“Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.
That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
This couplet ended John Keats’ famous poem “Ode On A Grecian Urn,” and stands as a stark reminder that not all things that are “good” are “true”—often, they are “beautiful.” The truth of beauty is a truth often overlooked by evangelicals, whose theology fell under the insidious influence of pragmatism in the early 20th century. But the inability or unwillingness to enjoy this life we’ve been given and to love the beauty that we find in it is to fail to agree with God’s own assessment of His creation—that it was “good” (Ge 1.31).
1Therefore, my beloved and longed-for brothers, my joy and crown, stand firm in the same way, brothers!
2I urge Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3And I say to you, true partner, to help them, for they have struggled in the gospel ministry side by side with me and Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say: rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be known to all men; the Lord is near. 6Do not be anxious in anything, but in all things, in prayer and petitions with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things. 9And what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do these things; and the God of peace will be with you.
Paul urges Eudoia and Syntyche to “think” or “agree” (φρονειν) in the Lord, implying that there has been discord beyond a simple disagreement. They are women, and apparently are fellow-workers in the gospel. Paul then addresses a singular individual—“true partner”—but does not name him. It is exceedingly rare for Paul to address a single individual in a community letter such as this, and much speculation has arisen as to the identity of the person. Gordon Fee offers a compelling case that the individual may well be Luke, but ultimately the identity of the “true partner” is highly speculative at best. Next, he reminds the Philippians that they are to not be anxious about anything—in contradistinction to “anxious” behavior, they are to be totally reliant upon God with their prayers and petitions that are given with thanksgiving (4.6). Moreover, if they will abandon their anxiety and trust in God, they will find rest—the “peace of God” which is beyond human understanding (4.7). In a final word of encouragement in this pericope, Paul tells the Philippians to focus their conscious thought life on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. That Christians should think on what it true, honorable, just, pure, and commendable seems perfectly obvious. But Paul urges his audience to think on things that are “lovely” (προσφιλη), for one thing. The notion of “lovely” does not have to do with the more well-known Christian morality, but seems vaguely Hellenistic. Says Fee: “Thus, he appears to be dipping into the language of Hellenistic moralism, in his case tempered by Jewish wisdom, to encourage the Philippians that even though they are presently ‘citizens of heaven,’ living out the life of the future as they await its consummation, they do not altogether abandon the world in which they used to, and still do, live. As believers in Christ they will embrace the best of that world as well, as long as it is understood in light of the cross.” Fee may be overstating the boundaries between Hellenism and Christian theology—after all, that which is “lovely” need not be non-Christian”—but he is nonetheless on to something: Paul is urging the Philippian Christians here to appreciate beauty and art—to embrace life in this world and the beauty that goes with it as they live for Christ. He also encourages them to be “excellent” (ἀρετη), which is also not normally associated with standard evangelicalism. Paul wants the Philippians to bring their “A” game to the gospel and to church life, and he wants them to have an appreciation of excellence as a virtue.
The thought life is, indeed, the battlefield of the enemy. We are, like the Philippians, given to discord and disagreement, but are capable of rectifying conflict and loving one another in word and deed. This begins with our thought lives, and Paul’s advice to the Philippians is eerily relevant today. We should be thinking about things that are true—but this does not mean to only read nonfiction, as has been the standard evangelical response. Rather, in light of Paul’s exhortation to also think on what is “lovely,” we should develop an appreciation of both. As John Keats said, “truth is beauty, and beauty truth…that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” There need not be a dichotomy between the truth of God and the beauty of art; after all, God is the master Artist and loves both. It is also a fairly revolutionary thought in evangelicalism to be preoccupied with “excellence.” If we were required to bring the same level of excellence to our church lives that we bring to our day jobs, our churches would be in fantastic shape indeed. We have instead decided that excellence is the pastor’s job; relaxation in the pew is ours. This is the opposite of Paul’s advice.
The Christian, in Paul’s view, is not one given to stress, because he relies on God. He’s one who sees the beauty of truth and the truth of beauty. He’s one who is in a rejoicing mood—one of thanksgiving and prayer. We should bring our definition of Christian in line with Paul’s: his version of Christianity seems more enjoyable than ours. In light of this, enjoy your life today. It’s a gift. Start reading a novel by Faulkner or Dickens or Heller. Read a play by Shakespeare. Listen to Mozart or Bach or Duke Ellington or Hendrix. To not be able to appreciate beauty is to fail to truly love God’s creation. Let your thought life be preoccupied not only with truth but beauty as well—and stress-free, since your trust is in your Provider.