Philippians 4.5-9; The Apostle Paul, NRSV
5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
“How do you become your better self?” is a question many ask themselves. But the answer, of course, is contingent upon who you believe yourself to be.
Some regard themselves as the sons or daughters of their parents; or, later in life, the parents of their sons and daughters. Some regard themselves as self-made individuals who have chosen and determined who they are. Some prefer not to inquire about who they are, and are satisfied with just being. Some are content with living in the moment with no focused sense of direction, while others are very goal-oriented and have definitive plans for their future.
Some seek to find themselves in the accumulation of fortune or fame, and others simply want to be a normal or average person. Some seek answers from God as to whom God has created them to be. And some have a high mission or noble purpose in their lives, and see themselves as one who strives to live out that ideal.
Some think that every person is uniquely different in who they are from others; whereas others think that we all are essentially the same and it is only how we live out who we are that makes us see ourselves as different.
How you frame your life, its meaning, value, and worth in the greater scheme of things makes a tremendous difference in answering who is your better or best self.
Are we created at birth with a divine purpose, and if so how do we discern this purpose? Or are we created with the inherent capacity to consider and create who we really are?
What makes us who we are? Is it predetermined, or are we given the freedom to choose who it is that we are or will become?
Some believe that we are whatever it is that we do in our lives; in which case our actions, practices, career, and the way we spend our time determine who we really are. Others believe we are who we know, and how we relate to them; in which case we are known by our roles and relationships as we live out our lives. Others say who we are is inherent and intrinsic within us; in which case we can never escape who it is that we really are no matter what we do or with whom and how we are in relationship. Others say it is a combination of all three of these aspects, and perhaps even others.
Knowing who we are, and why, is important for us in finding purpose, meaning, and fulfillment in our lives. It will guide what we think, feel, say, and do. It will influence our relationships. And it will help us to overcome the trials and travesties, and appreciate the joys and wonders, of life.
The Greeks believed that who we are is our character. And our character is determined by the various virtues and vices that we have habituated in our lives. These virtues and vices are the result of a combination of natural predilections and intentional choices. We are predisposed to being a certain kind of person, but our choices and our social influences can allow us to change, to greater or lesser degree, who we become.
If we think on the right things, cultivate those thoughts and emotions in our being, and practice living out a life of virtue, then we will form our characters in such a way that we become “good” persons – i.e., persons who live the “good life.” Our moral and ethical, along with our intellectual and aesthetic, excellences are what allow us to live a “good” life. In this way, goodness is not defined by some subjective criteria of whatever it is that we want or that we think would be pleasing, but rather by our capacity to think well and clearly, feel truly and purely, act nobly and honorably, and relate to others expediently and virtuously.
The apostle Paul was heavily influenced by the Greeks. He spoke Greek, was educated and reared with a Greek style of learning, and yet was also a devout Jew. We see a synthesis of Greek and Hebrew understandings of life and the world in his thought.
“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” is an appeal to be virtuous in all you say, think and do. Gentleness, a constitutive virtue of the virtue of love, is more of a Hebrew character trait than a Greek one; but the necessity to live your life by virtue is certainly Greek. Hebrews would have you to do whatever it is that is God’s will, while Greeks would aver that being virtuous is not contingent upon what the gods will but rather whether it is good independently of what the gods will. Paul, who has the Hebrew conception of only one God, and that one being all-good, combines these two conceptions. If one follows an all-loving God, then one will also be loving and gentle. If one is loving and gentle, then one is actually following what God would will you to do.
For Paul we are who we are because of who God is and has created us to be, and because of how we live out that image of virtue that is identified with God.
If we are loving and living in accordance with the image of God within us, we will not only want to be gentle, we will be gentle. Paul thinks this is both how God created us and that we also choose it for ourselves. For Paul, we have the ability to change our character for the better (or for the worse) because God has given us free will. Yet, we are made by God for the purpose of goodness.
If we see ourselves for whom God has created us to be, and also for whom we can choose to be in conforming to that which God has designed, then our lives will be fulfilling – or as Paul would say, filled with the “peace of God.” The circumstances and situations in our lives don’t matter. Rather it is our avowal of our true selves, virtuous beings made in the image of a loving and good God, and our choice to faithfully live out that true self (through thought, feeling, word, and action) that will grant us peace. This may go beyond our own intellectual understanding, but Paul is affirmed in believing it is our choice to know this peace and joy when we have faith in who God is (and subsequently who we are because we are made in the image of God).
Indeed, it is this peace and joy that allows one to not worry about whatever circumstances one is going, or may go, through in life. Trusting that you are living by the image of God within you and choosing to make it your habituated virtue produces in one a sense of fulfillment that cannot be had in any other way. When Paul says, “Don’t worry about anything,” he is not being facetious. He means it, and believes this is possible. He believes he himself is a case in point.
And perhaps he should know. He spoke of this peace and joy while being imprisoned, tortured, and threatened with death. Indeed, he wrote how we need to be gentle with everyone in every circumstance while others were not being gentle with him, and how not to be worried about anything while he had everything in the world to worry about. Moreover, he wrote these words to help the people in Philippi to also choose to be gentle with each other (which they obviously had not been), and to choose to not let worry divide them in their relationships (which, again, they apparently had).
How does one get to a place in one’s life where one knows oneself so well, and is so confident in one’s virtues, that nothing can keep one from being gentle and nothing can cause worry in oneself? Paul’s recipe is verses 8-9 of Philippians: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
By thinking and doing only that which is true, honorable, just, pure, and all that is virtuous (excellence is the same word in Greek as virtuous), one will experience the peace of God; for one will then be abiding in the peace of God by living by the same virtues that God lives by. One will not be tempted and afflicted by all the worldly distractions of vices and lesser values that keep one from knowing God’s peace.
If we are not filled with virtue, then we are not likely to understand how this is so. But if we practice thinking, feeling, saying, and doing only what is good, commendable, and worthy of praise, then we will be cultivating those virtues within us that makes us know the fulfillment, peace, and joy of living a good life – a truly good life; one that reflects who we truly are and were created to be when we have habitually chosen to live this way. Paul says elsewhere that this good news is foolishness to those who have not experienced Christ in their own lives (Christ of course being Jesus who, in human form, revealed the virtues of God are indeed possible to live out by all human beings regardless of their religious heritage).
Paul believes he has habituated the same virtues and values that were in Christ. Christ lives in him, and he is consequently convinced (especially given who he used to be) that everyone can do this if he can.
What do you think of Paul’s views? Who did he think he was? Who do you think you are?
May your lives be filled with gentleness and no worries; may you become your best self!