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“Love and Discernment”

9th Sunday after Pentecost

Philippians 1:3-11

Download the sermon (mp3)

A woman’s husband abuses her. She throws him out, but he tells her that he’s sorry and that he has changed, so she takes him back. He abuses her again. She says, “Get out.” He says, “I’m sorry. Please?” “All right,” she says, and takes him back. Ask her why, and she says, “I love him.”

Or here is a girl whose parents adore her, give her everything she wants, cover her in affirmation and every possible freedom. Or maybe they go to the opposite extreme: they push her hard, are overly strict and constantly criticize. Either way, maybe one day she turns on them, starts making terrible choices, and wrecks her life. The devastated parents say, “But we loved her so much.”

Love can make poor choices, and not just in such obvious cases. From time to time we all face the challenge of how our love can be smarter. Love may be our greatest commitment, but moment by moment, circumstance by circumstance, how can love be expressed most wisely and truly? It is a question we have to ask, because human love is subject to confusions and distortions. Our love can be wrongheaded, naïve, sometimes even destructive.
This is why the apostle Paul wrote these words in his letter to the Philippians: “This is my prayer, that your love may grow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you discern what is best.” If you read the rest of the letter, you will find that a powerful love is already present among these people, but Paul wants their love to grow. The surprising thing is that he does not ask for their love to grow stronger or to grow more generous or more fervent. His prayer is for their love to grow more discerning, to give them insight into what is best.

Our ideas of love and our feelings of love can make us truly dumb. Love can trump good judgment. As the saying goes: “Love is when two people agree to overestimate each other.” Not only are we naïve about the people we mean to love, we easily become naïve about ourselves as well, not noticing that what we assume is our love is mostly about propping up our self-esteem or trying to win somebody’s adoration or, worse, trying to control them. We’re blind to it. Worst of all, we are blind to the damage: what we failed to do because of what we chose to do; the people we didn’t reach out to when we were absorbed with someone else; or the people on whom our love left scars because the way we loved was thoughtless.

For all these reasons, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once said, “I am never as dangerous as when I act in love.” I pray for you, says Paul, that your love will grow with knowledge and insight, to help you discern what is best.”

It is a church to whom he says this, which is fitting, because churches and the people in them are especially prone to naïveté about what is best in matters of love. We say and sing the word love so constantly that we make it a flimsy abstraction, an unconsidered sweetness, a soft and pleasurable ignorance. Why don’t we make more of words like wisdom? Why so little praying for deeper discernment of the will of God in what we do?

There is a wonderful story about John Wesley, who was a passionate evangelist and also a deep-thinking scholar. One day he got a letter from an evangelist of a different sort. “Dear Mr. Wesley: The Lord has instructed me to write you and tell you that he doesn’t need your book-learning, your Hebrew and Greek.” Wesley wrote back: “Dear brother in Christ, Your letter received, but it was superfluous, for I already knew the Lord didn’t need what you call my book-learning, my Hebrew, and my Greek. However, although the Lord has not directed me to say this, I want to say on my own responsibility that he doesn’t need your ignorance either.”

You don’t have to be smart to be a Christian. Intelligence is not required, thank heaven! But God doesn’t need our ongoing ignorance either. Jesus said, “Be gentle as doves and shrewd as snakes!” The love to which he calls us is a lifetime of supple sensitivity and thoughtful distinctions, of paying close attention, of desiring and discerning what is best, and doing it.

What if the mark of mature love is wisdom?

The question is: How? How do we grow to a smarter, more discriminating love? It begins, I guess, with acknowledging the limits of our own unchecked understanding, with admitting that our impulses don’t necessarily equal the will of God and that even when it comes to love, we are in need of guidance.

From there, it is indispensable to learn from our mistakes. All of us fail in love, but we can reflect honestly on what went wrong and let our failures teach us how to do better. That’s what failure is for.

We can also have the humility to seek guidance from others, to ask questions, to engage each other and listen to each other on our way toward understanding together what is best. Sometimes the counsel of other is the very voice of God.

But what I notice most is that when Paul speaks of learning discernment, he frames it in terms of prayer. “I am praying that your love will grow into discernment of what is best.” I think that, in the end, this may be where our best guidance in love awaits us. Acknowledging our need and desire to love more wisely, we pray for help. We think of those whom we know to love and we ask: What should I do and what should I not do to give them what is best? Are there others in need of my love, to whom I haven’t expressed it, and how can I do it best? Dear God, in this very particular instance and at this very particular time, show me and lead me to the truest expression of my love and yours.

Still we may not know, not with confidence at least. But that’s the final wonder of the whole business. God confers on us the privilege of determining for ourselves how best to love. Having acknowledged the limits of what we can know for certain, having tried to learn from our mistakes, perhaps having consulted others, and certainly having reflected and prayed for guidance, we choose what we think – what we hope – is best. And it is enough! It is more than enough! It’s not like a spelling bee, where if you don’t get it quite right, you’re out. To make a perfect decision for love’s sake is not what matters most. What matters most is the desire for what is best, the seeking to discern it, and the courage to act on it.

The call to discernment is not laid on us like a burden but is a bright invitation to discovery. It is a calling that sets us free to wonder, to imagine, to pray, explore, to choose, to participate with God’s creative Spirit.

This is Christ calling to us: Be done with easy assumptions. Be wiser than impulse. Let love be keen-eyed and creative. Learn to say a more decisive No and a more resilient Yes. Use your consecrated common sense and your best imagination, too. Let love make you generous, let love break your heart, and let it give you joy. Most of all, let love be joined to wisdom, with eyes and heart wide open to find and do the very best.