Years ago, shortly after I’d gotten engaged to be married, an old family friend teased me. “You are about to be married,” he said. “So you must know all about love. Tell me: how exactly do you go about loving another person?”
I was all of 22 years old. I stammered out an answer, but don’t remember what I told him. Truth is, whatever I said then, I’m sure my answer has changed many times over the ensuing decades.
Love is more than a feeling, I know that. But it’s also more than an act of the will or a dutifully kept promise. According to Jesus, it involves, heart, soul, mind, and strength—our whole being (Mark 12:30). And, I learned from the Apostle Paul recently, it also involves a spiritual element. To the Philippians, Paul wrote, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment.”
Since reading Paul’s intriguing prayer a few weeks ago, I’ve pondered the connection between love and discernment. And something is starting to click for me. While I may not know what love is, I know what it’s not: It’s not one-size-fits all.
Are you like me? Have you ever tried to love someone and been disappointed when they didn’t receive your gesture as loving? Or have you ever tried to love someone only to find out that your well-intentioned words or actions actually harmed them in some way? Or maybe you are just plain stymied to come up with anything that would convey love to a certain person.
What seems like love to me may not seem like love to another person. Or what is loving in one set of circumstances may not be loving under different circumstances. For example, sometimes love means lending a helping hand—but other times, helping may stifle a person’s growing independence. Sometimes love is best communicated wordlessly, while other times it may be expressed by offering a hard-to-hear truth. Sometimes love means self-sacrificing; other times it means setting healthy boundaries. Sometimes love means supportive presence; other times it may mean giving space. Sometimes love offers mercy; other times it allows the consequences to take their natural course.
How do I know how to love any given person at any given time? I think that’s what Paul is praying about in Philippians 1:9. There is no cookie-cutter recipe for love. To truly love another person requires insight from the Holy Spirit. Spiritual knowledge and discernment, to use Paul’s words. And how do we tap into these? Through prayer!
Rather than assume that I know how a person can best be loved, I think Paul is saying that I need to ask God to show me. Since I’m Jesus’ body, His arms and hands and lips and feet, it makes sense to ask Him how He would like that person to be loved. Then I try to listen to what He says. And if it seems hard, I ask Him for help to do it. I suppose I should ask for help even if it doesn’t seem hard. But give me some slack here—I’m just learning.
Anyhow, it’s both challenging and comforting to realize that the Holy Spirit will help me know how to love others. Challenging, because I need to remember that I really don’t know how best to love another person—I need to ask God for that discernment. But comforting because He wants to do that. He wants to help me love. In fact, He wants to love through me—and how can I go wrong with that?