Love Actually

We must run with God – and not the world – in our understanding of love:

No, this article is not about a popular and shmaltzy 2003 film, actually. It is in fact trying to deconstruct the faulty notions of what love really is. We expect Hollywood in particular and the world in general to get love quite wrong, seeing it as emotions, feelings, lust or sex.

But sadly, far too many Christians get it wrong as well. They simply slavishly follow what the world thinks, says and does, and completely lose what love is as defined by God. Yesterday I discussed this matter in an article, reminding us that love is not antinomian – that is, it is not without rules and boundaries.

As I wrote in that piece: “A nebulous Christianity without rules, but just a lotta emotive ‘love,’ is completely foreign to Scripture. Biblical love is always a well-defined love, and a bounded love. It is bounded by right and wrong, truth and error.” billmuehlenberg.com/2020/11/24/on-sin-lists/

In my Bible reading this morning I came across a passage that certainly makes this very case. Philippians 1:9-11 says this: “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.”

In this one sentence the Apostle gives us all sorts of ways in which we can understand what real love is all about. Notice how knowledge, discernment, excellence, purity, blamelessness and righteousness are all included in how Scripture speaks about love. Little of this is found in the film mentioned above, nor in how most folks think about love today.

But certainly for the Christian we must think about everything in light of how God thinks about it. Indeed, we cannot live right unless we think right. As I just read yesterday, Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:23 that we are “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” He said much the same in Romans 12:2 where he said “be transformed by the renewal of your mind”.

So let me look at this Philippians passage in more detail, drawing upon some helpful commentary along the way. The first thing to note is that verses 3-11 form one paragraph, and it is in fact a prayer of Paul’s. Moreover, it sets the stage for what is found in the rest of the epistle. Also recall that Paul was imprisoned while writing this.

Bird and Gupta offer a brief word on the close connection between love and knowledge: “Knowledge and love are ‘mutually necessary’ because knowledge without love is not edifying (see 1 Cor 8:1; 13:2), while love without knowledge proves to be fleeting and fadish.”

And R. Kent Hughes also speaks to these truths:

We must understand that Christian love is never a matter of sentimentality. Christian love comes from a work of the Holy Spirit bringing the revelation of Christ through the Word of God. And the more you are in the Word, the more your knowledge of God and Christ will increase, and the more your love will overflow. All the Scriptures speak of Christ (cf. John 5:46)! And each new thing you learn of him will become a fresh reason for loving him. Remember this: a superficial love for God is a sure sign of a superficial knowledge of God. This is why we must give priority to gathered worship with our Bibles and hearts open to God.

The comments of G. Walter Hansen are also worth drawing upon here:

Love is primarily a motive, a desire to give of one’s self to serve the needs of others. But love needs to know how to serve others. Love needs to be instructed by knowledge in order to fulfill its desire to serve. Only a doctor who knows how to make a diagnosis and perform the operation can serve the patient in need of life- saving surgery. As G. K. Chesterton understood, “Love is not blind. Love is bound. And the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Love needs to see clearly and speak truthfully. Love knows how to see and speak.

Image of The Letter to the Philippians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC))
The Letter to the Philippians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary (PNTC)) by Array Amazon logo

The way in which Stephen Fowl describes love as found in this text is also worth presenting:

We will have to shift our notions of love away from the overly romantic and sentimentalized versions of love so common in our current culture. Instead we should see love as a “habit.” Love needs to become an established disposition within us. This does not simply happen overnight. Rather, love becomes a habit for us as we undergo spiritual formation. Over time, through prayer, contemplation, and action we become loving people. To the extent that such a disposition becomes stable within us, we have developed the habit of love. Such love then informs our judgments and actions so that they generate knowledge and moral wisdom. In this way abounding love leads to knowledge and moral wisdom. Paul’s claim in v. 7 also demonstrates this. Remember that Paul’s wisdom and judgments about the Philippians and God’s action in their lives are expressed in the context of prayer and thanksgiving and supported by the love he has for them.

It should thus become clear that love, prayer, knowledge and the wisdom needed to live faithful lives are not separable components of the Christian life. Rather they are a set of interconnected habits which we must seek to cultivate and nurture over a lifetime. Growth in one of these habits will as a matter of course lead to growth in the others. Failure or frustration in one will ultimately manifest itself in more comprehensive forms of failure and frustration.

Let me feature one final quote here. Markus Bockmuehl puts it this way:

We would not normally link love with clarity of understanding and practical judgement: love, indeed, is proverbially thought to be blind! But Christ, it seems, has no place for love that is selfish, indulgent, and lacking in discrimination – nor indeed for knowledge that does not express itself in love. Merely impulsive, undiscerning love cannot stand the test of time….

Knowledge and love are not merely compatible, but mutually necessary: the measure of one is the measure of the other; genuine growth in love goes hand in hand with genuine growth in understanding and the knowledge of God (cf. 2 Pet. 1:7-8). Only love’s knowledge is ‘full knowledge’; but knowledge without love is ‘nothing’ (1 Cor. 13:2). Spicq suggests that verses 9-11 are probably the NT’s most compact and precise statement of the influence of Christian love on intellectual and moral perception.

For more on the importance of having a discerning love, a bounded love, and a knowledgeable love, see this earlier piece of mine: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/12/21/love-actually-biblically-speaking/

Christians of all people should certainly seek to be loving – but loving as defined and delineated by God himself, and not by the world. Biblical love is always about willing the highest good of the other person. It is seeking what is best for another person.

As C. S. Lewis put it, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” And in order to achieve that end, our love MUST be informed, wise, knowledgeable, discerning, righteous and holy – all the things Paul said it should be in Phil. 1:9-11.

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