“Whatever is honorable, think on this.” Philippians 4:8
Have you ever been in a sanctuary alone? I have often. Having been a pastor for 35 years there were times when it seemed like I was contractually obligated to stay until everyone else went home. Kind of like the captain not leaving the ship until everyone else is rescued. The minister’s family loathes this, of course, because it means being last in line at the Piccadilly. But often it comes with the territory.
Sunday nights were my favorite time to be there alone. In several churches some of the light switches were in the balcony. I’d turn off the lights, the glow of the exit lights were the only illumination, then I’d sit there alone. The rush of the day had settled (the Sabbath as a day of rest? Guffaw!!!!). I felt God’s presence in the stillness of that dark, quiet, holy place. Stillness is the key. To know God you have to be still., then you become aware of what has always been surrounding you.
The main goal of the life of faith is to have that sense of God’s presence continually. There’s nothing really special about the sanctuary in the sense that God is more real there than, say, while I’m driving on the interstate. It’s just that when everything quiets down around you, and within you, then your sense of faith detects God’s presence. And that is a wonderful feeling!
Is this possible? It has to be, of course. THE great spiritual mistake is to separate the spiritual life from the rest of life. What we do on Sunday has to make a difference in the way we live on Monday and throughout the rest of the week. But how do we do that?
In one of my favorite verses, Paul wrote that there are certain things we’re to focus on (Phil. 4:8). One of these is a slippery Greek word that I like to translate as honorable. The word has in it the meaning of holiness and nobility. Many years ago I read where someone described it as the experience of a worshiper entering a temple. It’s the feeling I have in my sanctuaries alone. It’s the feeling I need to cultivate throughout every day.
Of course, we live every moment in God’s presence though we often forget. This should be a great comfort, but for some it’s a terrible threat and it is so, unfortunately, because some members of my profession use it in that way.
It was a notion well established in the Ellis spiritual psyche. I recall my mother saying she wouldn’t go see a certain type of movie because she didn’t want Jesus to see her there if He decided to return midway through.
Even more sobering was the occasional evangelist who would troop through our church for the summer revivals and remind us that the judgment was going to be a time when our lives were played out on something like a great screen for all creation to witness. As a kid I was engaging in certain activities I didn’t want anyone knowing about, much less all of creation. It was vividly moving even though it constituted biblical malpractice.
Now I tread carefully here. An external standard has its place in our conduct. Not stealing, for example, because it breaks a commandment is a good reason not to steal. Not wanting to disappoint or hurt someone else is a good reason to live in a particular way. Having a code of conduct or a set of laws and standards can be a good motive. It just can’t be THE motive.
Ultimately I live in an honorable way because I’ve been transformed from within, not conformed from without. Grace is a much more powerful and permanent motive than law ever could be. Paul stated it starkly, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” So I’ll value and use the external braces while I strive to develop the inner strength.
Which brings us back to honor. I can and should walk through life with a constant sense of being in God’s presence. The world becomes His sanctuary, which it is of course. Every place becomes “thin” as I begin to sense to spiritual world pressing around me.
This sense that we’re walking through the sanctuary should affect all of our conduct, speech, and thinking. We can’t leave anything out. Living honorably means that I’m not going to use certain language, or engage in certain activities, or embrace certain thoughts and ways of thinking. In every area I can ask “would I do, say, or think _______ if I was in God’s sanctuary?” If the answer is no, then I shouldn’t do, say, or think that in my home, office, or anywhere else.
Embracing a standard often means risking being labeled prudish, puritanical, moralistic, and repressed. The world is much more comfortable with no standards at all. And failing to meet the standard invites a gleeful condemnation of “hypocrite!” And subsequently the implied or outright suggestion that because no one keeps the standards perfectly we should just get rid of all of them.
My failure to meet the standard is no reflection on the standard. God is still God, right is still right, and wrong is still wrong. And the fact that it’s sometimes hard to precisely define right and wrong doesn’t mean we should give up trying.
How different would our society be if we simply reintroduced the idea of honor? What would change if we all regularly asked ourselves “is this honorable?” I believe we’d have a lot less hatred, a lot more compassion, and a lot more peace. We’d be willing to listen better, and less urgent with our replies. We’d be more still and less rushed. All of this would happen because we’d become more aware of God’s wonderful presence.
Dr. Terry Ellis
September 4, 2017