Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenAntidote #3: Gentleness in Hope

Paul’s next instruction, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5), directs our attention from the Lord, the source of our joy, to other people, who are often the source of our stress. The key term, which the ESV conveys as “reasonableness,” appears only five times in the New Testament. “Reasonableness” is an acceptable translation, but the NIV’s “gentleness” is better—or “clemency, graciousness, forbearance,” or even “magnanimity,” The term refers to the calm and kind disposition that enables a person to offer a nonviolent, even generous, response to others’ aggression. Aristotle explained “gentleness” as a willingness to forgo one’s own rights, according to the letter of the law. So this word nicely captures the thrust of Paul’s earlier exhortation about the way that Christians should treat each other: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4). Elsewhere Paul uses this word to teach that elders must not be quarrelsome, but gentle (1 Tim. 3:3). All believers should be gentle rather than quarreling (Titus 3:2). Paul associates gentleness with meekness as displayed by Christ (2 Cor. 10:1).

Here Paul expands the circle of those to be treated “gently” beyond the borders of the church. We are to display such forbearing kindness to “everyone,” including those who are making our lives miserable. As children of a Father who sends sunshine and rainfall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45), as brothers and sisters of the beloved Son who died for us while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:10), believers should extend kindness rather than retaliation to those who harass and oppress them.

Paul cinches this summons to gentleness with a promise, or a reminder, or both: “The Lord is at hand.” This brief statement can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, most recent interpreters understand it to refer primarily if not exclusively, to the eschatological “nearness” of Jesus’ second coming. Although no one knows the timing of Christ’s second coming, the New Testament assures us that our Lord will not needlessly delay, but will come “soon” (Luke 18:7–8; Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). James urged suffering believers to wait patiently, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7–8). Paul has just reminded the Philippians that we “await” the future appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven (Phil. 3:20–21). Because our coming Lord will give joy beyond our wildest imaginations, we can now be gentle in hope.

On the other hand, Paul may intend us to understand “the Lord is at hand” as an assurance of Christ’s nearness to us even now through his indwelling Holy Spirit, as the psalmists affirm: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18; see 145:18). Paul has mentioned the heart-transforming work that God is performing in and among believers (Phil. 1:6; 2:12). So “the Lord is at hand” may motivate our gentleness by assuring us that, even now as we undergo injustices, we are not alone. Or Paul may intend “the Lord is at hand” to convey both truths: the Lord is near now by his Spirit, bringing aid in our sufferings, and he is coming soon in his glory, bringing suffering to an end.

Antidote #4: Praying with Thanks

Paul’s “let everyone see your gentleness” shows a better way to respond to trouble than lashing out at other people. Now his “replace worry with prayer” (Phil. 4:6–7) turns our hearts back toward God, urging us to approach him not with grumbling or questioning (see 2:14) but with gratitude and expectant petition. Paul is echoing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Having invited us to address God as “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9), Jesus went on to show that God’s children do not need to worry over life’s necessities:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:31–33)

Here Paul compiles a rich inventory of prayer-vocabulary—prayer, supplication, requests—to emphasize the freedom of access that is ours to bring every sort of concern to our Father. We “make our requests known” to him, obviously, not because he would be ignorant of them unless we informed him, but rather because speaking them aloud expresses our dependence and trust that he cares for us personally and delights in his children’s speech.

Notice the ingredient of “thanksgiving” that is to be blended with our requests. Gratitude preserves our prayers from going sour with complaint or degenerating into a list of self-centered demands. Thanksgiving is the natural response to a generous gift, freely bestowed. In polite society, we sometimes say, “thank you” just because it is expected. But real thanksgiving bubbles up from the heart when we are delighted by a gift beyond anything we expected, unearned and undeserved. That is the thanksgiving that must permeate our prayers as we bring our requests to the Father.

If we were to ask Paul the reasons to thank God, no doubt he could go on for hours. But if we asked him to pick the very best gift, he would take us to his explosion of amazement in 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” He would explain that the gift that goes beyond words is God’s Son, Jesus, as he wrote to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). So this antidote to anxiety is to feast your heart on God’s gracious gift of Christ to the point that you burst forth in thanks, as you bring your worrisome problems—rejection, resistance, recession, or relationships—to your loving heavenly Father. Rather than fretting like orphans left to fend for themselves, you can bring your griefs with your gratitude to God, confident that, whatever his answer on the particulars, his peace will guard your heart in Christ Jesus.

