A Prayer for Our Church

Philippians 1:9-11

In the year 2000, twelve jurors in Kentucky used an unconventional method to decide the verdict for Phillip Givens, who had been accused of killing his girlfriend. Of the twelve jurors, ten were open-minded, while one insisted on a verdict of manslaughter, and another insisted on murder. Unable to choose and seemingly unaware that they could request a mistrial, they decided to make a choice by flipping a coin – heads for murder, tails for manslaughter, with murder winning to toss.

Thankfully, the presiding judge heard about this unusual method and declared a mistrial. Imagine being sentenced to life in prison because a jury flipped a coin? Let’s hope this doesn’t happen very often!

A story like this draws attention to a major source of anxiety that we all face on a regular basis – the pressure of making decisions. This pressure rises when we face decisions of all kinds, from low-scale choices like what food to order at a restaurant, to medium-scale choices like what car to buy and how to invest your money, to large-scale choices like where to live, who to marry, and what treatment option is best for a critical illness.

The unrelenting pressure of making decisions tends to increase our anxiety and decrease our joy. The stress of making decisions at the front end and second-guessing decisions at the back end dominates daily a large percentage of our mental focus and emotional energy.

For some, this difficulty magnifies through the paralysis of analysis, which is the tendency to overthink decisions, leading to indecision and procrastination. For others, this difficulty magnifies through impulsiveness, which is the tendency to make decisions without thinking, leading to second-guessing and the pain that comes from the consequences of bad decisions.

As followers of Christ, we cannot escape the pressure of making decisions, but we can learn to make decisions in a way that leads to increased joy rather than increased anxiety. Paul speaks to this in Phil 1:9-11 when he reveals how he was praying for the believers in the church at Philippi. Knowing of their increased bout with anxiety as individuals and a church, he prayed that God would transform their decision-making mindset.

From this brief summary of Paul’s prayer for these believers, we see that joy increases and anxiety decreases when we learn to make decisions that are rooted in love.

Observe with me how Paul’s flow of thought develops here. The NKJV is helpful because it provides a key function word repeated three times that helps us read Paul’s thoughts in a purposeful way: “that your love may abound…,” “that you may approve…,” and “that you may be sincere…” These three uses of that connect one thought to the next and then finish with a different kind of expression, “being filled…,” which is a confident expression of what Paul believes will be the outcome of his prayer.

Love should motivate all our choices.
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment,

With this prayer, Paul highlights a crucial aspect of good decision-making, which is our inner heart motivations. This is important to recognize because as human beings, our choices are more significant than a mere logical conclusion, mathematical equation, fact-finding mission, or scientific discovery.

Though good decision making should definitely aim to make the correct and right decision, when such certainty is possible, and should indeed be governed by truth and by facts, we are not animals, chatbots, or robots.  As human beings made in the image of God, we enjoy and exhibit a unique personal and relational nature.

As such, we have the opportunity to know God and other people better, to draw closer to God and people through our choices. Due to this unique relational dynamic, we experience a deep, inner affection for the people and causes we care about. We commonly call these causes “core values” or something similar and this inner heart affection “love.”

This relational, affectional dynamic causes at least two unique dilemmas which animals or other non-human entities do not experience:

  • One such dilemma occurs when we make decisions which Christ commands in an unaffected, uncaring way. We can do these necessary things, for instance, like studying the Bible, praying, participating in Christian ministry activities, and giving financially to church efforts, but doing so may actually increase anxiety and decrease your joy if you are not doing these things in love.
  • Another such dilemma occurs when we face choices that appear either equal, inconsequential, or neutral, such as which career path to follow or how to use discretionary money and time. Because of our personal, relational nature, such “neutral” decisions carry greater significance because they will ultimately be driven by and reveal what we love and value most at the moment.

Paul understands this unique, personal dynamic we share as human beings made in God’s image and understands that we can enjoy true joy and satisfaction only when we to love and value what God himself loves and values. When we value secondary, selfish, or sinful priorities, then even good decisions or seemingly neutral decisions will lead to more anxiety rather than joy. As we take our next steps in following Christ, we must learn that good, joy-producing choices are not rooted in a “me-first,” “what do I want?” mentality, but in a “God-first,” “what is best for others” mentality.

