Question: "What does it mean that we should think on whatever is right (Philippians 4:8)?"
Answer: In Philippians 4:8, the apostle Paul teaches the believers in Philippi to overcome anxiety and worry and experience joy and contentment in the Christian life by thinking about things that please God. In this way, Christians “guard their hearts” through right thinking, which consequentially transforms the way they live (Proverbs 4:23). Paul includes in his list of worthy virtues to occupy the believer’s mind the directive to “think on whatever is right.”
How can we guard our minds by thinking about whatever is right? The word for “right” in the original Greek language means “just, that which conforms with justice, morally right, proper.” And “just” is how the KJV and NKJV translate it. Specifically, the term relates to our relationships with others. One commentary suggests that thinking on whatever is right refers to fairness between “all parties involved, that which fulfills all obligations and debts. Thinking right thoughts steers one away from quarrels and dissensions to think of the needs and rights of the other party” (Anders, M., Galatians—Colossians, Vol. 8, Broadman & Holman, 1999, p. 262).
Another commentary explains that a person “is ‘just’ . . . and therefore right when he gives to God and to his fellow men what is their due. He accepts and performs his proper duty to God and man” (Loh, I. and Nida, E. A., A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, United Bible Societies, 1995, p. 134). In other words, “think on whatever is right in the eyes of God and people” or “think about what is fair for all involved” is an excellent way to understand Paul’s meaning.
One area of concern Paul addresses in his letter to the Philippians is how to handle disagreements between church members. He points to a particular argument between two women in the church: “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News” (Philippians 4:2–3, NLT).
Earlier in the epistle, Paul urges the church, “Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:2–5).
When we love others humbly and unselfishly, when we esteem our brothers and sisters as better than ourselves, when we look out for their interests and not just our own, we are thinking on whatever is right. This kind of right thinking, especially in strained relationships, promotes peace and unity and spreads the joy of the Lord.
Thinking on whatever is right is unselfish thinking. It humbly considers ways to uplift and encourage others. It looks to the needs of others and puts an end to selfish ambition and quarreling. It does “everything without grumbling or arguing” (Philippians 2:14). Christ is the ultimate authority on right thinking: “He gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7–8, NLT).
In Ephesians 4:2, Paul echoes the sentiment: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” As we reflect carefully on whatever is right, these thoughts begin to shape our conduct.
The word right can also refer to being righteous. Psalm 11:7 tells us that God Himself is righteous and loves and rewards justice in His people. When Paul says to “think about these things” at the end of Philippians 4:8, he means to “consider, give thought to, and reason out” these virtues. Next, he says, “practice these things” (Philippians 4:9, ESV). As believers, we are to think about what is right and then reason out how to “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
The goal of filling our minds with whatever is right is becoming like Christ—the Righteous One (1 John 2:1; Acts 3:14). As we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2), thinking on whatever is right, we begin to “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10).