Fuller

Discernment and Love

July 15, 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.

Focus

Love requires difficult decisions. Followers of Christ seek discernment to make those decisions. Although knowledge is important to discernment, discernment doesn’t come merely from facts; it comes out of abounding love. If we want to become more discerning, we should seek to grow in love. If we want to grow in love, we seek to grow in discernment.

Devotion

Life throws decisions at us. They come at us weekly. Daily. Even hourly. Many come to us at work or are related to our jobs—especially though not exclusively when we are in leadership positions. And here’s the hard part: often the answers we need are not cut and dried. While the Bible offers tremendous wisdom and guidance for being disciples of Christ, it is not a detailed instruction manual spelling out all possible situations we might encounter and what to do in each one. What we need is discernment: an ability to perceive what is excellent and true, to have insight into difficult concepts, and especially to make good decisions.

Certainly, there are life questions for which the Bible does have clear guidelines. If you are wondering whether your company should be dishonest in dealings with employees, customers, providers, or the government, I can also answer confidently: no, it should not. Or if you ask me whether you should get involved in an adulterous affair, I will also answer “no,” and will do so with certainty that I have given wise, godly counsel.

But what if you ask which of three applicants you should hire? Which of several job offers should you accept? Whether to sign a particular contract, build a new facility, or take out a loan? If you own or manage a company, I am confident that a Biblical principle is to pay your employees a fair living wage—and, indeed, even to be generous with them, and not to accumulate wealth by exploiting your workers—but it may take a lot more work and consideration to come up with an exact salary figure. I know personally that the past two and a half years have thrown numerous difficult decisions at me in my leadership role as department chair of one of the largest majors at the college where I teach. These challenging decisions have been one of the reasons for my increased stress and anxiety over the past two years.

As with many work-related decisions, questions involving ministry may also have no clear-cut Biblical answer. Should you be involved in a church, reading your Bible and spending time with God daily, and active in discipleship? Yes. Should you take on a new ministry role you have been asked to consider? I don’t know. Nor can I tell you with certainly just from knowledge of scripture which church you should get involved with when you move to a new area, or what treatment you ought to consider for a challenging medical diagnosis? Not only do we approach many of these decisions with uncertainty, but some of our decisions have significant consequences and can cause anguish for us as we struggle to make the best choice.

I think Paul and Timothy must have had something like this in mind in their letter to the Church at Philippi when they wrote in the passage above about insight and discernment. They desired and prayed that the Christians in Philippi would have their love “abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” and that they would “be able to discern what is best.” (The idea of discernment actually comes up twice in these verses. The two-word Greek phrase translated by the NIV in verse 9 as “depth of insight” is translated by both the NAS and RSV as “all discernment.”) I suspect most of us also desire that sort of discernment for ourselves. If every life decision were spelled out for us in an instruction manual, such as with a new appliance or piece of software, discernment would not be necessary. But it is necessary for the lives we lead.

Furthermore, Paul and Timothy didn’t merely pray for knowledge and discernment for the Philippians (though such a prayer would have been good and worthwhile). They prayed something more specific: that the love of the Philippian Christians would abound in these things. That tells me something very important about the sort of discernment I long for: discernment is related to love.

First, it’s important to note that knowledge is important to discernment. This letter to the Philippians ties the two together suggesting that as love abounds in knowledge, that will in turn lead to growing discernment. I will come back to this tomorrow. But discernment doesn’t merely come out of knowledge of facts. Indeed, I suspect that most readers of these devotions can think of people who know a lot of facts but lack wisdom and discernment.

Paul and Timothy however speak of love abounding in knowledge and discernment. I think there are two ways this can be read, and both are true. One way to read this is that if we grow in love—if we let God’s love fill us to overflowing so that it pours out of us—that love will result in discernment. That is, discernment is a fruit of love. What a wonderful idea for those who seek discernment. Do you want to have more insight? Pray to be more loving. Do you want to practice greater discernment in the workplace? Try to be more loving to those around you. This suggests to me something else that Paul once wrote (in 1 Corinthians 13:2): “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.” Love must be at the very heart of our knowledge and discernment, or else that discernment is worthless. So when a challenging work situation arises, and we seek discernment, we might start by asking what is loving.

But there is another way to read this: that growing in knowledge and discernment is a way for our love to grow. One of the very ways love abounds—that is, a way that love has a greater impact on those around us—is through growing discernment. The better able we are to discern, the better able we are to show love; the greater our knowledge, the greater our love. Certainly, we can see this when we consider knowing a person whom we are trying to love—how that knowledge deepens our love. Likewise, as God is the source of our love, knowing God will deepen our love.

Does abounding love lead to discernment or does discernment lead to abounding love? I think the answer is both. I think it is not a misreading of this passage to say that discernment is a part of love, and love is a part of discernment.  The love-discernment relationship is a two-way street. If we are seeking discernment, then we start with love. If we want to be more loving, we seek to grow in discernment.

Reflect

Consider one or two challenging situations or decisions at work, at home, or in ministry right now? What discernment do you seek?

What would it look like for you to be more loving in that situation? Apart from the particulars of the decision, how could love be expressed?

Act

Before making a decision, try loving the people involved in some real practical ways. Pray for growing love—both in general and for particular people you work with or who might be involved in some decisions.

Pray

Father in Heaven, help me to grow in love. Let my love abound in knowledge and insight.

I know you are the very source of love and that your love was expressed fully in Jesus, especially on the cross. Help me to know you more fully so that the love you have will be more fully expressed in my life. And as I grow more loving, also help me to grow more discerning.

I also lift up to you the difficult decisions I am faced with this coming week.

Thank you for your promises that you give us wisdom, and that your Holy Spirit bears in us the fruit of Love. 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 Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: The One Who Began a Good Work Among You Will Bring it to Completion (Philippians 1:1–26)


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