“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 until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.”
How would you rate your prayer life? If you had to give yourself a grade, would it be an A, B, C, D, or F? Or would you choose the word “incomplete”? Before you decide on an answer, let’s phrase the question another way. Is your prayer life A) Excellent, B) Above average, C) Average, D) Below average, or F) “I need big help!” Probably many of us would choose F simply because we feel our prayer life truly does need help.
As we think about prayer, let’s begin with three simple statements:
1. Prayer is both the easiest and hardest discipline of the Christian life. It is the easiest in that the youngest child and the newest Christian can learn to pray. Even the slightest motion of the soul toward God is a form of genuine prayer. If a person says, “Lord, have mercy,” he is truly praying. But prayer is also the hardest discipline. It is difficult to maintain a consistent prayer life. In a sense it is easy to enroll in the School of Prayer but hard to get a graduate degree.
2. Almost everyone prays, believers and non-believers, and almost everyone feels he can improve in this area. Even in our best moments, we still must admit that we have barely touched the hem of the Master’s garment in the arena of prayer.
3. Prayer presents us with both theological and practical problems. On one level, we are faced with difficult questions regarding the sovereignty of God and human free will. While those questions are important, I am not going to address them in this chapter. I would rather tackle the challenge of prayer on a purely practical level. When we pray, what should we pray for? I am much more interested in the “what” and “how” of prayer that pertains to us every day.
“Prayer is the very sword of the saints,” said Francis Thompson. If that is true, why do we often keep the sword in the scabbard? Lee Roberson called prayer “the Christian’s secret weapon, forged in the realms of glory.” Why, then, do we not use it more effectively? Often we simply don’t know what to say when we pray. I’m thinking especially of those moments when we begin to pray for others beyond our most intimate circle. What do you do when you have a large list of people to pray for, including friends, loved ones, neighbors, co-workers, missionaries, and others whom you hardly know at all? Our usual response is to pray like this: “Lord, uh . . . uh . . . uh . . . bless Sally.” Then we go to the next name: “And . . . uh . . . please bless Bill.” Then we go to the next name: “Uh . . . Lord, I ask You to really bless our missionaries in Ghana.” And on it goes. As one man remarked, if you took the word “bless” out of our prayer vocabularies, some of us would never pray again. While I believe it is perfectly appropriate to ask God to bless people, I think we can move far beyond that and, in so doing, dramatically increase the effectiveness of our prayers. We can use Paul’s prayers for the Philippians as blueprints for powerful praying. Philippians 1:9–11 is a prayer that fits virtually every situation we may face. If we understand the meaning of Paul’s words, we can truly pray for anyone about anything.
This is a case where we do not have to wonder about the theme of Paul’s prayer. It is spelled out for us in verse 10. The heart of his prayer is his request “that you may be able to discern what is best.” This is a prayer for spiritual discernment. Here’s my version of Paul’s prayer:
I pray that you will know:
The good from the bad,
The better from the good, and
The best from the better.
As I thought about this request, my mind drifted to the motto of the public high school in the village where I live. If you look at the school’s Web site, it contains a shield with a Greek word written across it. The word is tagarista, which means “those things that are best.” It’s a noble goal—both for a high school and for an individual’s life—to pursue tagarista. The people who proposed this motto for the high school understood that there is a moral dimension to all education. That is, the very notion that there is “the best” presupposes a better, a good, a not-so-good, and a definitely bad. You can hardly choose “those things that are best” unless you know what they are, and you cannot know what they are unless you know what is “the best.” This means that education in its truest sense is more than the impartation of facts about geometry, biology, American history, or English literature. It is also an understanding of a moral framework that enables us to make proper judgments about the good, the better, and the best (not to mention the bad, the very bad, and the worst). But apart from God, how will we know the good from the bad, the better from the good, and the best from the better? The answer is, we won’t. Education alone will never lead us to tagarista. Education gives us knowledge, but to choose those things that are best, we need the wisdom that comes from God, and that’s why Paul prayed this prayer.
Paul’s prayer begins with three requests for the Philippian believers. As we pray for others, we should feel perfectly free to include these three requests as our own.
