July 16, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture—Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may 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.
Life is full of difficult decisions for which there are often no easy or obvious choices. We all need discernment. Paul and Timothy write that love, knowledge, and discernment go hand in hand. While knowledge of mere facts—and even knowledge of doctrine—can lead to pride, knowing God more deeply is part of growing in love and growing in discernment.
Yesterday I wrote about the difficult decisions we face in life, and our need for insight and discernment.
One of my favorite scenes in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings involves one of the book’s heroic characters, Éomer, who is faced with his own difficult decision. (The scene takes place in The Two Towers, in Chapter 2 of Book 3. If you are familiar with the story, reread the dialogue in this chapter.) As he faces this choice, Éomer laments, “It is hard to be sure of anything.” He then adds, “The world is all gone strange.” I find this passage very relatable. I suspect most of us face decisions for which it is hard to be sure of the right path. I know I do. And the second of those two sentiments is one I can certainly sympathize with. The world definitely seems strange to me, and that doesn’t make my decisions any easier. This leads to the crux of Éomer’s speech, which is his ending question: “How shall a man judge what to do in such times?”
Aragorn’s response shows his wisdom, and also gets at the importance of discernment. How shall a man judge what to do in such times? “As he ever has judged,” he answers Éomer. “Good and ill have not changed since yesterday; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them.” Even if you are unfamiliar with this story, you can notice that Aragorn does not trivialize the difficulty of Éomer’s decision. He doesn’t directly tell Éomer what to do. Instead, he reminds Éomer that there are moral principles he can look to in order to help make those decisions. Good and evil—or “good and ill” as Tolkien writes—are not merely subjective preferences that depend upon our feelings but foundational principles that do not change with time, place, or nationality.
The letter of Paul and Timothy to the church at Philippi also takes seriously the difficulty of life’s decisions. It does not trivialize them. The authors of this letter know that our hard decisions require insight and discernment. God’s word to us does not come like the instruction manuals for the Lego kits my sons put together, with step-by-step instructions detailing exactly what to do at every step. It comes to us primarily in the form of stories, but also in sermons and sometimes in poetry. The stories tell how God has worked and acted in the world, including especially the Gospel story of Jesus. These stories, along with the teachings of the prophets, the apostles, and Jesus himself, help us to know God.
The prayer of Paul and Timothy for the Christians of Philippi is that their love may abound in knowledge and also in another trait we can understand as discernment—which might be described as an ability to perceive what is excellent and true, to have insight into difficult concepts, and to make good decisions. (The NIV translates a phrase in v. 9 as “depth of insight” and a word in v. 10 as “discern”, but other translations use “discernment” in v.9.)
Now if we think of knowledge only as memorization of facts, then it is easy to see that knowledge alone won’t lead to wisdom or discernment. A person can know a lot of facts and still be foolish and unloving. Indeed, even true facts can be weaponized for hate. This has become more and more common in our modern highly divisive culture. Sadly, this is often reflected even within the church, when theological (or political) disagreements are carried out without love. In contrast with these often destructive and divisive practices, Paul and Timothy connect knowledge and discernment with an abounding love. In 1 Corinthians 13:2, Paul even speaks of knowledge without love as being worthless. No matter how correct my doctrine is, or how much I am convinced of the truth of my own position on some divisive issue, if I lack love then I am lacking in discernment.
But there is a deeper type of knowledge that Paul and Timothy are certainly speaking of that goes beyond mere facts and beyond even correct doctrinal statements. Most importantly, it is knowledge of God himself and the ways of God. That is, it is the type of knowledge we gain when we spend time with God, and in God’s word: when we spend time reading the stories of how God has worked in the world, and when we are deeply rooted in both the example of Jesus and the teachings of Jesus, and when we spend time just being with Jesus and listening to the Holy Spirit. That sort of knowledge is foundational to discernment.
Does the Bible give step-by-step instructions for every decision you will face? No. But spending time with God and with the Bible helps us grow in the knowledge that will lead to discernment. That doesn’t make every decision suddenly become simple, but—like Aragorn’s reminder to Éomer—it provides a foundation for us to seek discernment.
Of course, that brings us back to the other foundation, which is love. Aragorn does not tell Éomer that he has just faced his anguished decision-making moment. Aragorn had three choices before him. Two of them seemed strategically more advantageous: more likely to result in the ends toward which he strove. But one of the most important principles of Tolkien’s work is that ends do not justify means. Aragorn instead chose to act based on love (of two friends named Merry and Pippin), taking the path that seemed at the time to be least strategic. Biblical discernment does not simply look at the ends; it considers the means. Good and evil have not changed. Love is still the best way. And the deepest knowledge and discernment will always flow out of, and back into, love.
Can you think of times that a deeper knowledge of Scripture or the ways of God informed a difficult decision of yours when you didn’t see any obvious moral guidance? Can you think of a time that you chose to let love be the primary factor in discernment in a difficult situation? What did love look like?
How have you experienced conflicts or divisiveness in the workplace or in your worship community where being “right” seemed more important than being loving? What has it looked like when people have had disagreements in love over important issues?
Spend time today in a way to help you know God better. Either spend some extra time reading Scripture, or praying, or just being quiet and listening to God—or ideally all three.
In a situation at work or at church where there is disagreement in discerning God’s leading, practice loving the person you disagree with. (That does not mean you have to agree with them.)
Lord God, I desire to grow in love, I desire to grow knowledge, and I really need discernment for so many decisions. I don’t claim to know a formula for how love, knowledge, and discernment relate to each other, but the prayer of Paul and Timothy for the people of Philippi is really appealing to me. Please let my own love abound in knowledge and deep insights so that I might be more discerning, better able to know what is true and excelling, and better equipped to make the decisions that come my way.
And yet, Lord… and yet… may it never be more important to me to prove that I’m right about something than it is to love.
I pray that you would do this for your own glory because you alone are worthy of glory. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Spiritual Futurists: Gospel Laboratories (Philippians 1 Sermon Notes)
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.