Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Discerning Love, or, Loving Discernment

As I've been going through 2 Timothy with the youth from my church, a few subjects have come up over and over. Boldness in sharing the gospel. Patiently enduring suffering. The importance of knowing the scriptures. Repeatedly, Paul talks about these same subjects in different situations and relationships that Timothy finds himself in.

Paul encourages Timothy to boldly face his timidity, reminding him to recall that it is the power of God's Spirit that will face his opponents, and not Timothy's own strength. He urges Timothy to suffer in his labor to preach and teach in the same way that a soldier, an athlete, or a farmer would suffer to accomplish their goals. He also emphasizes the importance of having sound doctrine and knowing the scriptures as he explains how it is that Timothy should confront the false teachers he will find within the church--with scripture and with gentleness.

But this last point, or at least our modern interpretations of it, is a bit of a mystery to me. We often hear people say either, "you've got to share the truth in love, but you still have to love," or, "you've got to share the truth in love, but you still have to share the truth." These statements represent a deeper problem that has come to plague the church, namely that somehow, we've managed to create two mutually exclusive categories--truth and love. Or, as they are often called, head and heart.

How is it that we have come to think that our minds and our hearts can be separated? Are we really supposed to believe that human beings are made up of two different and completely unrelated parts that are constantly fighting for control? Think Knight rider, except Kit and Michael just fight over who gets to drive.

Basically, this is what we experience in the church today. 'Intellectuals' clamoring for the attention and recognition that their high grades and pocket protectors kept them from in school, and 'poets' who are dying to show the world how emotional liberty can free them from the chains and oppression of logic. Too often God is reduced to being either a cold and numb equation or a flighty hippie going around and giving everyone sympathy hugs.

Paul didn't make this distinction, however. He stressed the importance of doctrine and he stressed the importance of love. For him, you couldn't separate the two. They go together. In chapter 2 of 2 Timothy he says, "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." Timothy is to demonstrate his faithfulness by knowing and rightly understanding the scriptures, and by correcting those who err with that knowledge (v. 15; 4:2). Later in the same chapter Paul says, "And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness." (v. 2:24) Timothy will need to confront and correct people, but he should be gentle as he does it.

So, we see these two ideas which are so commonly, yet mistakenly, set against each other, here working together. Paul wasn't scared of sounding 'heady' or 'intellectual.' And he wasn't scared of being nice to even the greatest of heretics, though he does warn Timothy and Titus to not engage in ongoing controversies with false teachers. That's another post.

But Paul shows us in Philippians that love and knowledge can't be separated, and in fact, they work together. "And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so 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." (Phil 1:9-11)

Four things jump out at me in these verses. First, as I've been saying, love and knowledge cannot be separated. He prays that as their love grows, that their knowledge and application of that knowledge would grow as well. Actually, I prefer to say that their love can't grow unless their knowledge and discernment increase as well.

Second, he says that the desired result of this increase of love/knowledge/discernment is to be able to approve what is excellent. We grow in our capacity to love so that we will be able to tell what is true and what is false. Again, notice that love is leading to an increased ability to think, but not just as an abstract end-in-itself mental strong man competition, but with the goal shepherding. Approving what is excellent is meant to protect the church from following false teachers.

Third, there is an added result from growing in love and knowledge, namely, that when we "approve what is excellent" we prepare ourselves for the day of Judgement. Learning makes us holy, or it should, at least. If the knowledge we are attaining isn't making us holy, or if it's leading us toward blunt criticism (not to be confused with discernment) and bitterness, then it's not real knowledge. After all, 'knowing' renders us "pure and blameless."

Fourth, as love and knowledge grow, resulting in an increased discernment of the truth that purifies us, God is glorified. When we learn true things that cause us to grow in our capacity to love and be holy it is a worship experience. God is praised and glorified. In the church today, some look down on learning as if we won't need our brains when we get to heaven. But heaven won't be a never-ending Passion concert (Passion Infinity) with all of our worship 'heros' leading us in song. It will, however, be an eternity of using all our gifts, talents, knowledge, etc. to continually increase our understanding of--and therefore worship of--Jesus. That's right, eternity will be a perpetual study on the infinite everything of our Savior, and we will never run out of fresh reasons to give Him worship. So, this life is sort of like practice. We train ourselves now for what we will be doing for eternity--using every faculty to worship Christ forever.