Praying Like Paul | Philippians 1:9-11

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV)

So far we’ve studied Paul’s opening words to the Philippians, considering how he praised God for their partnership in the gospel, how he was confident that God would keep them rooted in the gospel until the end, and how he yearned for the Philippians with the affections of Christ.

We now conclude this introductory paragraph with Paul’s prayer for his brothers and sisters at Philippi. The central request of the prayer is that their love would continue to flourish, as they also grow in knowledge, discernment, and are filled with righteousness. In short, Paul prayed for spiritual growth that would bear fruit in every aspect of their lives.

Tony Merida and Francis Chan make this important observation about Paul’s prayer here:

The details of this prayer serve as a table of contents or a preview of coming attractions for the rest of the letter. “Love” is addressed in a number of places in the letter (e.g., 1:16; 2:1-4; 4:1). Paul later speaks of being pure and blameless (2:14-15), of fruitfulness and righteousness (1:22; 3:6-9), about power through Christ (3:10), of the coming day of Christ (3:20), and of the glory of God (2:11). Further, the prayer for insight and discernment probably alludes to the need to handle the conflict mentioned in chapter 4 in an appropriately loving way. The request to approve the things that are superior may relate to his instruction in Philippians 3:8 to gain “the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” (36-37)

ABOUNDING LOVE // VERSE 9

The central theme of Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is found here: that your love may abound more and more. Every other phrase and clause within these verses builds upon this one idea. If Paul’s central aim is that the Philippians’ love might continue to grow, then the first question that we must consider before continuing onward is: what is love?

Even though love is universally felt and almost constantly referenced, love is notoriously difficult to define. As Tozer said, “We do not know, and we may never know, what love is, but we can know how it manifests itself, and that is enough for us here” (170). But how does love manifest itself?

Love is often referred to as an emotion, but it must also be understood as an action. Love is partly what we feel, but it is also what we do. Love is both an affection and an exercise. This dual nature of love can be witnessed in our present text. In verse 8, Paul described his affection for the Philippians, and in verses 10-11, his prayer is that their love would be manifested in good works. Paul’s prayer is that both the affections and good works of love would abound more and more. To this end, he prayed for the Philippians’ love to flourish.

Of course, Jesus is the greatest example of such boundless love. The Gospels give us many glimpses at the affections of Christ. While speaking to the rich, young ruler, we are told that Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). As Jesus preached to the crowds, He had compassion on them because they were “like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). And perhaps the most famous example is Jesus’ weeping at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35).

But Jesus did not merely feel the affection of love; He also displayed love. His love for the rich, young ruler manifested in His revealing the ruler’s idolatry of wealth. His love for the crowds manifested in His teaching them (Mark 6:34). His love for Lazarus manifested in His raising him back to life.

Yet all of these examples are dwarfed by the cross. Christ told His disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:12-14).

On the cross, Jesus displayed the epitome of this love by laying down His life for us, even while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Jesus calls us His friends and reveals the greatest form of love by dying on our behalf, even though we are continuous rebels against God. In Romans 5:7, Paul admits that someone might be willing to die for a good person. But we are not good people, and Jesus still chose to die for us. Our marvel at the cross, in many ways, directly correlates to the depth of our understanding of our sinfulness. In his eye-opening article, The Utter Horror of the Smallest Sins, Tim Challies explains the deepness of our depravity as evidenced by our “little” sins:

Our sinfulness is expressed not only in our desire to break God’s greatest rules but in our willingness to break even his smallest ones. And this is the utter horror of the smallest sins. They prove our hearts are so desperately wicked that there’s no area of life in which we won’t express our rebellion against God.

The indescribable love of God displayed on the cross comes to us in the midst of this blatant rebellion against Him.

Yet in these verses from John 15, Jesus also commands us to love one another. In fact, He goes so far as to claim that our friendship with Him is evidenced by our love for each other. The very heart of the Christian faith, therefore, revolves around love. God so loved that He died to save us (John 3:16), and we respond by loving God and each other (Matthew 22:36-40). Because love is so central to the faith, we cannot grow into maturity without growing in love. To abound more and more in love is to further and further walk in imitation of Christ (Ephesians 5:1-2).

With Knowledge & Discernment

Yet, as previously noted, love is more than simply an emotion; thus, Paul fittingly provides qualifying phrase onto his prayer: with knowledge and all discernment. The apostle wanted the Philippians’ love to affect the mind as well as the heart. For some, the pairing of love and knowledge may seem slightly odd. Remember, however, what kind of love and affection Paul expressed for the Philippians in verse 8: the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is the same love and affection that Paul is now praying for the Philippians here. But in order to love with the affections of Christ, we must first understand who Jesus is and how He loves. Therefore, knowledge is the key to loving properly. Without a proper knowledge of Christ, we cannot be certain that our love is actually imitating Him. Love without knowledge is like a car without a road. The knowledge of Christ forms the pathways by which the Spirit enables us to love like Christ. Love must always, therefore, be an exercise of both the heart and mind.