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (Philippians 1:9a). Imagine an empty cup slowly being filled with water. When the water reaches the brim, it begins to overflow down the sides of the cup. That’s the picture Paul has in mind—love filling the hearts of the Philippians until it overflows. Almost all of Paul’s prayers in the New Testament begin with a petition for love. That’s because love is supreme among the Christian virtues. It alone will last forever (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13). No matter how much love we have, our love can always increase. He is praying that they would love more people and would love them in a greater way. We might ask if Paul is thinking about (1) love for God, (2) love for fellow Christians, and/or (3) love for non-Christians. The answer of course is yes, all of the above. The text is not specific because our love for God is always tied to our love for other people. If a man says he loves God and hates his brother, he is a liar (1 John 4:20). Love is the supreme grace. You can never have too much of it. You can never have enough of it. Paul is saying, “I pray that God will make you an overflowing fountain of love.” He is praying that they might become “Super Lovers.” There is an amazing scene at the end of the movie Marvin’s Room.1 Bessie, played by Diane Keaton, has cared for her ill father and her aunt for twenty years. After learning that she has leukemia, Bessie receives a visit from her estranged sister, Lee, played by Meryl Streep. Bessie tells Lee, “I’ve been lucky to have had so much love in my life.” Lee agrees that their father and aunt really do love her. Bessie seems taken aback for a moment. Her sister doesn’t understand. Bessie doesn’t mean she’s lucky to be loved; she means she is lucky to have had so much love to give to others.
Lucky to love. What an amazing perspective. If we are full of God’s love, it will overflow to others. It’s not enough to be kind and polite. Our love must constantly be growing. So I ask a question at this point: Why does Paul pray for overflowing love? The answer is that when hard times come, we naturally start to pull away from other people and start focusing on our own problems. Sometimes Christian love is the first casualty of hard times. It’s so easy to become self-centered, demanding, and myopic. If our marriage is in trouble, that’s all we talk about. If our children are not doing well, that’s all we talk about. If we have health problems, that’s all we talk about. If we have lost a job, that’s all we talk about. It’s all about us, our problems, our struggles, and our hardships. We hardly have time or energy for anything else. And sometimes our distress is so great that we become vicious, turning on those we love the most. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some people build walls through their trials that keep people an arm’s length away. Others build bridges so they can connect with and serve God’s people. I received a wonderful note from a friend who wrote:
“Life is so good with God in the center. Now problems turn into solutions, fear turns into hope, anger turns to love. I’m free in God, and it’s the best place to be. I’ve learned to take risks and face challenges. I take no credit for any of this. To God be all the glory. He never let go. He took me from a bitter, unhappy, depressed alcoholic and gave me the wings of eagles, soaring to heights I never dreamed possible. He’s given me his words to share with other alcoholics, restored my family, and filled me with his love each day.”
That testimony is wonderful in many respects, not least because it perfectly illustrates what it means to have love overflowing in your life. Only God can do that, and He does it wherever He can find a willing heart.
It’s easy to understand why Paul’s prayer begins with love. Since we live in a fallen world, we often find ourselves surrounded by irritable, petulant, cranky, annoying, aggravating, frustrating, crabby, unreasonable, and cantankerous people. And that’s on a good day! Sometimes people will do or say foolish things to deliberately irritate us. And let’s face it—some people are just very hard to love. What do we do then? There are many answers to that question, but our text suggests one very practical answer: We should pray for our love to increase.
It’s one thing to pray, “Lord, get this fool away from me before I say something I shouldn’t,” and it’s another thing to pray, “Lord, please change this person so he won’t be so obnoxious.” But it’s something else entirely to pray, “Lord, I really don’t care for this person. I don’t like this person. He gets on my nerves. He’s a total jerk. He’s a bossy, dominating, opinionated fool. I don’t even want to love him or like him, and I prefer not to be around him at all. I now ask you to bypass my feelings and do whatever it takes to increase my love. I’m low on love, Lord, and I ask You to fill me up.” That’s a prayer God will be glad to answer. By the way, I’m in favor of honest prayer. Why not be straightforward with God about the way we feel? David poured out his soul to the Lord and in the process used colorful language to describe his enemies. God knows how you feel anyway. It’s not as if when you say that you can’t stand someone the Lord says, “I’m surprised to hear that. I thought you liked them.”
