While the following commands from Paul seem unrelated to the theme of unity, Frank Thielman argues they ought to be read in the context of persecution (Philippians, NIVAC, 217-9). While this is not an Empire-wide systematic persecution of believers, we have already seen several times in the letter than the church at Philippi was a small community of believers who are in many ways “different” from the Roman culture around them. The existence of a group of people who “have the mind of Christ” is enough to be suspicious, and suspicion easily gives way to gossip, wild accusations and pressure to conform. This sort of social pressure can be difficult to accept and a source of great fear for the church. Paul’s series of short exhortations in these verses are therefore designed to give comfort and encouragement to endure.
First, Paul encourages the church to set aside worry by rejoicing in their circumstances. If the context is social pressure on Christians in Philippi, then there may be some despair in the congregation. Paul repeats his call for joy regardless of circumstances here, recalling his words in chapter 1. Paul is in prison and may be executed for his faith, yet he rejoices in his circumstances. He is modeling the kind of attitude he desires from the congregation.
This is not some sort of masochistic pleasure in suffering, but rather the sort of happiness that comes from understanding the circumstances properly. For example, someone who competes in athletics “suffers” greatly when they train. They consider the work they are doing well worth the pain because of the ultimate goal (winning the prize). The same is true for pursuing a college degree or training necessary to advance at a job. It is hard work, and might fairly be called suffering, but as painful as it is, from the perspective of the goal, it is a cause for rejoicing. Paul models this by counting his past achievements as a loss and “forgetting what is behind and straining for what is ahead” (3:12-14).
Second, Paul says the believer is to be “reasonable” (ESV) or “be gentle” (NIV 2011), or perhaps a “forbearing spirit” (BDAG). The Greek word (ἐπιεικής) does have the sense of kindness or courteousness. But it has the sense of kindness in a context where retaliation is expected. This fits well with the possibility of harassment and persecution as well. The believer responds to pressure to conform to the world in ways the world does not expect; instead of revenge and retaliation, we are to be reasonable, gentle, and forgiving.
Third, worry is not necessary because the “Lord is at hand. The phrase, “the Lord is at hand” may go with “be reasonable,” although it is probably better to see it as the reason we should not be anxious. This is not escapist, as if Paul is saying, do not worry about things since God is going to destroy it all soon anyway! The soon return of the Lord is a motivation for unity because the return will vindicate the righteous (rewarding them) while punishing the oppressors. Again, this is not some sort of defeatist, “hunker down and take it” attitude; Paul is once again pointing to the goal and understanding his present suffering in the light of future vindication at the return of the Lord.
Last, instead of worry, we are to bring requests to God in prayer. Based on this verse, worry is sometimes considered a sin. But “worry” here is refers to anxiety or apprehension concerning present circumstances (suffering for the faith?) rather than faithlessness or a careless attitude toward life. Some worry is a “healthy concern.” If my car makes a funny noise it is a cause for concern; I might worry about some change in my health; I might be worried about how my children behave, or about my family’s health, etc. But if I begin to worry about your children, perhaps I have gone beyond healthy concern.
How much worry is unhealthy? Since Paul says we ought to bring requests to God in prayer rather than worry about them, perhaps the analogy of a “burden” is good here. Some things you can physically carry better than others, some people are stronger, better at carrying things, etc. Sometimes you need a little help carrying something heavy or awkward. Unhealthy worry may vary from person to person, but sharing the concern with others, first with the Lord is the best way to “share the load.”
Rather than be excessively concerned, Paul tells us to commit these things to the Lord in prayer in order to share the burden with the one who is able to carry it for you. If Paul has in mind pressure to conform to the Roman world faced by the church, but the application to contemporary Christianity life is clear. We are to let God carry our burdens rather than bear them alone.