God has to make it happen1
Listen closely to what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 - “and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.” If their love is to increase, indeed if our love for one another is to increase, God has to make it happen.
Yes, we are responsible to love others, to do whatever is needed to clear away obstacles and to extend forgiveness and to overcome bitterness and jealousy and envy and rivalry and all the sinful impulses that hinder us from loving others. Yet it is clear that Paul believed God must be present and prior, working in our hearts to make this possible.
After all, if love were entirely within our power to produce, why would Paul have bothered in praying for it? He goes to the throne of grace and asks God to work in the hearts of these people to alert them to ways in which their love is weak and self-serving, asks him to enlighten their minds to see the depths of how God has loved them in Christ, and pleads with God that his Spirit might convict them and stir them and empower them and enable them to overcome the defensiveness and selfishness that so often hinders our love for others.
Love can increase far beyond what we think is possible. We may believe that we have loved to the full extent possible for us, that our hearts are stretched to the breaking, that we have at some point reached the limit of what is reasonable to ask of a human being, but Paul evidently believed that love could grow and expand and become increasingly more passionate and authentic and could express itself in far more concrete and tangible ways than we have even begun to imagine. Here’s how he put it in 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” (Phil. 1:9-11).
Paul prays not simply for the maintenance of love in their midst, not simply that they hold fast to the status quo, but that they experience excess, fullness, an overflowing, a love that ignores boundaries, a love that knows no limits!
The kind of love Paul has in mind isn’t the sort of gullible, gushy, gooey sort that lacks wisdom and encourages people to continue in their sin. Love must be governed by “knowledge” and “discernment.” Let’s take each of these in turn.
First, true and lasting and Christ-like love must be characterized by knowledge. Isn’t it interesting that whereas we tend to pit love and knowledge against each other, Paul insists they are absolutely essential to the other? In other places he argues that if all we have is knowledge and lack love, it is useless. In 1 Corinthians 8 he says that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (8:1). There is a kind of knowledge or better still a way in which we approach it and pride ourselves in it that shuts out love, that quenches love. But here in Philippians 1 Paul says that you can’t love well if your love isn’t guided by knowledge. What can he possibly mean by this?
Well, for one thing it isn’t just any sort of knowledge that he has in view. He’s not talking about knowledge of the stock market or the rules of golf. It’s knowledge of God and his ways and in particular the manner in which he loves sinners like you and me.
So what is it that Paul has in mind that we need to “know” to love well?
Our love must be grounded in and flow out of a knowledge of why we should love. In other words, to love well we must understand how we ourselves are loved by God in Christ. Here’s but one example of what I think Paul has in mind. In Ephesians 4:32 he exhorts us to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Clearly, if we are to forgive one another properly and sincerely we must first be fully aware of and in touch with the depths of the forgiveness that God has given us in Christ. And then in the immediately following verses I think Paul says the same thing that he says here in Philippians 1. In Ephesians 5:2 he again exhorts us: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
It isn’t enough simply to exhort a Christian to love. We need to go deeply into the knowledge of what it means when he says that “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Here we are given not only the ground or reason why we love others but also the pattern or paradigm we are to imitate as we love others.
People love others for all sorts of illegitimate reasons: they feel it is their moral obligation, but their heart isn’t engaged; some are trying to repay a debt they think they owe; others are trying to put someone else in their debt, hoping that by “loving” them the other person will do something in return; and then of course sometimes what passes for “love” is mere flattery. This is loving without knowledge.
To love with knowledge is to realize that we were utterly undeserving of Christ’s love; worse still, we were ill-deserving. Thus even though others deserve no good from us and possibly even deserve bad, we are to love. Christ loved us without regard to the cost that was entailed, subjecting himself to humiliation and shame and suffering and the unimaginable anguish of being separated from his Father.
Do we love others only when it is convenient for us to do so, only when there’s time in the day, only when others are looking, only when we feel like it, only when we are persuaded they deserve it, only when we anticipate being loved in return, only when it makes us look good in the eyes of others (“Oh, my, isn’t he a loving person,” “Wow, she is really something that she would do that for such a jerk!”)?
The point is that we only love well and to the glory of God when our love for one another is driven and energized and governed by the knowledge of the kind of love that God had for us in Christ. That’s the simple reason why you will never be able to love someone in “knowledge” so long as you live in ignorance of the gospel.
In the next post we’ll look at the second characteristic of genuine Christian love: discernment . . .