When the missionaries of our field would get together for our monthly council meeting we would each give a report on the churches we were involved in. After a while we got to know each other quite well. One missionary always had a glowing report. Every thing was always going great and as you heard his report you would think how wonderful it must be to work there. There was another missionary who would always have a long list of all the problems and disappointments he was having in the work in his city and you would wonder if it was really worth while to keep carrying on the work in that town. Of course the biggest surprise would come when as you would do a little traveling around to visit the various churches was to discover that the church that you expected to see booming was a good work, but really didn’t seem to be that outstanding. And then the church that you thought would be about ready to fold up actually wasn’t doing that badly. Now I don’t think that either missionary was exaggerating, but rather looking at their work from a different perspective. As you looked at each ministry you could see that what they said was true, but the one only saw the good and the other only saw the bad.
It seems as though our natural tendency is to emphasize the bad. Mother-in-law jokes are so prevalent that we fail to realize that there are many wonderful mothers-in-law in the world. The common reference to having “roast preacher” for Sunday dinner implies that most of the comments will be negative. We not only think the worst, but also expect the worst. If at the dinner table you ask your wife where she purchased the roast, she may respond, “Why, what’s wrong with it?” rather than answering your And the preponderance of news in the paper and on TV is bad news. If it isn’t bad it isn’t news. God tells us in Philippians 4:8 that we are to direct our thoughts toward that which is virtuous and that which is praiseworthy.
A while back my wife had a group of teenagers in a Sunday School class. She gave them pencil and paper and asked them, “Please give me a list of all the things your parents would like to see changed in you. They began writing furiously, quickly filling one side of the paper and then continuing on the other side. “My folks would like me to clean my room, cut my hair, wash my jeans, get home earlier, study more, practice piano, etc.. The list seemed to have no end. Then she gave them another sheet of paper and asked “Please give me a list of all the things your parents like about you. The class sat there with puzzled looks and empty pages until finally one student commented, “They don’t’ tell us that.”
What’s wrong with telling people what we like about them? God tells us to think about that which is virtuous and praiseworthy because what we think is what we talk about. Sooner or later our thoughts come out of our mouth. For example, I was in a meeting recently where a man stood up and made a remark about something that had happened at least two years before. He had not gone to the person involved and dealt with the problem, or at least forgiven the person and dropped the matter. Like a sliver in the finger that is not removed will hurt and fester until it finally pops to the surface so this matter just continued to fester and irritate him until it finally came out of his mouth in a very inopportune moment. If we don’t deal with our thoughts now, we will have to deal with our words later.
By way of contrast, thoughts of virtue and praise help us and help others. They give us a healthy mind. People’s faults stand out to us, but their virtues are sometimes harder to find. Are there persons about whom you can think of many faults, but you cannot think of a single virtue to praise. The problem might be that they are misusing their virtues. The spendthrift may be a very generous person, but has never learned the wise management of his resources. I knew a dentist who gave very generously to every need presented to him, but his family was going without food and clothing. He had missed the Bible warning that if a man does not provide for his own family he is worse than an infidel (1Timothy 5:8). A person who is always late may be a very patient person. A demanding person may be a very faithful, dependable person. We must learn to notice and praise any occasion in which the person properly uses their gift because praise confirms virtues, but criticism leads to guilt and defeat. Praise gives hope of more success, but criticism produces discouragement, despair and self-justification (That is just the way I am).
But won’t praising a person tend to make him proud and conceited? Praising unchangeable qualities like natural, physical beauty, things we did nothing to obtain, nor can we do anything to improve, can cause frustration and pride, but praising character qualities gives us great motivation to exercise and improve upon the quality that is praised.
How, then, can we rebuild our thought life? Philippians 4:6-8 gives us three steps in this rebuilding process.
The first step is to bulldoze the anxieties (v.6). Be anxious for nothing. Get rid of the old, worthless thought structure of all the personal anxieties and concerns that cause you to walk right past a person and not even see him. Dump all those personal worries on God. You take care of His business and He will take care of yours.
One day I was swamped with some pressing problems when the door bell rang. It turned out to be a salesman and, since I had no desire to talk with him or anybody else right then, I made that talk as short as I could so I could get back to my personal mess. But later God convicted me of not taking the opportunity to meet any spiritual need he might have had. I had to confess that my personal anxieties had deprived me of the spiritual ministry I might have had. So crying out to God in prayer and supplication I bulldozed the anxieties so now I was anxious for nothing and ready for the next step.
The second step is to accept and enjoy the solid foundation of the peace of God (v.7). God is good and, when we repent of our sin of being anxious about everything He builds in us a strong foundation of the peace of God. We can’t understand how we have such a quiet peacefulness in our mind and heart and how aware we become of the people and opportunities that God brings into our lives.
When we take a new step of obedience to God He gives us another chance and tests our new commitment to see if it is real. The very next day I noticed we had a new mailman and I was ready. I found that he loved Jesus and we had a wonderful time sharing how God had worked in our lives.
The third step is to redirect the focus of our thinking and be on the lookout for things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report. Then Paul sums it up by saying that if there is anything virtuous and anything praiseworthy those are the things we need to be thinking about. Instead of looking for faults to criticize we look for virtues to praise.
A grade school teacher tells of falling into the habit of nagging the children of her class in the attempt to gain better response to her teaching efforts. Frustrated at her lack of success she was challenged to look for positive qualities in the children and reinforce them with praise. She determined to find some way to praise every child every day. As the first day was ending she had been able to praise every child but one. He was usually behind every disruption in the class and seemed to be a hopeless case. As the children filed out the door she desperately searched for an appropriate word for Jimmy as he had been a terror that day. As he passed by she smiled and said, “Jimmy, you have been a very vivacious boy today. He smiled with pride, certain that vivacious meant something very good.
Some people seem to think that praise will cause a person to be conceited and have no desire to improve, but the opposite is true. A factory in North Carolina which sponsors a radio music show runs unusual commercials: they plug outstanding employees. Pride raised by hearing their virtues praised to the public has caused the workers to attack their chores with greater vigor, thus increasing production by 125 percent. Parents, do you want to increase your child’s productivity? Don’t try to manipulate, instead motivate by genuine praise.
God Himself sets the example for us. Although we are sinners, God loves us and brings us into His family through personal faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. He then motivates us by telling us in 1Peter 2:9 how highly He thinks of us by telling us:
You are a chosen generation - I picked you out special.
You are a royal priesthood - My kingly intercessors
You are a holy nation - bearing My character
You are a special people - My redeemed representatives
This is what you are to God in Christ.
Do you know what that does to me? It makes me want to give my life to Him as never before. The power of positive reinforcement makes me want to be all that He says I am to Him.
If there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things.