Unicorns and Ponies: lessons from Paul in what to think about when you’re sad
Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable —if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:8, HCSB)
These two verses are so famous among Christians, that if you are one, you likely thought back to a personal trial in your life upon reading it.
It’s a passage for experiencing peace, and it carries such emotional weight that it triggers events in the mind like a familiar scent from a distant memory. I still carry this verse around for those times I’m too distraught to think of anything else. Philippians 4:8 is there, ready to meet me in my moment of need. But there’s a problem.
What exactly is lovely?
If you were to search the word in a dictionary, you would find this meaning: “very pleasant or enjoyable; delightful” (NOAD). And pure? That can range in meaning from “untainted by immorality” to being ”undiluted.” When you put the list together, you’re left with a bunch of moral commands that are as ambiguous as they are inspirational.
Does Paul mean we are to think through a list of arbitrarily nice things to experience God’s peace?
If so, can I just put together a laundry-list of items that are true, pure, and lovely by which to draw heavenly energy from? If that’s the case, I choose unicorns and ponies. Those fit the imprecise nature of all the terms in verse 8. But that just draws me deeper into madness! If experiencing the peace of a transcendent God depends only on visualizing unicorns and ponies, then how is Christianity any different from the strange forms of positive thinking found in some New Age streams and Word of Faith spirituality? For that matter, why do I need Christianity at all, since I can duck the other moral obligations (and verses that frustrate me) and simply find my “happy place?”
A clue lies in verse 9,
“Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me”
Whenever Paul uses phrases like “received” and “learned” he is nearly always referring to a transferred, organized body of doctrine.
(Examples: 1 Cor 11:23; 15:1-3; 2 Cor 11:4; Gal 1:12; 1 Thess 1:6; 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6).
Also synonymous with received is the “pattern of sound words” (2 Tim 1:13) that Paul tells Timothy about, and to which the Apostles consistently defer to when they are instructing the church: the gospel. My suggestion is that if verse 9 has any connection with verse 8, Paul is presupposing that what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, morally excellent, and praise-worthy is something deeper, exacting, and objective.
Philippians 4:8 is referring to the gospel of the crucified Messiah and risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
In other words, anxiety is not effectively subdued by daydreaming of unicorns, ponies, flowers, cute girls/guys, a promotion, positive thinking, the ocean, or an endless list of other wonderful things. Freedom comes from the gospel, as we know. But Paul also seems to suggest that the experience of that freedom comes by ruminating over the gospel. When you fill your mind with the person and work of Christ, the peace of the living God envelops your soul.
So do this: whenever you encounter a difficult situation that might normally cause you to despair, think of who Christ is to you in the midst of that problem, and what Christ has done for you despite that problem, how Christ will eventually right that problem, and how desperately you need Him in every situation… Well, I’ve gone on enough.