Love and Knowledge
“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight …” (Philippians 1:9)
There is a corny, old joke about an elderly bachelor who always bragged to his neighbors about how much he loved children. One day, as he was pouring a new sidewalk in front of his house, a boy from down the block accidentally rode his bicycle through the wet cement. The neighbors were shocked to hear the old man shout profanity at the child. “I thought you loved children,” they said. “I do,” he replied. “I love them in the abstract, but not in the concrete.”
I warned you the joke was corny. But it illustrates a point. Abstract love is not love at all. To be real and lasting, love must be grounded in understanding. When the Apostle Paul prayed for the Philippian Christians, he did not merely pray that their love would grow. He prayed that their love would grow “in knowledge and depth of insight”. He wanted to see genuine love take root within their congregation. Commenting on this verse, D.A. Carson writes, “Without the constraints of knowledge and insight, love very easily degenerates into mawkish sentimentality or into the kind of mushy pluralism the world often confuses with love.” Without knowledge, love is shallow. It is ignorant love.
There are two ways that Christian love needs to grow in knowledge: (a) our knowledge of the meaning of love, and (b) our knowledge of the people we love.
- The meaning of love.
In our society, love is commonly viewed as a warm feeling of affection that mysteriously overtakes a person without them knowing why. We speak of falling in love and of falling out of love. Love is involuntary. Love just happens. As Elvis Presley sang, “I can’t help falling in love with you.”
But true love is much more than a feeling. True love is a decision to act in ways that benefit others. As a decision, love is based on a firm commitment not on transitory moods or emotions. As a decision to act, love is expressed in tangible deeds and behavior, not simply in words. As a decision to act in ways that benefit others, love puts the needs and dignity of other people ahead of our own. This, of course, does not mean that we always do what others want. Sometimes the call to love will lead us to confront or disappoint others, but only when this is what will benefit them most.
The greatest expression of love in history was the decision Christ made to offer his life on the cross for the salvation of his people. There were no warm and fuzzy feelings on the cross, but there certainly was love. Christ was committed to act in a way that would benefit his people deeply and eternally. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Until we grow in our understanding of the meaning of love, our love for others will never reflect the love that Christ showed us on the cross. For our love to mature we need to know what true love is.
- The people we love.
For love to mature, we must also grow in our understanding of the people we love. We need to know who they are and how they think. We need to hear their stories and understand their points of view. We need to gain insight into their preferences and fears.
This idea is true when it comes to loving our neighbors, loving our family members, and loving our friends. To love people well, we must know them. To love our neighbors we need to know who they are, learn their names, and understand their needs. Otherwise, our love for our neighbor will never pass beyond the theoretical. Parents who love their children will take time to listen to them to understand their child’s heart. Spouses who love their partners will want to know each other’s love language, to express love in meaningful ways. For friendships to become truly loving they must involve more than merely clicking the “like” icon on each other’s social media posts. We need to spend time with our friends to know them well.
The importance of knowing the people we love also applies to relationships within the church. Sometimes Christians will say they love God’s people, but they mean this only in an abstract or universal sense. They never really join a local congregation of believers, and if they do, they hardly learn the names of the people they worship with every Sunday. When Paul prayed for the Philippians’ love to “grow in knowledge and depth of insight,” he showed that, for them to love each other well, they would need to know each other personally.
When Jesus died on the cross, he did not offer his life for humanity in general. He gave himself for individuals he knew and loved. He said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” and “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:11, 14). This means, believer, that when Jesus died on the cross for you, he knew everything about you. He knew your name. He knew your family. He knew your deepest fears, your deepest shame, and your deepest sins. And he chose to love you anyway. His love for you was neither ignorant nor uninformed. It was genuine love.