Some may ask, “What object of love does Paul have in mind here?” In other words, is Paul speaking about love for God, love for people, love for someone or something else or something more specific? Commentator D. A. Carson answers this excellent question:

“Paul provides no specific object. He does not say ‘that your love for God may abound more and more’ or ‘that your love for one another may abound more and more.’ I suspect he leaves the object open precisely because he would not want to restrict his prayer to one or the other.”

I agree with Carson, esp. since Christ connects love for God with love for neighbor. To love God will manifest in loving other people and visa versa. Christ said (Matt 12:29-31):

“The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

In fact, I see here a third aim of godly love – love for yourself. By “self-love,” I do not mean what the world means today when they speak of this concept. The world presents self-love as “following your dreams,” “chasing whatever your heart desires,” and “pampering yourself.” Such is an arrogant, unbiblical, ungodly, me-first perspective to say the least.

A proper, wholesome view of “self-love” means to recognize and value yourself as being made in the image of God, therefore taking proper care of yourself so that you are able to please and serve God and others well. You should also care for and value others no less than you value and care for yourself.

Now that we have recognized with Paul the personal, relational factor that drives all of our decisions, we see why Paul wanted the Philippian believers to advance and improve by increasing degrees and measures. He wanted them to view and care for God, for others, and themselves better with each passing day.

He describes the improvement that he envisions as “in knowledge and all discernment.”

  • By knowledge he refers to becoming better by getting and internalizing the right facts, information, and truths, which requires increasing exposure to the Word of God through private study, being personally mentored by others, and by receiving the regular teaching ministry of your church.
  • By all discernment he refers to becoming better equipped to apply facts, information, and truth to practical life situations. By adding all, Paul highlights how God’s truth does indeed apply to every life situation at every step and stage along life’s journey.

So, Paul prayed that these believers progressed through life, they would learn how to make decisions that prioritized and revealed genuine love for God, and also for others and self. Every day brings new challenges and new opportunities to reveal our love for God and others through the choices that we make.

As we look at the rest of Paul’s prayer, we see that he provides some additional perspective for how this actually works.

Love chooses superior options.
that you may approve the things that are excellent,

To “approve” means to examine, test, and verify something before making a decision. In this case, Paul wanted the believers at Philippi to be able to evaluate the choices they made well enough that they would be able to pick – whenever possible – the superior option, the option that was better or more valuable than the others.

We do this naturally when we make major financial decisions because we don’t want to waste our hard-earned money. We carefully research various vehicles before we buy a car, for instance. Or we hire a building inspector to evaluate a house before we sign the mortgage. And while this is certainly a responsible practice, as followers of Christ we are taught to value something even more deeply and financial sense – which if we’re not careful can actually be a good-looking cover for the love of money. Consider this example from Paul’s teaching about money in 1 Tim 6:6-10:

Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

From this we see that when we make the pursuit of financial gain a higher priority than a godly life, though our choices may make financial sense, they inevitably lead to increased anxiety instead of increased joy. This is one example among many ways that we can allow lower priorities which “make sense” and seem to promise greater joy and less anxiety at the moment influence our decisions in a way that overshadow love for God.

Love values morality and relationship.
that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ,

To make decisions rooted in love and to choose what is the superior choice when faced with options in life, Paul moves beyond financial sense to emphasize two superior values – morality and relationship.

Regarding morality, he says to be “sincere.” Sincere means to be pure, unmixed, composed of a single element. When you buy fruit juice, you look to see what % is actual juice, and what % is high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavor, and other things. The best juice is 100% juice, but it is also more expensive.

When making decisions as followers of Christ, we must value morality, integrity, honesty, and ethics over so many other qualities and objectives. This means that you will make choices in life that prioritize your relationship with God over other human factors.

  • Example 1: a Christian woman meets a man her age whom she finds attractive and enjoyable to be around, yet this man – as nice as he is – either (a) has no clear relationship with Christ, (b) follows another set of religious beliefs, or (c) claims to be a follower of Christ but has not followed Christ through believer’s baptism and does not participate in a Bible-teaching church. Since morality and integrity are a high priority for someone who loves God, should she marry him if he proposes?
  • Example 2: a Christian husband and father receives two job offers, one to a high-paying, more comfortable position out of state and the other to an adequate-paying position elsewhere. The difficulty is that the high-paying position has no healthy, Bible-teaching church in the area, while the adequate-paying job has such a church in the community. Which job offer should he choose?