The concept of discernment is so tied to the first phrase of verse 10 that would be best to discuss them together.

DISCERNING & PURE // VERSES 10-11

In verse 9, we observed Paul’s prayer for abounding love in the Philippians, as well as his qualification that their love be jointly connected to knowledge and discernment. In verses 10-11, Paul declares what he prays will be the outcomes (or the fruits) of their abounding, knowledgeable, and discerning love.

Approve What Is Excellent

The first outcome for which Paul prays is that you may approve what is excellent. Approving what is excellent is the fruit of discernment. If knowledge is the possession of information, discernment is the ability to form wise decisions with said knowledge. Discernment, therefore, can be understood in two broad categories: being able to discern what is good from what is evil and being able to discern what is better or best from what is good. When Paul prays for the Philippians to approve what is excellent, both of these kinds of discernment can be easily applied.

The discernment of the Holy Spirit is needed to know whether or not an action that is not inherently sinful might be sinful for you. Drinking alcohol is one of the classic examples of this. The Bible clearly makes no prohibition on alcohol in general, only on drunkenness. Yet there are many factors that may lead a Christian to see drinking alcohol as going against their conscience, whether it is a familial history of alcoholism, past experiences, or simply personal conviction against drinking. Areas of personal conviction, such as this, require the ability to discern whether we are acting in faith: “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

This form of discernment may also apply to our ability to discern sound doctrine from false doctrine. John Chrysostom believed this to be Paul’s primary usage here: “He prays that they will not receive any corrupted doctrine under the pretense of love” (ACCS, 221). Such a tendency is no less present today than in days of Paul or Chrysostom. Especially over the issue of homosexuality, we have witnessed a multitude of churches abandon the clear teachings of Scripture on the pretense of love. Because doctrine shapes our understanding of who God is, we can never claim to adopt love at the expense of proper doctrine. Our love must be filtered through the lens of knowledge and discernment, approving what is excellent and disapproving what is corrupted.

Our ability to discern between what is good and what is better or best can be witnessed in Jesus. In Mark 1:35-39, Jesus is told by His disciples that everyone in Capernaum was looking for him, but Jesus replied that He needed to continue preaching in the other towns of Galilee. His healings were good, but they were only intended to authenticate His preaching, which was better. We must fervently pray for this kind of discernment as well, lest be like Martha, choosing temporal, lesser things over eternal, necessary things.

Pure, Blameless, & Filled

Yet approving what is excellent is only one piece of the puzzle. Because the temptation of sin is great, we can all too easily relate with Ovid’s confession: “I see the better and approve it, but I do not cease to follow the worse” (VII.20-21). Aware of this, Paul also prays for a second outcome to flow from their abounding love: purity, blamelessness, and being filled with the fruit of righteousness. In other words, Paul does not merely want us to choose what is right but to also do what is right. Each of these phrases here strike at the same core idea of living in a godly manner.

The fruit of righteousness could easily be linked with fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Each of these virtues reflect the attributes, nature, and character of God; therefore, we live godly lives by embodying (or living out) these fruits. The righteous, or godly, life is a life lived in imitation of God, fulfilling our duty of being the bearers of His image. Paul rightfully then prays for a life filled with these fruits of righteousness.

The words Paul uses for purity and blamelessness here, however, are not his usual choices. Purity normally denotes the idea of untainted or without corruption. The purity of gold and other precious metals is measured by how free they are of other elements. Purity here, however, conveys the idea of being tested and judged genuine or, we might say, sincere. Paul has in mind someone who is not two-faced or acting out of ulterior motives. Gordon Fee comments on Paul’s word choice of blameless as follows: “Likewise, aproskopos is not Paul’s regular word for the idea of “blameless.” Ordinarily, as in 2:15 and 3:6, he uses a form of amemptos, a word denoting behavior that is without observable fault. But aproskopos has to do with being “blameless” in the sense of “not offending” or not causing someone else to stumble” (102). These word choices only further emphasize the communal aspect of verses 3-11. Our being filled with the fruit of righteousness is not simply an individual matter. We must make decisions in love, with knowledge and discernment, righteously avoiding ulterior motives and doing our best not to be a stumbling block for our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But also notice that Paul grounds this purity, blamelessness, and righteousness in a destination: the day of Christ. As in verse 6 the apostle expressed his confidence that God would complete the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel at the day of Jesus Christ, he now urges them to continue living godly lives in light of that Day. As we briefly discussed in our first study (and will continue to discuss in more depth), we are generally not in danger of being too heavenly-minded but of being to earthly-minded. Many fear that fixing our eyes on eternity will cause us to be absent from the present, yet the opposite is often true. Greater desires for heaven tend to create godlier lives on earth. Like Abraham or Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, we are each “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10). Without our destination before our eyes, we risk living our entire lives as aimless. This is poignantly displayed in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Alice’s question to the Cheshire Cat: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where–’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat” (57). The coming of the Day of Christ orients both where and how we walk through this life. Everything we do must be done in the light of eternity.