On more than one occasion I have poured out my frustrations about people to the Lord and then said, “Lord, You know how I feel. I now ask You to overlook all that I’ve said and bless the person anyway.” And then, “Lord, do a work of healing in my heart so that I can love as I ought.” Love is the glue that holds the human race together. It enables us to overlook the faults of others while acknowledging that we ourselves are far from perfect.
“In knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9b). Paul’s prayer continues with a request that the Philippians might grow in their knowledge of God. This sort of knowledge goes beyond factual information. It is a kind of knowing that comes from a deep, personal, and intimate relationship with another person. In context, Paul is asking that their love express itself in an intimate knowledge of who God is. The Greek word for “insight” speaks of moral discrimination, the ability to look at various options and to say, “This one is good. That’s not so good. This one is better. That one is best.”
Sometimes we say, “Love is blind.” On the contrary, God says, “Love needs clear vision.” Our love needs the guidance of knowledge and deep insight or else we will end up loving things we ought not to love —and entering into relationships that are not good for us. While love is supreme, it is never enough.
Not every relationship is a good relationship.
Not every choice is a good choice.
Not every friendship is good for us.
Not every job is a wise career move.
Not every roommate is a healthy choice.
Not every purchase is a wise use of our money.
We make our choices, and then our choices turn around and make us. As a tiny rudder guides a massive ship, our lives often turn on small decisions and unexpected events. An unplanned phone call, a chance conversation in the hallway, a friend we “happened” to meet in a restaurant, a fragment of a remembered dream, a book we meant to return but didn’t, the dry cleaning we forgot to pick up, a newspaper story that led to an idea that became a dissertation topic that earned a degree that opened a door to a job in another country. It happens all the time. Every day we make hundreds of decisions, most of them made either by habit or on the spur of the moment.
On and on the questions go. Hundreds of questions, one after another, little decisions made on the fly every day. We like to think those decisions don’t matter, but they do because each decision is connected to every other decision, like so many links in the chain of life itself. In a profound sense you are the sum total of all the choices you have made stretching back to your childhood. Each little decision joins you to the past and leads inexorably into the future. Choices aren’t “neutral,” since each one either leads us toward the light of God or toward the darkness of despair. Some things that don’t seem to matter today may be of enormous consequence tomorrow, and some things that keep us awake for hours will prove to be relatively unimportant. We need “insight” from God to make wise choices. Here’s a good way to remember the concept of insight. It is “sight” on the inside, a kind of inner vision that enables us to properly evaluate all the choices we face every day. When we have it, we make good decisions. And when we don’t have it, we end up making the same dumb mistakes over and over again.
Where do we find this kind of insight? First, we get insight from the Word of God with the aid of the Holy Spirit. As we study the Bible, the Holy Spirit takes the Word of God and reveals to us the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:6–16). Let a man dive into the Scriptures with an open heart, and very soon his whole life will begin to change. In essence, Paul wants the Philippians to learn to think “Christianly” in every situation. Second, we get insight from the Lord in the answers to our prayers. So if you are confused, or if you find yourself in a deep hole because of wrong choices made over and over again, humbly ask God for the insight to make the right choices in life. That leads directly to the third petition, which is the heart of the prayer.
“So that you may be able to discern what is best” (Philippians 1:10a). Eugene Peterson (THE MESSAGE) offers this colorful paraphrase, “You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.” KNOX translates this way: “that you may learn to prize what is of value.” The NEB speaks of the “gift of true discrimination.” The NLT offers this translation: “I want you to understand what really matters.” The Greek word for “discern” was used to describe the process of testing metals, such as gold ore and coins, to find out what they were worth. There is gold, and then there is “fool’s gold.” It looks like gold to the naked eye, but it isn’t, and it’s not worth anything. Too many Christians settle for “fool’s gold” in the choices they make.
