Have you ever had a friend tell you about a problem they’re having with someone else, and ask you to pray about the situation? I suspect most of us have. What was the concern? Do you remember what you prayed? It’s always a little chancy, of course, to only have one side of the story. The lack of perspective can skew our prayers. But did you pray for your friend to grow in love, wisdom, and righteousness? To be pure and blameless in the matter at hand?
I’m guessing not. And if you had told your friend that you had, they might have accused you of taking the other person’s side.
Paul is such good friends with the Philippians, such a beloved mentor to them, that he can tell them exactly what he prays for them and know that it will be received in the right spirit.
The Philippians, remember, were under two kinds of pressure. On the one hand, there was pressure from outside the church. It was not safe to openly worship Jesus as Lord in a Roman colony that was expected to worship the emperor. On the other hand, there was also pressure from inside the church that threatened their unity, perhaps fueled by the conflict between the two women Paul addresses directly at the end of the letter. Throughout the letter, Paul’s concern seems to be that if the church can’t hold it together on the inside, they won’t be able to deal with the trouble coming from the outside.
And it’s in the face of this double tension that he prays for them to abound in love:
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (Phil 1:9-11, NRSVUE)
The vision of them being “pure and blameless” is not a demand that they not make moral mistakes. Where the NRSV has “pure,” some other translations (CEB, NASB) have “sincere.” Think about what marketers mean when they advertise a product as “100% pure.” A bottle of 100% pure grape juice, for example, contains grape juice and nothing more. Similarly, a sincere person acts out of pure and unmixed motives; there’s no hidden agenda, no inner contradiction.
What about “blameless”? The word Paul uses suggests someone who doesn’t trip others up, doesn’t make them stumble (the root literally suggests someone striking their foot on something). Taken together, these two words aren’t meant to describe a goody-two-shoes, but a trustworthy person who doesn’t give others reason to take offense.
Paul wants the Philippians to be found pure and blameless when Christ appears. But he also wants them to see the importance of being pure and blameless now. His prayer that their love would overflow isn’t a sentimental wish for everyone to have warm feelings and get along. Rather, he wants them to be the kind of people who love wisely, with knowledge and insight. This isn’t book learning. In today’s world, we might call it social intelligence. It’s the kind of practical wisdom born out of a willingness to see how one’s own behavior is contributing to the difficulties in a relationship.
From that wisdom comes the realization of what “really matters” (in other translations, what is “excellent” or “best”). And that entails, again, sharing Paul’s long-term, eschatological way of looking at things. Let’s face it. When we get into a scrape with someone, we generally aren’t thinking about what God wants. We’re trying to get what we want: to win, to prove the other person wrong, to make them back down, and so on. We’re not thinking about the person we will be when Jesus returns. We’re not striving toward love, wisdom, or righteousness. Even if we are, in some small measure, it’s not without mixed motives or ambivalence, and we still fall into behaviors that hurt and offend, that cause others to stumble.
Paul isn’t praying these things because he thinks the Philippians are clueless and combative. Quite the contrary: he’s experienced their love and concern firsthand. But it’s precisely because he sees how God is at work in them that he prays openly that they would lean into what God is already doing.
He prays this as their friend, as one who loves them dearly. Perhaps we could do the same for those we love?
Who knows? We might even pray that way for ourselves.