Antidote #5: Pondering Christ’s Character

The promises in Philippians 4:7 and 9, with the wordplay connecting “the peace of God” and “the God of peace,” show that Paul’s directives in 4:8–9 are linked to his previous summons to joy in the Lord, gentleness in hope, and prayer with thanksgiving. Moreover, these last two prescriptions for our worrywart hearts are bound to each other by their parallel structure: first a list, then a command “ponder these things” (4:8), and then another list, followed by “practice these things” (4:9).

Paul knows that the thoughts that occupy our minds and the images that capture our imaginations shape our characters and find expression in our behavior. As Israel’s ancient sage observed, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Jesus confirmed that the heart’s secret thoughts are the fountain from which our outward actions flow (Mark 7:14–23). So Paul speaks first of letting our minds dwell on qualities that reflect the perfections of our Creator (Phil. 4:8), and then he calls us to practice the pattern that we have heard in the gospel and seen in those who live Christ-focused lives (4:9).

Paul tells us to think about, or to ponder, “whatever is true, … honorable, … just, … pure, … lovely, … commendable, … any excellence, … anything worthy of praise.” Many of these words are rare in Paul’s letters and in the New Testament as a whole. Although Paul uses the adjective true rarely, he often insists that God’s truth—God’s utterly trustworthy and accurate portrayal of reality—must control believers’ minds and, consequently, our behavior. Because “the truth … in Jesus” means that we have shed the control of deceitful desires, our legacy from the original Adam, and have been clothed with “righteousness and holiness” characterized by truth (Eph. 4:20–24), our conduct must follow suit: “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (4:25). Paul uses honorable or its related noun six other times (and he is the only New Testament author to do so), always with reference to men and women whose spiritual maturity, dignity, and authority make them worthy of others’ respect.

In this context, just refers not to the legal standing that belongs to believers through Christ’s imputed righteousness (as Paul used a related noun in Philippians 3:9; see Rom. 1:17). Rather, it describes that which conforms to God’s perfect norm of equity. For example, masters must treat their slaves “justly and fairly” (Col. 4:1). What is “pure” is free from defilement or pollution. It includes sexual purity and fidelity (Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:2; and, metaphorically, 2 Cor. 11:2–3), but it extends well beyond the realm of sexuality. In Philippians 1:17 Paul used a related term to describe the unworthy motives of some who preached Christ “out of rivalry, not sincerely.”

Lovely appears nowhere else in the New Testament. Its uses elsewhere in ancient Greek suggest that it refers to the quality that warrants and attracts admiration. Similarly, commendable makes its only New Testament appearance here, although Paul once uses a related noun to describe the varying responses to his ministry, “through slander and praise” (2 Cor. 6:8).  Finally, Paul commends to our reflection “anything worthy of praise”—a term that he uses eight times elsewhere to refer to praise directed toward God (Phil. 1:11; Eph. 1:6, 12, 14) or toward human beings who deserve commendation (Rom. 2:29; 13:3; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 8:18; see 1 Peter 1:7; 2:14). Paul urges us to fix our thoughts on themes that are not only intrinsically virtuous because God approves them but also visibly virtuous, attracting the approval of human beings who care about integrity, purity, and justice.

Paul realizes that not everything that is considered “lovely” or “commendable” by society at large would meet with God’s approval, so he adjusts his grammar slightly at the end, calling us to exercise discernment: “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The term rendered “think about” is not the one that Paul has used so frequently in this epistle (phroneō), but instead one that expresses “taking into account” or assessing that which deserves approval. As we survey the virtues celebrated in society, we must blend our appreciation with discernment. Paul is applying complementary truths that Scripture teaches elsewhere: (1) though the human family is fallen and flawed by sin, God’s common grace still sustains even in unbelievers a sense of what is true, honorable, just, pure, and praiseworthy; yet (2) true virtue can be defined only by its supreme standard, the character of our infinitely holy Creator, revealed to us in his Scriptures and in his Son. Therefore, in the next verse, as Paul’s exhortation moves from thought to action, from pondering to practice, he places the common virtues just listed into the specific framework of the gospel of Christ.

Monday we’ll conclude this three-part series looking at the cure for anxiety.

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