Paul prays that the Philippians would have such love and insight that they would continually make wise choices in life. He is praying that they would not be satisfied with the status quo or with spiritual mediocrity but would push on to true spiritual excellence. In a sense he is asking God for the gift of spiritual discrimination. In our day the word “discrimination” has a mostly negative tone, but in the spiritual realm we desperately need to discriminate between good and bad, good and better, better and best. This kind of discrimination is the ability to make wise choices under pressure. God’s people need to learn discernment so that they can make wise choices under pressure.
Parents with young children understand this principle. As children grow up, we will correct them by saying, “The choice that you made was not good.” Last Friday night my wife and I sat in the stands watching a high school football game. At one point one of the players from our local high school committed a foul, and the referee threw his flag. Marlene turned to me and said, “He didn’t make a good choice.”
“No, he didn’t,” I replied. “He hit the ball carrier after the whistle blew.”
This is an important prayer request for parents to offer on behalf of their children. Pray that your children (and your grandchildren) learn to make wise choices under pressure. This is crucial because most of us can make wise choices if we have two days to think about it. But life usually doesn’t work that way, especially for the young. They have to make split-second decisions every day about what they will wear, where they will go, who they will go with, what jokes they will tell, what music they will listen to, what movies they will watch, and whether or not they will stand up for their faith. Young people today are on the firing line all the time. Pray for your children that they will have wisdom from God to choose what is best when they don’t have much time to make up their minds.
There are really two parts to making wise choices: First, you must know what is right. We live in a world where many people have lost all sense of right and wrong. Everything appears to them as shades of gray. Second, you must have the courage to choose what you know to be right. I happened to catch a few minutes of a televised speech by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. During the question time someone asked how he managed to deal with all the criticism that comes to anyone in a high-profile position. He replied that the most important thing in life is to discover what you believe to be true and then to stand up for those beliefs no matter what. He then added these words: “If you do what you know is right, it doesn’t matter what people think.” True discernment gives you vision to see what is right and then the courage to choose to do it.
Paul’s prayer continues with the results that flow from the three requests just mentioned—love, knowledge, and discernment.
“And may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10b). Note two key words in this phrase. The word “pure” comes from two other words that mean “judgment” and “sunlight.” In the first century the shops were often dimly lit, which meant that prospective customers would have trouble viewing the wares. When they took the pottery or the fabric into the sunlight, they could see it as it really was. The sunlight revealed the truth and allowed the customer to make a proper judgment. You can’t determine the value of an object until you can see it clearly. To be pure means to live in such a way that the truth about who you are is clear. It means that people don’t have to wonder about what you are doing in the darkness because you have nothing to hide. To be “pure” means to be a “sunlight” Christian. Your life is consistent no matter where you happen to be or who happens to be with you.
You are the same in the darkness as you are in the light.
You are the same at midnight as you are at high noon.
You are the same on the job, or at school, as you are in church on Sunday morning.
You are the same behind closed doors as you are in public.
In Greek, the word “blameless” derives from a word with an opposite meaning. This word, “scandal,” originally referred to the bait in a trap that would catch unsuspecting animals. It came to mean a lifestyle that caused others to fall into sin. In contrast, a “blameless” person is free from moral scandal. You don’t stumble into sin, and you don’t cause others to stumble by your behavior.
To be pure and blameless means to be “above reproach,” which is a quality demanded of spiritual leaders (1 Timothy 3:2). Leaders’ words, motives, and actions are questioned and criticized. A leader who is truly above reproach weathers the storm because there is nothing about him which a person could say, “Aha! Gotcha.” This means no questionable conduct, no secret sins, and no deliberately unresolved conflicts. The word “integrity” sums it up well. A man or woman with integrity has nothing hidden because there is nothing to hide.
Several years ago my older brother took me to visit a cemetery outside Florence, Alabama, near the remains of a mansion called Forks of Cypress. James Jackson, an early settler of northwest Alabama, built it in the 1820s. My brother and I walked among the ruins of the mansion and then crossed the country road into the dense forest on the other side. After about a quarter-mile we found the Jackson family cemetery. There was no sign marking the spot, only a five-foot-high stone wall surrounding about fifty graves. Inside we found a tall marker over James Jackson’s grave with a long inscription extolling his virtues, which were many.
As I walked along, my gaze locked on the marker for one of his sons. There was a name, a date of birth, and a date of death, and this simple five-word epitaph: “A man of unquestioned integrity.”
