Passage – Philippians 1:3-11
3 I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. 9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
In these verses we observe a pattern by which love and relationships grow. We observe this pattern in two ways: first by example (v. 3-8) and then in principle (v. 9-11). We will explore this passage by considering both perspectives on the same pattern.
A Progression of Love in Principle
We will start at the end. It is helpful to see the outline (i.e., key points) and then observe how it is lived out. In verse 9, Paul prays for something specific; namely, that the love between these Christians would grow stronger and deeper. Then Paul outlines a progression by which these believers could: (a) identify when God was answering this prayer, and (b) cooperate with God answering this prayer.
First, love begins with knowing. Paul says that love grows “with knowing” (v. 9). Think about anything that you love: a person, a hobby, a subject in school, a vocation, etc. What was the first, instinctual thing that you did? You began learning. At that time, you probably would not have called this effort “studying,” which sounds like a chore. Your delight compelled you to ask questions, explore, invest time, and be open to new possibilities.
This reveals an often-unnoticed quality about love: humility. Learning requires accepting that we don’t know. Anyone who has tried to teach stereotypical teenager quickly realizes this. Any attempt to bestow knowledge is met with an irritated, “I know” and scowl.
Humility frees us to ask open ended questions and listen to understand. Most of us realize how central humility is to the Christian life. We know pride is bad. But we often miss how central humility is to other relationships. When conversations feel like cul-de-sacs (i.e., short roads that go nowhere before arriving back where they started), it is often because we have lost this humble, curious disposition of learning that Paul says is foundational to deepening relationships.
Second, love evidences growth with well-fitted choices. Next Paul speaks of “discernment” and approving “what is excellent” (v. 9-10). In relationships, we do not learn for the sake of learning. The goal is not to win a trivia game about our friend or spouse. We learn for the sake of blessing. In Christian relationships, the information we gather should equip and motivate us to enrich the lives of those we care about in ways that cause them to realize, “You really know me.”
In this sense, Christian love is richer than generic niceness. It is one thing to tell someone “good job” after a project. That’s nice. It is better than being indifferent or rude. But it’s not the fruit of knowing. It is merely being polite. It is another thing to tailor our affirmation to that person, “I can tell you put a lot of work into [project] because you really care about [blank].” This reveals that you have learned enough about this person to discern what compels them to pursue excellence, and that you care enough to affirm both the action and motivation. When people feel known this way it forges trust.
Third, love becomes trustworthy through proven character. When someone knows us well, it is both encouraging and a little scary. The better you know me, the more you could hurt me, if you chose to do so. Every person who ever shared a secret in elementary school knows this too well. That is why Paul says that Christian relationships have the character quality of being “pure and blameless” (v. 10).
On this point, Paul zigs when most of us zag. We think of love growing in terms of passion and intensity. This focuses on the most fluctuating part of the experience of love. By contrast, Paul focuses on the most enduring experience of love. If you love me like Christ, you will use what you know about me and the growing bonds of trust between us for my flourishing rather than your benefit.
This point is a precursor to a major theme in Philippians. Paul will repeatedly contrast selflessness and selfishness, most clearly and famously in 2:1-11. As Paul looks at the culture emerging in the early church, he is concerned for the selfish ambition he sees arising. Comparing and competing with fellow believers would result in the information shared as these believers were vulnerable with one another to be used to tear each other down rather than build each other up.
Finally, love inherently bears good fruit. Christian relationships result in both people becoming more like Christ because of their interaction (Proverbs 27:17). That is why Paul says the end product of love is being “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ” (v. 11).
Here again, Paul cuts against our dominant cultural narrative. We think of love’s conclusion as “happily ever after.” Paul portrays love as “perpetually growing and maturing.” The happily-ever-after version of love treats relationships like a drug or roller coaster; when the high abates, the ride is over. The perpetually growing version of love treats relationships like fitness; there is always growth to be achieved and blessings for achieving it. Relationships are about more (not less) than happiness. The more we appreciate the character development God intends relationships to cultivate, the more we will enjoy the relationships that facilitate this growth.
A Progression of Love by Example
Now let’s rewind the passage back to the beginning. Let’s observe how the progression we just outlined expresses itself in the relationship between Paul and the believers at Philippi.
Knowing: We begin by noting that Paul knows these believers well. He has enough memories of them that he can recall them often and each memory bring fresh joy. When Paul speaks of “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” it reveals that he spent a significant amount of time with these friends. It is fair to deduce they navigated both encouragement and discouragement together. In Philippians 4:9, Paul asks them to remember how he faced stressful times while with them.
