Sunday, February 10, 2008

A prayer for discernment

Paul, with emotion that many would be embarrassed by, has just told his friends how he yearns for them all "with the affection of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1.8, ESV). And how will Paul's emotional love manifest itself in action? He will pray for their love.

9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (1:9-11)

Paul's prayers can speak to us in at least two different ways. First, they can teach us how to pray. This includes the what and why of our prayers. But this prayer of Paul's is also a prayer prayed for us. And prayer is the greatest revealer of one's greatest priorities. When people pray, they ask for what is most important to them. Thus God gives us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Philippians 1.9-11: to listen in as the Apostle to the Gentiles prays a Spirit-inspired prayer for us, revealing to us what the Spirit of God himself wants more than anything else for us.


And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment (1.9).

(1) He prays for our love to grow. While it is of course true that God wants our love for him to grow, likely the emphasis here is on our love for one another. We base this in part on two passages from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians:

12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13)

9 Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, 10 for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more (1 Thessalonians 4:9-10).

In so leading Paul to pray for the growth of their love, the Spirit shows unity of priority with the Lord Jesus, who could tell his followers: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12).

(2) He prays for our love to grow with knowledge. Which seems strange to us, for surely these two things, love and knowledge, could not be prayed for together in the same breath. However, here Paul and the Philippians understand this word knowledge as being far deeper than mere cognition of a collection of facts. Knowledge in this context is the deep, personal, experiential knowledge of relationship—relationship with the God who created all relationships. Knowledge—that knowing of God—which needs continuously to grow until that day when it is perfected by a face-to-face encounter with Christ Jesus:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

(3) He prays for our love to grow with knowledge and all discernment. "Moral insight into God's will" is the meaning Fee manages to tease out of this word. Along with our love of each other and our knowing of Christ, our discernment and perception is to abound more and more. Colossians 1.9 offers us a good parallel to help us understand:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.


(1) The penultimate reason: so that we can choose what is best.

"so that you may approve what is excellent" (1.10a).

When our love for each other grows in deeper knowledge of God and in moral discernment, we will be better and better at choosing or approving what is best <1>. That's what Paul wants for us. That's what the Spirit wants for us. To more and more approve what is best. What is most attractive, what is most valuable, what is most excellent. And to that end the Spirit and the apostle pray. Why? Why do we need help in discerning what is best? Because in Philippians we see a massive upheaval of values.

For instance, in 2.5-11 we are introduced to a King who is pushing a brand-new system of values. Love is in, pride is out. Suffering is in, winning is out. And we are told that God looks at a man stooping to pathetic lows, dying as a weakling slave, and sees the greatest thing he has ever seen (1.9-11). This is a complete upheaval of values! It's a value-system so radically different from what we are used to that nothing short of prayer and the divine power prayer summons will enable us to choose what is now deemed to be best.

As it turns out, this prayer is programmatic of much of the rest of the letter. Let's see how this plays out.

In 1.21-26 Paul is having an awful time trying to decide what is best of two choices: live or die. <2> On the one hand, he knows there's lots for him to do, and so it would be good to keep living. But on the other hand, to die is to live with Christ, and is thus gain. So what does it look like when the prayer of 1.9-11 is making headway in a Christian's life? Discernment as to what is best leads to indecisiveness as to life and death.

In 1.12-26 we see Paul imprisoned by Rome and oppressed by some of the Christians, but he is rejoicing nonetheless. The reason for his joy is that he is discerning what is best (the gospel's progress), which relegates his present discomfort and suffering to a much less significant assignment of value.

We've already alluded to the section of 1.27-2.18. There suffering is seen as a gift (on par with the gift of being able to believe in Christ) in 1.29. Additionally, each of us is instructed to "in humility count others more significant than yourselves" (2.3). No wonder Paul prays that our discernment will grow, for not one of us naturally sees others as being more valuable than ourselves!

In 2.19-30 Paul selects Timothy for a task on a completely different basis from what less-discerning Christians would use. No, King Jesus does not value so much one's gifts and abilities and appearance, but rather one's genuine concern for the welfare of others (2.20). Then Epaphroditus is mentioned, and we are told to honour him (not Sidney Crosby) highly "for he nearly died for the work of Christ" (2.30).

Paul puts before us the language of accounting in chapter 3. Here Paul will look at all his possessions and achievements and he will seek to discern their value. The results are just in, and they're shocking: everything that the rest of his world prized and boasted in turns out to be rubbish by comparison to the supreme value of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord (3.4-11). That's right. Knowing Christ is of far greater value than possessions or achievements. What a word is this for western consumerism!

We can also see that Paul has chosen the future as being of more value than the past. He "presses on" towards it (3.11-21), flooring the gas pedal while everyone else is cautiously riding the brakes. This is why we need to pray 1.9-11 for each other; how else will we learn to live for the future hope when everyone else in the west is living for the here and now?

Finally, in 4.8-9, we see the passage that Paul's prayer has been pointing to all along. Let us pray for each other, that along with our love for others and knowledge of God, our moral insight into God's will will grow, so that

...whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

(2) The ultimate reason: so that we will be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.

"and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (1.10a-11)

When Paul gets praying like this, you just know that any second you're going to hear him mention the day of Christ. Sure enough, this is where Paul's prayer has been headed all along. Combining this mention with the one in 1.6, we see that the Day of Christ is both the focus and the fuel of Paul's prayers. What is it that Paul sees when he closes his eyes to pray? The Day of Christ!

This is a great secret to help us in our prayers. When we pray for each other, we should picture each other at the Day of Christ! What passion that would give our prayers! And what focus! No more meanderings and meaningless generalities. We'd start praying for our brothers and sisters to grow in discernment, so that they can choose what is best, so that they will be readied for the Day of Christ, "to the glory and praise of God."

<1> It's easy to see how growth in discernment would translate into greater success in approving what is excellent. What is less obvious is how growth in love for others and knowledge of God would do the same. This has led some commentators to see v.10 as taking off from the request for discernment only, exclusive of the prayer for love and knowledge. I propose, however, that Paul intends all three requests to result in choosing what is best. The key to this is noticing what is "best" for Paul. As the rest of the post shows, two things that are "best" for Paul are (1) that the Philippians have "the same love" (2.2) by counting "others more significant than [them]selves", and (2) that "knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (3.8) is by far the most valuable thing in Paul's heart.
<2> Of course, Paul is being hypothetical.


Joe Blackmon said...

"However, here Paul and the Philippians understand this word knowledge as being far deeper than mere cognition of a collection of facts."

I found this to be a very important point. There are some people who could make a 100% on a Jesus pop-quiz but really don't know the Lord in a personal way. Or people get so caught up in wanting to feel something rather knowing in a relational way that they turn a relationship with Christ into something purely subjective ("Well, God revealed [thus and such] to me. Now, that ain't in the Bible, but that's what He said to me."). I think it's very important for us to remember that we need to grow in our knowledge of Christ and that knowledge comes as we study the scriptures.

MJK said...

"I think it's very important for us to remember that we need to grow in our knowledge of Christ and that knowledge comes as we study the scriptures."

You've struck an excellent balance Joe. With a blog having the name mine has, I'm grateful to have this comment on my blog.