Question: "What does it mean that we should think on whatever is lovely (Philippians 4:8)?"
Answer: In Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul teaches believers how to overcome anxiety and worry and experience joy and contentment in the Christian life. His prescription begins with understanding the tremendous power of our thought life. When we learn to guard our hearts through right thinking—focusing on things that are good, beneficial, and pleasing to God—our renewed attitudes and outlook will spill over into transformed actions and behavior (Proverbs 4:23).
Paul presents a list of worthy, God-pleasing virtues to occupy our minds, including the instruction to “think on whatever is lovely.” What does it mean to think about whatever is lovely? The original Greek word translated as “lovely” is only found here in the New Testament. When used to describe things, it means “pleasing, attractive, giving pleasure.”
One Bible commentary explains that the word for “lovely” in the original language “is a rare word referring to things that attract, please, and win other people’s admiration and affection. Such thoughts bring people together in peace rather than separating them in fighting and feuding” (Anders, M., Galatians—Colossians, Vol. 8, Broadman & Holman, 1999, p. 262). Another commentator expounds, “The basic meaning of the word is ‘that which calls forth love, love-inspiring,’ and here it has the passive sense of ‘lovely, pleasing, agreeable, amiable’” (O’Brien, P. T., The Epistle to the Philippians, Eerdmans, 1991, p. 505).
When we think on “whatever is lovely,” we are dwelling on things that inspire us and others to love one another. Thankfully, the Bible contains many passages to help us meditate on this particularly worthy virtue. Perhaps the most outstanding is the Bible’s “Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. Here the apostle Paul commends the “more excellent way” of love. All other spiritual gifts pale in comparison to the greatest, which is love. Believers gain nothing—indeed, are nothing—without love.
Filling our minds and hearts with God’s love brings us together in unity and peace because His “love is patient and kind . . . not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever!” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8, NLT).
Jesus Christ is our greatest inspiration for thinking on whatever is lovely: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters. If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person? Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions” (1 John 3:16–18, NLT). Jesus also said, “So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34–35, NLT).
Meditating on ideas that inspire unity, peace, and love for other people aligns with the Lord’s teaching about the greatest commandments in the law: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37–40).
Paul further illustrated how loving others fulfills every requirement of God’s law: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8–10).
Stewing on trivial, spiteful, bitter, or damaging notions about other people will only hinder the process of letting “God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think” (Romans 12:2, NLT). Then again, if we constantly fill our minds with love-inspiring, peace-motivating thoughts, if we set our hearts to think only on whatever is lovely about another person, to value what is attractive and pleasing about them, we will become peacemakers. We will be well on our way to practical holiness, putting on our new nature, getting to know God and His Son, Jesus Christ, and becoming more like Him in thought and deed (Colossians 3:10).