There seems to be so much that encourages us to be negative and critical and unsatisfied. As an avid reader of the news, it is almost laughable how negative everything is phrased. If unemployment rises we are facing a recession and if it falls we should be worried about inflation. If your only source of information was the news media you could be forgiven that everything about our country and our world is wrong and impossibly broken, even when things are going well.
And it’s not just the news either. If you complain and rant about something on social media you get more likes and attention than if you say positive things. Some comedians run their shows as an hour long rant about what is wrong with the world.
And, of course, there are real reasons to be negative as well. Life as a sinful person in a broken world is hard work. Some of us struggle with relationships, some with health, some with employment, and some with temptation. There are real reasons to think negatively sometimes.
Into this context we need to hear again those words of Paul from Philippians 4:
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me– practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Phi 4:8-9 ESV)
All of us at times have the tendency to see the world in a completely negative way. Paul encourages the Philippians to actively dwell on things that are positive, not those that are negative. These things are things to “think about”. And positive examples are to be “practiced”. This shows intent, action, not something that will just automatically happen.
Don’t get this wrong though. This is not the power of positive thinking of modern psychology. This is not just pretending that the bad things in this world are really good and so deceiving yourself. No, it is a matter of having a godly balance and perspective. Yes, this world is broken in many ways, and so are we. Yes, we should call out to God “how long” and “come, Lord Jesus”. That is quite right and needed and a good response to pain. But that is not the only way we should see the world we live in and the God who made us and saved us.
The psalmists knew this well, and we see it often. So often a psalm starts with some complaint or lament and over time the perspective changes as the writer sees God’s goodness. Psalm 73 is a great example. After lamenting how the wicked seem to flourish in this world while the faithful struggle, Asaph sees the spiritual truth of the matter. God is his God, and has guided him and been good to him, and promises eternal blessings. At the end, the wicked still look prosperous and he still struggles, but the way he thinks about all of this has changed. He needed time to reflect on the many blessings of being one of God’s covenant people.
Think about it from our time after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The blessings of Ephesians 1 are true of all believers. The blessings of 1 Peter 2, the reality of being part of a holy priesthood and chosen nation, a people belonging to God; they are true of all Christians. The reality that Jesus is with us always to the very end of the age is true. And we experience God’s common grace in so many ways too, in the sun and rain, in the employment and families and friends, in places to live and things to eat. It should not take too much reflection for believers to find wonderful things to thank God for. Even on the bad days. Even in the midst of sickness and struggle.
In 1897 Johnson Oatman penned a great hymn along these lines that I find helpful; here’s a few verses from it:
1 When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
2 Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, ev’ry doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by.
3 When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings, money cannot buy
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high.
What can you thank God for today?