Here’s one way to think about what Paul’s doing in Philippians.
Having prayed for the church in Philippi to “know which things matter most,” he calls them to re-direct their attention from What Doesn’t Matter Much to What Matters The Most. The argument form is basically “don’t look over there, look over here,” which is a hard argument to win. Consider a time when you’ve taken a problem to somebody for advice, and instead of solving your problem they have told you, “your real problem is that you are paying attention to this thing; instead, try just ignoring it and paying attention to something else more important.” Even when they’re right, it’s hard advice to follow.
In the ancient world, one version of this argument was the consolatio genre. Writing in the mode of consolatio (as Cicero, Seneca, and later Boethius did, for example), a writer would persuade his listeners to seek comfort in the midst of affliction by performing two actions simultaneously: avocatio and revocatio. People who were suffering needed to have their minds called away from (a-vocatio) the affliction (which gets worse the more you think about it), and called toward (re-vocatio) something greater and more fruitful. Avocatio plus revocatio produces consolatio: don’t think about that, think about this. (If you’d like to follow up with some real scholarship on how this ancient genre informs Philippians, here‘s a good book, the one that alerted me to these categories.)
In the hands of hedonists, this argument could be pretty facile. Epicureans, for instance, used to argue that when you were in pain you should do a little hedonistic calculus and set your mind on future pleasure. Another way consolatio could go wrong is by being a mere strategy of escapism (though come to think of it, if you can’t use escapist literature in prison, where can you?).
In Philippians, however, Paul is doing something nobler. To begin with, he has identified something special as the highest good: the progress of the gospel. He is especially excited about the way the church at Philippi has shared his labor of spreading the gospel in new territories. With the gospel as the highest good, he freely re-interprets everything in his experience and assigns it to its proper place under the sway of the highest good. This is where, I think, Paul begins to marshal some paradoxes and shocking reversals. He’s not doing this just to be puckish or to be a paradox-monger. He knows he has a hard argument to make (“don’t think about that, think about this”), so he brings out some illustrations that turn the world upside down. If I had no sense of history, I’d say he’d been reading some G. K. Chesterton, because Chesterton was the master of these stunning inversions which forced his readers to consider his point of view.
Here’s how Paul works it out:
I pray that you would learn what matters most. Whatever is good, think about that.
What’s good? The progress of the gospel, that’s the main thing.
In light of that, everything you know is wrong. For example:
Here I am in prison. That’s bad, right? No, that’s good. It’s turning out to be good for the gospel.
Another example: I have an impeccable religious pedigree. That’s good, right? No, that’s bad. Pure skubalon, in fact. Doesn’t matter one bit. Might even get in the way.
Again: Feckless folks are preaching Christ for lousy reasons like envy, just to hurt me. That’s bad, right? No, that’s good. Because, like I said, the gospel is going forth no matter what’s in their motives.
A big one: To do the work of the gospel, you have to behave like a slave and take a place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. That’s bad, right? No, that’s good. Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who became obedient to the extremes of shameful death, for which reason he has been given the highest name.
Paul follows this “everything you know is wrong, we’re through the looking glass now” strategy pretty insistently in Philippians. It’s the back-and-forth that’s necessary to jolt his readers into a new way of evaluating everything. The only place he seems unable to do the inversion trick is when he tries to figure out whether death is good or bad. Looking at it from the point of view of the gospel, neither his life nor his death seems clearly better. Death is better for him (go be with the Lord), but continuation of his life and ministry is better for the churches. Paul doesn’t achieve mere stoical indifference, but he does reach a serene objectivity regarding his own destiny.
Philippians: Read it standing on your head.