Five words to sum up an entire life. Sixty-plus years distilled into five words. But, oh, what truth they tell.
“A man of unquestioned integrity.” I cannot think of a better tribute.
“Filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:11a). The Bible often uses the metaphor of a fruit tree to describe both the life of the righteous and the life of the wicked. Regarding false prophets, Jesus declared that by their fruit we would know them (Matthew 7:20). That’s precisely what Paul is praying for—the fruit of visible Christian character. A fruitful life is one that is distinctively Christian in every aspect. It reminds me of the question, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The fruitful life can always answer “yes.”
Note that this fruit comes “through Jesus Christ.” As we are rooted deeply in Him, and as we draw our strength from Him, His power flows through us and produces the “fruit of righteousness” in us. He is the root, and His power produces the fruit.
“To the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11b). Don’t look for the word “theo-doxic” in your dictionary, because I made it up. “Theo” means “God” and “doxic” means “glory” (as in the word “doxology”). A “theo-doxic” life is one that brings glory or praise to God. Such a person actually magnifies God’s reputation in the world.
When people see you, do they naturally think about God? Does your life serve as a good advertisement for the Lord Jesus Christ? I grew up in a small town in Alabama where my father was a well-known and well-loved surgeon. I was one of four sons—Andy, Ray, Alan, and Ron. Often I was introduced with these words: “This is one of Dr. Pritchard’s sons.” Because I bore my father’s name, I knew I had an obligation not to ruin his name by the way I lived—and to bring honor to him if I could. My father died thirty years ago, and I still miss him today. With the passing of each year, there are fewer and fewer people who knew my father. And since I live hundreds of miles from where I grew up, I rarely meet anyone who knew him. But the length of time that he has been gone does not in any way lessen the sacred responsibility I have to honor his name—to live up to the things he taught me, to try to be as good a man as he was, and to live in such a way so that people who never knew him will look at me and say, “His father must have been a good man,” and the people who knew my dad will say, “Your father would be proud of you.”
But that is not the only name I bear. As a child of God, I bear the name of my heavenly Father. Honoring His name means living in such a way that I help more people to know Him. When I’ve done it well, people who don’t know God will look at my life and say, “He must have a great God” and God will look down from heaven with a smile and say, “That’s my boy!”
Have you ever heard Ruth Bell Graham’s definition of a saint? A saint is a person who makes it easy to believe in Jesus. When we live for “the glory and praise of God,” we’ll be saints who make it easy for others to believe in Jesus.
Before we finish, let’s step back and consider how great this prayer is. One nineteenth-century writer called it “The Life of God in the Soul of Man.” In some ways that phrase summarizes all that God wants to do in us and through us:
1. It starts with abounding love,
2. That manifests itself in knowledge and discernment,
3. Resulting in the ability to make wise choices under pressure,
4. Producing the visible fruit of a righteous life,
5. That comes from a living relationship with Jesus Christ,
6. So that God alone gets the glory.
Who are you praying for today? Remember that prayer is not a ritual but a matter of the heart. To pray for someone else is an act of hidden kindness that only God sees. And because God alone sees your heart, He will hear your prayer and reward you in secret. We can touch people through prayer that we couldn’t touch any other way. Prayer is the secret sword of the saints. Use it! God gave you a secret weapon so that by your prayer you can change the world.
When you boil it all down to the essentials, Paul prayed for tagarista. He prayed that the Philippians would have the wisdom to choose the best things in life. And he didn’t mean “the best things” in general; he meant God’s best for them. This is an inspiring thought and a good way to organize our prayers.
Do you want God’s best for others?
Pray this prayer!
Do you want God’s best in your own life?
Pray this prayer!
Do you want God’s best in your family?
Pray this prayer!
Do you want God’s best in your church?
Pray this prayer!
May God deliver us from second-best Christianity!
May God deliver us from spiritual mediocrity!
Lord Jesus, grant that my love may overflow so that I will love the irritating people I meet. I pray for insight to see beyond the external and the immediate to see what really matters so that I can make wise choices under pressure. Make me a “sunlight” Christian who makes it easy for others to believe in You. May my life bring glory to Your name. Amen.