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. Read More.