“From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.”
Philippians 4:8, 9 (Common English Bible)
Two men of similar age were hospitalized following a heart attack. Both were treated by the same doctor and both were placed on the same hospital floor. Most importantly, both men received a similar prognosis from the doctor – the damage each suffered was about the same and both received the same guidance from the doctor, change your diet, reduce stress, and exercise regularly. That is where the similarities stopped. The response of the two men were strikingly different from each other. One took a mental and emotional journey to a dark place, saying to his family and friends that his body was shot and nothing could now be done. The other told his wife that he would immediately change his diet, modify his workload, and hire a personal trainer. What was cause for despair for one was filled with challenge and opportunity for the other.
The life lesson here is that it is not what happens that matters. What matters is how you respond. How each one of us respond to unexpected – and unpleasant – challenges of life determines the outcome. Every person who face a similar circumstance have a choice to make. Either they accept defeat by the circumstance or they will see the possibility for adapting and moving forward creatively. We all struggle with challenges, changes in health, broken career paths, and disruptions that surprise us such as this pandemic, Covid-19. Often such forces move toward us without our consent. Nor can we stop them. Yet each person has the capacity to make a decision in the direction his or her life will now move. Optimism may remain out of reach for a season. However, giving-up does not have to be a choice.
This is precisely the lesson that the apostle Paul teaches the Christians in Philippi – that what we put into our mind determines what the outcome will be. Paul uses two powerful words, “focus” and “practice.” As we turn our mind toward something, the “focus,” and follow that with “practice,” what we do is program our minds with positive thoughts and behaviors that result in an optimal outcome. Both are important. It is not enough to turn our eyes toward all that is true, and holy, and just, and pure, and lovely, and worthy of praise. We must also put each of these into the practice of our life. They must be a stimulant that propels us in a new direction. Exposure alone is simply insufficient. Paul wants us to understand that as we intentionally direct our lives according to God’s word, we choose the outcome of our lives and we experience God’s peace.
Armed with Paul’s guidance, any of us can greatly improve our response to stressful and, potentially, debilitating situations. What seems to be a cruel and devastating situation to one person is an opportunity for reexamining priorities and life direction for another. As someone once observed, a virus may be all around and yet cause no infection until the virus finds access into our body. Which causes the illness – the virus or that it got inside of us? Naturally, the virus outside our body is powerless over us. It is only inside the body that the virus can wreak havoc. No one chooses for the virus to enter our bodies. That is what makes a virus so terrifying. Nevertheless, we can choose our response to every difficulty – choose whether, or not, we will “let it inside” our heads to do its worse. What we choose makes all the difference.