), and to entrust him with the things that drive us to drink, Paul promises us a supernatural peace that, in light of our circumstances, makes absolutely no sense.

Focus on what’s good

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

Here’s the passage that prompted your email. From your question, I get the sense that you’re asking me how to focus on these attributes within a terrible person. That might be the wrong question.

Life is hard and rejoicing in the Lord can be an act of sheer will. Focusing on all of life’s terrible, disreputable, and unbelievable crap only makes it more difficult. Sure, we can’t get away from it and we all have to deal with it, but it’s too easy to let it consume us. When we stew and marinate in the people and situations that piss us off, we’ll only see the world as broken and defective.

I don’t think Paul is encouraging you to manufacture and make up good qualities for people. Instead, when you’re considering your life, ensure you’re focusing on the parts of it that are commendable and lovely. Because when we sit and ruminate on the worst people and events, we develop a pattern of pessimism.

In short, when looking at Philippians 4, I think your responsibility to this individual is to be reasonable (and find common ground if that’s a possibility). Beyond that, your call is to continually cast your concerns on Christ while focusing on what’s precious and commendable. These habits will help you rejoice in the Lord, no matter what, with a lot less cognitive dissonance.

Be at peace,
Jayson

Want to submit a question to Ask Jayson? Please do! I look forward to responding to you.

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5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gotta say, I love that you make a good distinction between attempts to be reasonable with someone in a disagreement and actually getting away from someone in an abusive relationship. That’s something we need to hear more of.

    July 14, 2014
  2. This is a great post. I came at it from the perspective of being frustrated with people I otherwise respect behaving in deplorable but not uncommon ways: misogynist attitudes, racist, sexist, etc. Things that are damaging (and ultimately sad) but not in the active way abuse can be. I struggle with trying to love those people. This helps.

    July 14, 2014
  3. froginparis #

    Well said. I have come to understand that Optimism is a life style choice. This verse was a cornerstone in dealing with anxiety. As a survivor of abuse I say this is spot on.

    July 14, 2014

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