The last year has revealed much about us, for good and for bad. Trials expose us, confront us, and purify us, and God has given us trials of various kinds. Who knows what the next months or weeks — or even hours — may bring?
Should we gather as a church despite the virus, or not? Should we wear masks, or not? Was an officer’s use of force warranted? Was a shooting racially motivated? Should we march? What should we say (or tweet)? Should we say anything at all? Are we experiencing a climate catastrophe? What should we say, as Christians, about this presidency? Should we vote for this party or that party, this candidate or that candidate, or for someone who will never win?
The complexity of our challenges and sorrows — relational and political, medical and financial, mental and spiritual — uncovers two dangerous and rival impulses in us.
In difficult or confusing circumstances, confronted with conflicting reports and emotional pleas for help or compassion, we often either analyze and judge without love, or fling ourselves into love without careful discernment.
Even within one human heart — my human heart — we can feel ourselves swinging back and forth between these distant poles, each enough right to earn our trust and devotion, and yet enough wrong to distract our souls and undermine our witness. We need, as much today as ever, the strange marriage in an ancient prayer:
It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment. (Philippians 1:9)
Love and discernment. Discernment and love. We may rarely see the two together in real life, and yet wisdom hides in the wedding of the two. God has joined them, perfectly in Christ and now increasingly in us, so that we might shine — patient, courageous, humble, peaceful, hopeful, faithful, different — in especially dark, divisive, and troubling days like ours.
Love Without Discernment
The first failure, in the midst of crisis or upheaval, would be for us to try to pursue love while laying aside discernment. “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more,” Paul says, “with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9). Love without discernment deciphers reality and makes decisions (often subconsciously) based mainly on what others want and feel. It is a capitulating love, a shallow and often superficial love, usually a dishonest love. This kind of love has an allergy to hard questions, and a sweet tooth for the approval of others.
Far from making love less loving, however, true discernment only deepens and furthers love. As Paul says in his prayer, this love abounds not despite knowledge and discernment, but with knowledge and discernment. Knowledge and discernment are not just boxes for love to check; they are some of love’s strongest roots.
What is knowledge? Knowledge is an accurate awareness of reality, especially spiritual reality, acquired through education or experience. We know that spiritual knowledge is ultimately always a gift of God because of how Paul prays for it (Philippians 1:9; Ephesians 1:17; 1 Corinthians 2:13–14). But though knowledge is a gift, we still “toil” and “struggle” to grow in it (Colossians 1:29–2:3), in large part by submitting to faithful teaching (Ephesians 4:11–13).
So, the knowledge we need is supernaturally distributed by God through careful, even rigorous, attention to his word. We receive it, and we must increase in it (Colossians 1:9–10).
And what is discernment? Discernment is the ability to judge well, especially to judge the way God might judge in any given situation.
Though the two are intricately related, even overlapping, discernment is more elusive because it puts knowledge to work in real life. It is one thing to define right and wrong, good and evil abstractly, but it is another, more challenging task to distinguish them in reality — in real relationships, in real headlines, in real crises. And again, while our ability to discern well is ultimately given by God, we know that it is also “trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Constant practice. If no other good has come from the events of the past year, it has certainly challenged us to do what God calls us to do at all times: to continually grow in discernment.
Love puts on discernment. And not just some discernment, but “all” discernment (Philippians 1:9) — a thorough and expanding discernment, a listening, learning, and questioning discernment, a rarely assuming discernment. A relentless discernment that reinforces an even more relentless love. While debates rage and kingdoms totter and viruses spread, we do not need light or easy love. We need the weight and durability of discerning love.
Discernment Without Love
But lest the more discerning among us begin to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, Paul prays not ultimately for discernment, but for love. And not just any love, but an abounding love.
While some fall into a vague and untethered love driven along by the fear of man, others of us are so busy and determined with asking all the right questions that we never actually love. The investigation, not the people with real needs, becomes the focus, even fascination. We excuse ourselves from love by heralding discernment. This kind of person often reads extensively, but prays little. He slowly becomes suspicious of the needy, and calloused when he could be compassionate.
As important as discernment is, Paul prays here that love, not discernment, would abound more and more. If our discernment sounds more and more cynical and indifferent, it is emphatically not the discernment for which Paul is praying. Godly discernment catalyzes and strengthens love. It lights hearts on fire to take risks in love. It may not be the love others want — very often, it won’t be the kind of love or support others want, expect, or even demand. But it is love all the same — a deep desire and commitment to serve (and sacrifice for) the eternal good of others.
While debates rage and kingdoms totter and viruses spread, we do not need aloof analysis or cynical speculation. We need the warmth and devotion of loving discernment.
Filled with Discerning Love
Practicing love and discernment is not merely about survival in a fallen world. Heaven and hell are at stake, in some real way, by how well we love and discern. The apostle Paul prays that the church’s love would abound 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” (Philippians 1:10–11).
If we don’t abound in love and discernment, if we don’t learn to identify and approve what is excellent and true, we won’t be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. This purity and blamelessness is not the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, but the righteousness he graciously works in us and through us (Philippians 2:12–13) — not perfection, but the genuine purity and blamelessness that marks God’s people off from the world (Philippians 2:15). And if we are not pure and blameless for the day of Christ — in real and increasing measure — then he will turn us away on the day of Christ (Matthew 7:21–23; Hebrews 12:14).
As unprepared as we have felt for the unprecedented days of the last year, how much worse to be found unprepared for that great and fearful day to come? We should long to be filled with the fruit of righteousness, as Paul prays, filled with an abounding love marked by an increasingly refined discernment.
Practicing — really practicing — love and discernment is not merely about winning an argument or being on the right side of history, but about being right before God for eternity. If we want to glorify God in all we do, we cannot settle for discernment without real love. If we want to be more and more like Jesus, we cannot settle for love without real discernment. If we want to make a difference in dark days like these, we need real love filled with real knowledge and discernment in the very real pressures and complexities we have been given.