Most people would agree that love is one of, if not the greatest virtue. Television shows, movies and music are all drawn to the notion of love. But what is love? Is love the emotional excitement as two people feel attraction and take the first steps toward relationship? Is love a possessiveness that smothers the needs of the other person to keep them to yourself? What is love? Entertainment is not the only area that has an interest in love. The Christian faith is extremely interested in love. In fact, this is one of the things that makes Christianity unique. It is not that love is completely absent from other religions, but Christianity is the only religion that makes love central to its faith. Both the Old and New Testaments put love at its core. So it is not surprising that when Paul prays for the Christians at Philippi, that he prays for love. But Paul does not leave the Philippians wondering if this is the love a boy has at seeing a pretty girl for the first time or child has for a chocolate chip cookie or something deeper. Paul’s prayer for love brings clarity and understanding to the topic. This is a help for us in our own prayers, that we should seek precision in what we pray for. Let us look at how Paul prays for love.
If Paul had simply said “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more,” we would have an idea of what he meant. We would assume that he is simply praying that people would become more loving. They would have more smiles, say nicer things, be kinder and generally be more pleasant to be around. But that is not what Paul prayed. Paul prayed: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9 NIV) This is not easy for us to understand. One of the problems is that we see love and knowledge as being at best unconnected and at worst contradictory. Paul himself seemed to think that. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV) That is true. There are people who are incredibly intelligent, and not only are they unloving, their knowledge of their own knowledge seems to make them less loving. Perhaps you have had a doctor, who is brilliant on paper but has the worst bedside manner. There are smart people who delight in making others feel stupid. However, that does not make knowledge and love contradictory. There is a type of knowledge that makes love deeper. Have you ever wondered why Mother Teresa loved the poor and dying of Calcutta so much? Was it just that she woke up one morning and her heart was filled with love? Or was it because she experienced them? Was it because she spent time with them and talked with them and learned from them? I suspect that Mother Teresa’s love for the poor abounded because of the knowledge and depth of insight she had for how they lived and died. What about us? How can our love abound in knowledge? Think about a person that you have difficulty loving. Reflect on the fact that God created them in his image and that Jesus died for their sins. How does that knowledge help you to love? What if you spent time with them and discovered that they had a difficult family life, that they had a history of being betrayed by friends and had a deep fear of trusting someone? Would that knowledge give you some more patience to love them? Our love must abound in knowledge and depth of insight.
Why is Paul praying this and what did he hope would happen? Paul says: “so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.” (Philippians 1:10 NIV) Paul expects that there will be more than just a feeling in the heart of the person. Paul is looking for a change in the person. Notice that Paul assumes that there actually is a best way to live. This goes completely against the values of our society. Society says truth is relative and you can live the way you want to. This is not just about tolerance, it is a value judgment which says one way to live is no better than another way. Paul disagrees by saying that we must discern the best way to live. Why is this important? Because one day we will stand before Christ. The day of Christ is judgment day. Everyone, even Christians will stand in judgment before Christ. That is not to say that Christian salvation is so unsure that we should fear that we were not good enough. Salvation is by faith alone. But God still expects us to live according to his best and we will have to answer for what we have done. Paul describes us as being pure and blameless before Christ. This is sacrificial language from the Old Testament. In the book of Malachi, we find that some people were sacrificing their worst animals, the ones that were not good for market. They did not value what they brought before God. We do not sacrifice animals but we do present our life as sacrifice to God. Paul teaches: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.” (Romans 12:1 NIV) What makes that sacrifice pleasing to God is abounding love.
So how do we know if we reach this goal? I am a firm believer in measurable goals. I want a destination to arrive at and not just a direction in which to travel. Paul gives us some information to know what we should be looking for. Paul says we should be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (Philippians 1:11 NIV) That is not as abstract as it sounds. What Paul is saying is that spiritual fruit should be appearing. We cannot make fruit appear but we can make sure fruit does not appear. Fruit does not grow in the middle of our living room. But fruit does grow in our backyard where the soil, rain and sun create the necessary conditions. Paul tells us elsewhere “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22–23 NIV) These, are the character traits of Jesus. Paul just told us this fruit comes through Jesus Christ. What we are looking for is a gradual change where we become more and more like Jesus.
We all should pray for more love. But not just a fuzzy kind of love. We need love with understanding. We need love that is based on knowledge, knowledge of who God is, of who we are and who the other person is. Why should we care? Because our purpose is not just to get ourselves a ticket to heaven but rather to present our lives as a pure sacrifice to Christ. We know we are on the right track when we become more like Jesus. That is what it means to pray for more love.