Thoughtful Love

Jesus told us to love our neighbours, and even our enemies, so basically to love everyone. What does that even look like? Does that mean just having warm, fuzzy feelings for everyone? Does it mean just being polite?

Loving people can sound like a nice platitude, but what does it look like on the ground, when the rubber meets the road?

In Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi we read a prayer of Paul’s, which if it were to be answered in our lives, will help us love others well. So what is it?

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.

Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)

Notice that Paul is not simply praying for more and more love, as if more and more warm fuzzy feelings toward each other would make a difference. He is praying for love that grows in knowledge and full insight, so that they will know what is best. Translations use various words here including knowledge, discernment, understanding, insight, perception, and even intelligence.

So what does it mean for our love to grow in knowledge and depth of insight? What does it look like to love someone with intelligence and thoughtfulness?

First, love that grows in knowledge and full insight is love that grows in knowledge of, and insight into, the love of God. This would mean love that perceives what generosity looks like, love that has insight into what grace looks like, love that knows what reconciliation feels like, and love that knows what it feels like to be forgiven. This is love that has learned the art of love from God.

When we have experienced the love of God in our lives through Jesus, we learn what love looks like between people. Our love for others grows in generosity, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and all such things.

The knowledge and full insight Paul speaks of is not limited to Biblical knowledge. It can include knowledge and insight gained from other sources.

When our love is growing in knowledge, it can be knowledge we gain from science and the world of medicine. As an example, we might feel quite justified for being miffed if someone in our family forgets our name. Knowing something about Altzheimer’s disease, I do not get angry when my Mum forgets mine. I have adjusted my expectations. Love that is growing in knowledge makes such adjustments.

Likewise, if we in a relationship with someone with a mental illness, learning something about that illness will help us know what love looks like in that particular relationship.

When our love is growing in knowledge, it can be knowledge we gain from wise people who have learned how the world works. We can give as an example the knowledge we gain from Gary Chapman in his series on “The 5 Love Languages.” Gary lists these love languages as,

  • words of affirmation
  • physical touch
  • the giving and receiving of gifts
  • quality time
  • acts of service

How does it work? Consider, for example, a father who gives many gifts to his daughter, but never spends time with her. Now suppose his primary love language, the way he expresses love, and feels loved, is through the giving and receiving of gifts. And suppose the daughter’s primary love language, the way she expresses love, and feels loved in return, is through spending time with people. This daughter may sit someday on a therapist’s couch lamenting that her father never loved her. In fact he did, and expressed it in the way he knew how. But he was not speaking her language.

There is so much more that can be said about all this, so I will encourage you to look into Gary Chapman’s books and resources. The point here is that knowing how people express and receive love in different ways can really help us love with knowledge and insight. This is another way by which our love can grow in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we will know what is best.

When our love is growing in insight, it can be insight from the experience. As an example, if you think same-sex attraction is a choice rather than something that just is for some people, it can really affect what you think love looks like toward a gay person. Consider if one’s child comes out as gay in the teen years. If you take the traditional viewpoint, you may think that the most loving thing you can do is get your child to change his or her mind, to fix them. The experience of many gay people, however, is that, a) they did not choose it, and b) it can be a very difficult journey, a journey which goes down a path of self-harm for some.

What, therefore, does love that is growing in knowledge and insight look like when one’s child comes out as gay? If I could go back to the moment one of my son’s came out as gay, I would now say “What has that journey been like for you? How are you?” I didn’t say anything really bad, but I didn’t say anything particularly thoughtful either. At that moment I did not love with knowledge and insight and say what was best. There is no doubt that Christian parents, while being so often motivated by love, can seem quite unloving due to a lack of knowledge and insight.

When our love is growing in knowledge, it can be knowledge we gain from studying history. As an example, we might think that once slavery was abolished in the United States, that was the end of racism. History records otherwise. When we study the history of how people of colour have been treated differently ever since, then we are in a better position to discern what love looks like in these days of racial tensions. Let those of us who are white, commit to a journey of learning.

When our love is growing in perception, it can be knowledge we gain from having open eyes to see the needs around us. Then we need the discernment to know what can be done about the needs around us. To give an example, while pastoring in Ottawa I had the opportunity to begin building a relationship with a homeless man. He explained that he would get off the alcohol in an institution, then would be set up in a room in a dwelling with people who were hooked on drugs and alcohol. Of course he went back to such things himself. He found living on the street to be far better. If we as society have a love growing in knowledge and depth of insight, we will figure out a better solution.

Loving people goes way beyond having affection for them, warm feelings, or wishing them the best. We can think we are doing the most loving thing, but when our love lacks discernment, it may not be the best thing. As I’ve often heard said, love is a verb. Since love is an activity, love requires action. Action requires decision. Decisions are always best when made with discernment, understanding, insight, and knowledge.

If Paul’s prayer for love that is growing in knowledge and insight is answered in our lives, it can make a huge difference in our capacity to love. If we love with discernment, it will make a huge difference in the lives of others, indeed it can change the world. God’s discerning love is the prime example of a thoughtful love that changes everything!

(This reflection can be seen as part of our “online worship expression” from September 13th.)

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