It is worth noting how this depth of relationship provided a solid foundation for the warnings and instructions Paul will give later in this letter. Warnings from a stranger do not carry as much weight. Warnings from someone who doesn’t like us are often received with skepticism. Even if Paul was right about the concerns he raised, the impact of his words would have been diminished without this depth of relationship.
This speaks to the “home field advantage” of care provided through friendship. It also reveals the importance of building rapport when our counsel is given in more formal helping relationships where do not know the other person as well. Simply being right about what needs to change and how change could happen is often not enough to facilitate helpful counseling.
Discerning: In verse 6, Paul begins by saying, “I am sure of this.” Paul’s level of knowledge about these believers gave him confidence in what he said about them. If Paul were only talking about God, his knowledge of these believers would be unnecessary. We can always make a statement like, “God will be faithful.” That is an absolute truth. But we need to know an individual to say, “You show the character of someone who has been saved by God and, therefore, I am confident that God will use you in meaningful ways.” That is what Paul is saying here.
Notice that Paul takes the time to encourage those whose character is growing, not just to identify where character is in need for correction. Sometimes, when we think of counseling, it can be so problem-focused that we forget the importance and power of encouragement. This example from Paul reminds us that we should use the discernment that emerges in deepening relationships to affirm and not just to refine. Make it a habit to catch your friends, spouse, or children doing things well and call them out on it (in a good way).
Character: It is important to realize whose character we are talking about here. We are referencing Paul’s character, as the care giver, not the Philippians’ character. In a counseling relationship, the helper is the one gaining a disproportionate amount of information about the helpee. Therefore, it is the helper that needs to display the character necessary to be a good steward of this information.
Think about the original context of this letter. Time has passed since Paul has seen the Philippians. Because of this, Paul doesn’t rush into offering warnings and corrections. This patience is Paul’s general pattern when writing pastoral letters. Only in the book of Galatians (1:6) is the prompt for Paul writing so severe that he jumps immediately to correction. From this, we see the importance of re-establishing rapport even in close relationships. It is fair to deduce from the New Testament example that it is rare for the Holy Spirit to prompt us to quickly move towards correction in our care for one another. Tending to the relationship in which correction is given is as important as being right about what is being corrected.
Good Fruit: The entire book of Philippians is a testimony to the good fruits that emanated from these believers’ relationship with Paul. The prompt for this letter was the gift they sent Paul when they learned he was in prison. This gift reflected the generosity of Christ (4:15-16). They were concerned for Paul and the advance of the gospel.
Later in the letter we will see that Paul was more encouraged by the character of the givers than the relief their gift provided. He delighted most in seeing his friends evidence the character of Christ (III John 4). As we age (speaking as someone who is now firmly middled-aged with graying hair), the more we realize this is true: godly friends are more valuable than any gifts those friends may give.Godly friends are more valuable than any gifts those friends may give. Click To Tweet
When we are young, we tend to focus on the blessing of gifts. As we age, we realize the real treasure is in having friends who are willing to be sacrificial. Paul’s affirmation of their character is more than faux humility (i.e., “you’re too kind… you shouldn’t have”); it is the sage perspective of a father in the faith pointing them to what could be easily missed.
If we live out Philippians 1:3-11, then biggest blessing will not be the good things our friends do for us, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing we live in a community of people where we are known and cared for. As Paul will speak of facing the stresses that come while living in persecution, this theme and its benefits will emerge several times in the book of Philippians.
- Can you think of a time when someone shared a helpful correction, but did not have the depth of relationship to allow it to be well-received; they were right, but ineffective?
- Who are the people that know you the way that Paul describes in this passage? When and how did these relationships develop?
- What is an example of a time when someone gave you an encouragement that revealed they really understood what was important to you? How was it more meaningful than a generically nice compliment?
- Can you think of an example of someone who knew you well, but who didn’t have the character to be a steward with that depth of understanding in a way that honored you?
- What are ways that you and your closest Christian friends sharpen one another to become more like Christ in the way Paul describes in this passage?
- Can you think of a time when you realized the character of the person caring for you was more of a treasure than their act of generosity was valuable?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.
 This observation is also noted in secular or professional counseling circles. The school of “Positive Psychology” tries to counter this tendency. It works less from diagnoses (i.e., problems) towards relief and more from strengths to greater flourishing. For our counsel to be holistic, we need to be intentional about doing both, shoring up weaknesses and building up strengths. Our friends or counselees will be grateful if we do.