To the Glory & Praise of God

Finally, Paul concludes his prayer with two clauses: that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Why does the apostle end by emphasizing that our righteousness, discernment, knowledge, and love must come through Christ and to the glory and praise of God? I believe it is because each of these virtues can be falsified and counterfeited.

Let’s examine righteousness first. Most people may think that righteousness always equals godliness; therefore, if someone is living a moral life, they must also be living a life approved by God. This belief is often a core tenant of nominal Christianity in the West, which is sometimes called moralistic, therapeutic deism. In this religion, morality and Christianity are nearly synonymous terms. Paul, however, did not promote this theology. In 2 Timothy 3:5, Paul warns his disciple to avoid those who have “the appearance of godliness, but” deny its power. Morality is not the same as godliness. Godliness certainly intersects morality, but ultimately, godliness is rooted in God, while morality can be rooted in anything. Most often, however, morality flows from self. We do good deeds in order to feel better about ourselves or to look better in the sight of others. These motivations may produce morality, but they cannot produce godliness. Thus, a righteousness that does not come through Jesus to the glory and praise of God is not true, biblical righteousness.

Likewise, love can be very easily counterfeited when God taken out of the equation. This is important to understand because I would argue that no biblical virtue is more imitated by culture than love. Songs repeatedly tell us that love is the highest virtue. Movements continually declare that spreading love is their ultimate goal. Indeed, love is often exalted to the status of divine. But this supreme exaltation of love is quite different from the biblical exaltation of love (1 Corinthians 13) because they derive from different sources.

Biblically, we are told that love comes from God because God is love (1 John 4:8), which is one of the most butchered phrase in all the Bible. This does not mean that God is exclusively love or that God is the same as love. Instead, it means that one of God’s chief characteristics and attributes is love. God defines love, and He perfectly embodies love because all love emanates from Him. All love is, therefore, to the praise and glory of God because true love can only come through Him.

Contrast this with the source of the worldly idea of love, which is most often self. Cultural love is defined by self, since there is no greater source of appeal. Because of this, elevating love as supreme is really a sly way of making the self supreme. If love is ultimate and I define love, what does that make me?

Let me emphasize that I am not denying the sincerity of this kind of love’s affections and actions. They may indeed be genuine and even sacrificial, but if the source is bad, then everything is corrupted. If God, being love, was represented as a person, then our display of biblical love would be like a portrait of Him, His image, but the worldly counterfeit would be a caricature of God. Neither a portrait nor a caricature is the object, but a portrait faithfully portrays the subject, while a caricature is a falsification. Even worldly love displays something of God’s character, but the image is ultimately twisted. The Source cannot be corrupted, but the image can. If our love does not flow from God as its acknowledged source, we will very likely display a broken and distorted image of His endless and steadfast love. Our love, therefore, must flow through Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Only then is will it truly be love.

A FINAL WORD ON PRAYER

Now that we’ve walked through Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, I want to take a few steps back in order to address the topic of prayer. Particularly, I would like to ask this question: Do you pray like this for your brothers and sisters in Christ?

Indeed, since the Philippians were likely undergoing persecution in some form or fashion, we might have expected Paul to pray for their endurance in Christ. Or because there were arguments and rivalries in the Philippian church, Paul could have prayed for their unity in Christ as His Body. Yet Paul prays for their love to abound more and more. This is a prayer of fundamental importance because it cuts to the heart of the Christian faith. If love is how we grow in maturity, then by praying for a deepening of love he also prays for growth in every way.

Of course, this isn’t to say that praying for other things is unimportant. Currently, my father-in-law is battling Stage-4 gastric cancer. We long for prayers for his strength and for his healing; however, the state of his soul is more important than the state of his un-resurrected body. Even if the LORD is gracious enough to heal his body, he will still see God face-to-face within a few decades. Praying that he would love the LORD with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and love his neighbor as himself is far more critical than praying for his physical ailments. And the same is true of us.

Throughout Paul’s letters, we see that the apostle consistently prayed prayers like this one. Ephesians 3:14-19 is one of my favorites:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Could not our lack of love for one another stem from our failure to pray like this? Will you, therefore, pray like Paul? Will you pray that the love of God would, by the Spirit, flow through ourselves and our brothers and sisters?

And may we do this continually. Paul prayed for it to abound more and more because the love of God has no limit. We must fight to never grow stagnant in our love, for there is always room for us to love more and more in light of the One who has loved us endlessly.

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