Archpriest Steven Kostoff
In Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians 4:8-9 we find this marvelous passage: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The Apostle exhorts us to “think about these things.” That may actually take some effort on our part. For without having the time to pause and “think about these things,” we may have lost the inclination to do so. It would be spiritually hazardous to feel that the virtues enumerated herein somehow come to us automatically, simply because we are “Church-going Christians.” Hence, it is imperative that we listen to the Apostle Paul and “think about these things”and, in so doing, give ourselves the opportunity to search out all that is wholesome in life. Saint Paul essentially borrows a list of virtues that were common within various Greek philosophical schools current in his lifetime. The pursuit of such virtues would lead to the “good life,” for only a life dedicated to such a pursuit would be considered worthy of living. He apparently continued to respect this centuries-old tradition. We should bear this in mind whenever confronted with other religious beliefs or serious philosophical schools of thought. As much as we may disagree with them about some fundamental issues from our Christian perspective, there is also much to be found that is honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise that are taught and promoted by these other religions and philosophies. To think otherwise would be to succumb to the temptations of a sectarian mind. A sect is a group that cannot find anything of value outside of its own narrowly defined borders. This eventually breeds some form of obscurantism and narrow-mindedness, if not eventually fanaticism. A “catholic” mind as understood by the great Church Fathers can rejoice in whatever is true, even if found outside of the Church.
At the same time, the Apostle has included this exhortation in an epistle that is thoroughly and consistently Christocentric. The living reality of Christ permeates all of Saint Paul’s thoughts and actions. There is nothing that is worthy of pursuit that is outside of Christ. For the Apostle Paul, nothing can compare with the knowledge of Christ. And this “knowledge” is not intellectual, but deeply experiential. In one of his most famous passages—Philippians 3:7-8—he writes,
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse (In Greek, skivala = rubbish, dung, excrement,) in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him….”
Anything that is of the truth somehow belongs to Christ and comes from Christ – even if not acknowledged. So the virtues that Saint Paul exhorts the Philippians to pursue are found in Christ in a most preeminent form. Those virtues – though taught and found elsewhere—will find their most perfect manifestation in Christ. Yet the point remains that we can rejoice in all that is good, wherever we encounter it. The Apostle assures us that with such an approach to life, the “God of peace” indeed will be with us.
(Father Steven Kostoff is rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology.)