Answers to questions like these often betray the ultimate, underlying motives of our hearts. We say we love God, yet our decisions in life often reveal that our love needs to “increase more and more” in what we “know” about God and his ways and how to apply that knowledge to the decisions we make in life. Sometimes a God-fearing, God-loving choice is not the choice that makes the most financial or professional sense, for instance, but it will be the more sincere decision marked by greater integrity.

Regarding relationship, Paul adds a second priority for people who are learning to make decisions rooted in love. He says, “without offense.” This means that as we grow in love and make decisions that are increasingly motivated by love, we will learn to make choices that benefit others rather than cause them to stumble. (“To offend” means “to stumble or cause to stumble.”) Just because you or I have the right or freedom to do something, for instance, does not mean that we should go ahead and do it. So, as we grow in love, we learn to make decisions that consider the impact it will have on other people, esp. newer, younger believers. One easy but sensitive example of this is whether or not a Christian should drink alcohol.

As a follower of Christ, what should be my practice regarding drinking alcohol? From a biblical standpoint, I know several things: (a) I should never get drunk, (b) I should not drink those kinds of beverages that are esp. intoxicating and powerful, and (c) I should not participate in wild drinking parties. The Bible is clear about these things, yet the Bible also indicates that some degree of alcohol consumption is acceptable which does not violate what I have previously stated.

However, there is one other factor to consider. What if you have a friend who either (a) has a past history of drunkenness or (b) has terrible memories of drunken relatives and friends behaving badly and doing terrible things, and for this reason struggles to acknowledge or be around drinking alcohol. Should you drink alcohol or brag about doing so around them? Since love seeks to be of no offense towards others, love will motivate you to abstain from what you might rightfully be able to do – esp. if the other person is a new and young believer who has not yet had time to process biblical teaching.

Paul offers this very example in Rom 15:19-21:

Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.

This is one reason why I as a pastor don’t drink alcohol at all, to avoid offending others. While my position is an extra careful decision, we should all consider this approach in our interactions with one another. And this is only one example of many others which are possible in life.

The key here is to recognize that we often mistakenly think that we will “miss out” in life and live a “subpar” life if we put others first this way. Yet when you put others first, you will find that it is precisely by doing so that God will increase your joy and decrease your anxiety.

As Paul emphasizes here in this prayer, when we prioritize morality and relationship, we are growing in love – and when we grow in love in all situations in life, we increase our joy and decrease our anxiety. A “me-first,” self-gratification mentality has the opposite effect. It promises joy but doesn’t deliver. But making choices that prioritize integrity with God and relationship with others may seem at first to be limiting and hard, but in the end will increase your joy and reduce your anxiety.

You will enjoy godly outcomes.
being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God

So, in this prayer, Paul has prayed for the Philippian believers:

  • Love would motivate all their choices.
  • They would learn to choose superior options.
  • They would value morality and relationship.

When we make decisions this way, he guarantees that the right things will happen in your life (“being filled with the fruits of righteousness”), you will enjoy a close relationship with Christ (“which are by Christ Jesus”), and your life and its outcomes will give those around you with a good and praiseworthy view of God (“to the glory and praise of God”).

Isn’t this what we all desire who follow Christ? When we are committed to loving God and others through all of our decisions rather than following a “me-first,” “what do I want?” or even “pure common sense” approach, then our lives increasingly reflect the kind of love in decision-making that Christ himself exhibited for us.

Did it make “common sense” for Christ to enter this world as a helpless infant, live an entire adult life without a home of his own, and die as a horrible criminal? Yet this is precisely what he did, out of love for God the Father and love for undeserving people like us. Notice how Heb 12:2-4 describes Christ’s commitment to make hard choices for us:

“looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin.”

Since he knew that genuine, lasting joy would be the result and because he loved the Father and the people he had made, he chose to endure severe discomfort, disrespect, hostility, and suffering knowing that great joy would be the result.

If you will follow this example of Christ (which Paul will explain in greater depth in Phil 2), then you will likely experience discomfort and suffering as well – yet do not let this discourage you because you are following the pathway to lasting and genuine joy and you are revealing to the world, as Christ himself, the goodness of God, making him more attractive and compelling to those around you.

So, as you face minor and major decisions in the week, month, and year ahead, let me encourage you to make choices that are increasingly motivated by love, love for God and others, rather than all the other motivating factors which so easily compete for prominence in our hearts. This is how Paul prayed for the believers in Philippi, and this is how I will pray for you as well today, and I hope it helps making your decisions a little easier, too.

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