This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, 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. (Philippians 1:9-11)

If you could hear Paul pray, what do you think he would be praying for? I imagine that one of his primary concerns would be for his spiritual children, the little communities that he ministers to. I imagine that he would pray for them to mature and grow strong and vibrant. And that is exactly what Paul prays for in his prayer for the Philippians. This little prayer outlines the typical path of spiritual formation and maturation.

Paul is speaking to a community of Christians who are already on the way. They have heard and believed, they have committed their lives, they have endured at least some amount of persecution. So what should their further growth look like? How should their spirits be formed?

The general progression of the spiritual life, according to Paul, is founded on increasing love. The Philippians already love, but Paul prays for them that it would grow, that it would become strong, that it would become the key part of their lives, that it would overflow and push all else out.

I imagine my heart like a storehouse full of little bottles and vessels containing various loves. One contains my love of God. Another one has my love of bicycling, or a good craft IPA, or a Calvin-Hope basketball game that Calvin wins by 32 points. A large one has my love of dark chocolate. But the vessel containing love of God gets fuller and fuller, and eventually it overflows, and the love covers the storehouse floor, and rises, and it starts to displace other loves, and they dribble away. This is purity of heart—to love God with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength.

This love, Pauls says, overflows into knowledge and full insight. This is apparently different from the kind of knowledge you get from studying and pondering and reasoning. This insight comes from the overflow of love. Apparently there is a faculty in the human person other than reason that leads to insight, to wisdom. And this faculty is filled with, or powered by, the love of God.

In fact, some authors distinguish ‘intellect’ from ‘reason’. The latter is the thinking we do for ourselves, the pondering, the coming to conclusions. The former is a faculty of the soul by which the Spirit teaches us directly. This spiritual wisdom is a result of pure love. Maybe it is pure love, the Word of God, the second person of the Trinity.

The Orthodox call the faculty by which we know and see God the nous in Greek; in English it may be translated intellect. Here’s a definition from the Philokalia:

Intellect (nous) — the highest faculty in man through which — provided it is purified — he knows God or the inner essences or principles (q.v.) of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. Unlike dianoia or reason (q.v.), from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect does not function by forming abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning, but it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or ‘simple cognition’ (St. Isaac the Syrian). The intellect dwells in the ‘depths of the soul’; it constitutes the innermost aspect of the heart (St. Diadochos). The intellect is the organ of contemplation (q.v.), the eye of the heart (Makarian Homilies).*

And Jesus himself describes the most profound contemplative knowledge when he says, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Anyway, Paul says that when this overflowing love flows into knowledge and full insight, it results in the ability to “recognize the highest and the best.” It is through overflowing love that we come to know the mind of God—what God loves and what God hates—that is, discernment.

This overflowing love of course also leads us to do what God loves as well as we are able. It leads to obedience. And the combination of discernment and obedience results in “pure and blameless” lives, lives “having produced the harvest of righteousness,” lives that result in the praise and glory of God.

This is the process of spiritual formation. So, first of all, spiritual formation must be directed toward the increase of our love of God and the displacement of other loves, that is, purity of heart. But where does this purity of heart come from? Note that Paul doesn’t say “do this, don’t do that.” He doesn’t even say “love God more and more.” He prays for growing and abounding and overflowing love. It is a gift that we are not able to generate on our own.

In fact, Jesus instructs us to pray every day for more love. For what else is the bread of life but the Spirit of God, Christ in us, and what else is the Spirit of God but the Spirit of Love? So when we pray “give us this day our daily bread,” we are praying for an infusion of love. This love, when it overflows, leads to purity of heart, to seeing God, and to God’s glory.

Our Father in heaven, give us this day our daily bread.

*The Philokalia, Faber and Faber, 1995, vol. 4, p. 432.

The image was generated by DALL-E with the prompt "a room full of bottles and vessels of different colored liquids. One of the bottles is overflowing."

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and