Finding north

Believe it or not, there was a day before Google Maps and GPS and Siri, when people had to find their way around without digital assistance. Whenever I had to drive somewhere new, if I didn’t already have a paper map of the area, I’d go to the auto club, get one and study it, trying to envision the sequence of exits and turns. Now, of course, I go online instead of going to the auto club. I still study the map, though, and may even print out a few pages and take notes on them in large, clear handwriting that I can read at a glance while I’m driving.

But of course, there was also a time before people had ready access to accurate maps. They navigated by the stars, or with a compass. Suffice it to say that if you stick me out in middle of nowhere with nothing but a compass to find my way, you’d better be ready to send out Search and Rescue.

There are other ways to be lost. We can be lost not just physically, but emotionally, morally, spiritually. We are pushed and pulled by competing motivations and values; we serve too many masters. If we are to find our way home, we need a compass that will point us northward.

Previously, we’ve seen how Paul expresses his confidence in the Philippians: for the most part, they are a pretty together group, with their hearts in the right place. But he also wants them to be intentional about preserving their unity. As he thinks about them while in captivity, it would make him truly glad to know that they were working on their togetherness:

…make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. (Phil 2:2, NRSVUE)

How can the Philippians complete Paul’s joy? He tells them four things. Actually, three things, considering that the first and last phrases are basically the same idea: they are to “be of the same mind” and “of one mind” (literally, “minding one thing”). Paul uses two forms of the same verb, a word that is often translated as “think” or “understand.”

But that translation is too limiting. Much of Western thought is still steeped in a perspective that separates mind from body, head from heart, reason from emotion. Paul’s word (the Greek phroneo) doesn’t mean pure cognition. It points to a wise way of living that integrates what we think of as head and heart, including what philosophers call the moral emotions. We do the right thing, not merely because it’s logically correct but because our moral instincts incline us that way.

That’s why Paul can speak of having the “same mind” and the “same love” in one breath. They’re not opposites, but complementary ways to describe the same moral and spiritual reality. Likewise, while “full accord” gives us a workable sense of Paul’s meaning, it loses the poetry; a more literal translation of what Paul actually says is that the Philippians are to be “together in soul.”

What I’m suggesting is that Paul is telling the Philippians to have the same moral compass. It’s like the function of a vision or mission statement in an organization. It’s not enough to have a fine-sounding statement that appears on an organization’s website but serves no functional purpose in its day-to-day operations. Everyone needs to know and buy into the mission and vision, and the mission statement should be part of every important decision.

But Paul, of course, doesn’t just tell them to have the same moral compass and leave it at that. In the verses that follow, he will make it clear where north is. Put simply: our compasses should point toward Jesus and his humility.

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