I’m spending this month with a group of about three dozen students who are reading Philippians over and over and over, trying to reach a point of saturation with this short letter (four chapters and not much over a hundred verses). My starting point for Bible study of this sort is always that the Spirit who inspired this text would inspire our reading of it, that the God whose word this is would speak to us in power. Anybody can contrive to master such a short text, but we are praying for divine action to take place in our reading.
One way to take that plea seriously is to pray, with understanding, the prayer which Paul opens the letter with. He lets his readers know in Philippians 1:9-11 that he is praying for them as follows:
[I]t 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.
The basic prayer is that love would abound, or increase. But Paul immediately adds two fascinating nouns, translated here “knowledge” and “discernment.” He uses an intense word for knowledge (not just gnosis but epi-gnosis), a word more common in later epistles like Colossians and Ephesians where he is conscious of imparting the revelation of “the mystery.” Then he goes on to add “all discernment,” and the appearance of this second noun sets up a dialogue with the first: What’s “discernment” that makes it distinct from knowledge? Is this a contrast, like “information” and “application?” True principles on the one hand, and their specific fit with experience on the other? Theoretical and practical? Understanding and experience? What is the act of understanding which Paul prays for here, consisting of deep knowledge and all discernment?
From that dialogue my mind snaps back to the main point of the prayer: abounding love. It is this love which is the thing that is to abound in knowledge and discernment. Paul is praying for smart love, for love that grows (more and more!) by knowing and discerning. At this point, I desperately wish there were some more nouns (love for God? love for others? love in the abstract? knowledge of what? etc.), but in their absence it still seems possible to say, in a preliminary way, what Paul is after.
When love gets smarter and more discerning, it loves the right things the right way. It does not fixate on the wrong things, alienate its affections from proper objects, does not undervalue the good nor overvalue the trivial. Knowledgeable, discerning love is love that knows what matters and what doesn’t. This love grows by knowing, and knows by tracing outlines and telling differences between objects.
That certainly sets the stage for the next phrase, “so that you may approve what is excellent.” Many of Paul’s prayers feature a “so that” construction. The first part of the prayer is a request that God would cause something to happen, and then comes the hinge phrase “so that,” where the prayer turns to the effects which God’s action will have in the lives of its recipients. Paul prays this way: “I pray that God would do this, so that you will experience and manifest that.”
In this prayer, what follows the “so that” hinge is the phrase, “you may approve what is excellent.” When God makes your love bigger by making it smarter and more discerning, you will have received the ability to recognize what stands out as important and worthy of attention. You can devote your time, energy, concentration, and skills to those things rather than to everything else.
There are obvious connections between this prayer and the rest of Philippians: if the readers of the letter develop minds for what matters, they will see disappointments like Paul’s own imprisonment as one of the things that don’t matter much. They will scan the daily news instead for signs that the Gospel of Jesus is making progress in the world, because that progress of the Gospel is, in Philippians, the thing that matters. They will intelligently redirect their attention from what doesn’t matter, to what does matter. And from there, the blessings mount: to 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
May it be true of all readers of Philippians!