Overflowing with What?

One person’s life verse leaves a bad taste in the mouth of another.

Philippians 1:9-11 has been my life verse since the late 1990s. 

This text captured my imagination and changed the trajectory of my life when I was a young man, just entering into ministry as a pastor in the local church.

Now, nearly thirty years later, it is fascinating to see which parts of this text still serve as my guiding light, and which parts make me squirm a little.

Just last week I shared this text with the class I am teaching at Luther Seminary and one of the students said, gently, but sincerely, “I have to be honest with you, I don’t love this text.”

That’s fascinating, isn’t it?

One person’s life verse leaves a bad taste in the mouth of another.

Here’s my journey with the text.

I was born into a pastor’s family. My dad was a minister in a large independent Baptist church in Detroit, Michigan. We were the type of Baptist that was deeply rooted in dispensational theology with a Calvinist bent, and a heavy dose of rationalism. 

Studying the Bible and knowing scripture was, for us, the most important activity a Christian could do, second only to witnessing and winning souls for Jesus.

I was raised in the AWANA program. The strange name is an acrostic—Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed—taken from 2 Timothy 2:15, in the KJV, that said, 

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

I was a diligent AWANA student. Every Wednesday night I would show up to church to learn more about the Bible, recite my memory verses, and earn jewels for my crown. I’m not being figurative. Instead of merit badges, like the scouting program, we literally had plastic crowns that we pinned to our uniforms to denote our rank. The crowns had little places to add plastic jewels to mark progress.

Our worship experience was marked by 45-minute exegetical sermons where our pastor would preach word-by-word through Paul’s letters. When the pastor said, “open your Bible to…” The sound of thin-leaf pages of C.I. Scofield Study Bibles would ripple through the sanctuary like a cool breeze in the forest.

This type of faith formation, combined with the fact that I am a natural learner, led me to associate my spirituality with the acquisition of knowledge.

When my wife and I were invited to move to Las Vegas, just after college, we joined a vibrant, non-denominational congregation that was following the Willow Creek “seeker church” model and growing rapidly. It was exciting to see hundreds of people professing Jesus as Lord and Savior, to be sure.

We quickly realized that our congregation was a mile wide and an inch deep. Our people had no knowledge of scripture or sound doctrine.

A group of friends and I who loved to learn and teach got together and came up with a plan. We looked at the model of the GED program in public schools and crafted a Christian GED. The normal GED took adults who had not finished a high school diploma and caught them up to speed in their education. Our Christian GED program did something similar for adults who had not received basic Christian training.

Our GED stood for Growth through Education and Discipleship. It was a one-year class that was divided into four parts: A walk through the whole Bible, How to Study the Bible, Basic Christian Doctrine, and Basic Spiritual Practices.

During one of these classes, while I was teaching the section on “How to Study the Bible” I assigned the book of Philippians to the class. I chose it because it was short. It would be easy to process four chapters with the class as I walked them through the Bible Study process of Observation, Interpretation, and Application.

That’s when it happened. When I least expected it.

I was studying chapter 1 of Philippians in preparation for this class. Paul prays for his people in verse 9 and says,

“This is my prayer, that your ________ may overflow”

Stop right there. Remember my upbringing and my natural disposition toward learning and teaching?

Prior to this moment, had I been praying this prayer for the people in my class, I would have said, “This is my prayer, that your KNOWLEDGE might overflow more and more.”

That’s not what Paul prayed for his people.

Paul said, “my prayer is that your LOVE might overflow, more and more, with knowledge and full insight.”

Wait. What?

The Holy Spirit used this verse, in that moment of my life, to shake me loose of a warped perspective on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and a leader in the church.

I began to weep as this realization washed over me. I had fallen into the trap of exalting knowledge above all else. 

Knowledge is not the primary thing.

Love is. 

Knowledge is a supporting character for love. We study the Bible and theology and history and culture, so that we can know who God is and HOW GOD LOVES the world.

Paul puts it well in some other letters. He says:

  • “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
  • “And if I … understand all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
  • “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22).

And, of course, Paul is simply mimicking his teacher, Jesus, who clearly said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

The Spirit has brought me back to this verse, and that conversion experience, again and again throughout my life.

When we fast forward to today, I reflect on my Luther Seminary student’s aversion to the text. She wasn’t reacting to the “overflowing love” part. That is a no-brainer for her.

She was caught by the last part of the verse, where Paul says, “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.”

Now that I have been in the Lutheran tribe for 14 years, I feel her aversion. Lutherans who have been raised on Luther’s both/and, simultaneously saint and sinner theology of the cross have a gag reflex to the words “blameless and pure.”

That seems like an unrealistic and lofty goal. Only Jesus can claim that status.

Isn’t that interesting?

Each one of us encounters the scripture differently. We come to a moment with all that has shaped us prior to that moment, our current need in that moment, and the loving lesson that God reveals to us in that moment.

I am still grateful for this text as it anchors me in the abounding love of God, flowing from my knowledge of God’s love. 

And, I understand why others might think, “I’m not crazy about the pure and blameless part.”

I can let that go.

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