At the root of our heart issues are often problems with our love and our affections. The things which we should value fail to hold our attention and we are constantly drawn towards worthless idols, deceived by our sinfulness. God, in His Word, has made clear the right aim of our heart’s desires, which is to love Him with all our heart, soul, and mind. It is when we deviate from this aim that problems inevitably arise. While God has made love and its defining characteristics clear, the world has co-opted this virtue, stripped it of its biblical meaning, and repurposed it for selfish pursuits that are a deadly caricature of God’s intention. This worldly definition of love, if indeed it can still be called by this name, is marked more by being undefined than by having any set unifying principles. This facsimile of love is generically recognizable in the world’s eyes by affirmation of any and all behavior, by encouraging even the most despicable desires of the human heart, and perhaps above all else by an exaltation of the self. It is an ever-evolving and vague emotional mess that is constantly shifting based on the priorities of culture and always being an expression of the most base impulses of our fallen hearts. I am sure that I am not the only one to have seen firsthand the damage this undefined love can do, both in my own life and in the lives of those I counsel.
In contrast with the undefined love of the world, God’s love is clearly defined. Scripture is filled with images and instructions that give shape and substance to love as God has intended. These instructions can be used alongside the work of His Spirit to restore our affections as we apply them to our lives. A passage that I have found immensely helpful because of their clarity and specificity is Philippians 1:9-11. In his letter to the Philippians Paul speaks of his prayer for the Philippians and begins with his supplication to the Lord for the nature of their love. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he writes:
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Paul’s prayer provides structure and boundaries for biblical love which are markedly practical in a counseling context and which lead naturally to other parts of Scripture for providing further application. Love that abounds in knowledge and discernment leads to the logical question of where such knowledge and discernment could be sourced. Proverbs 1 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Love that approves of what is excellent raises questions about what may be rightly called excellent. Philippians 4 walks through qualities of things that God calls excellent, using terms such as just, pure, lovely, and admirable. Love that is sincere and without offense leads to questions about behavior before others. In Acts and 2 Corinthians, Paul writes of living with a clear conscience and of living a life that is pleasing to the Lord. Love that perseveres to the day of Christ and is filled with the fruits of righteousness brings to mind Galatians 5:22-23, where the fruit of the Spirit is presented. The conclusion of Paul’s thought returns us to God’s created purpose for us and to our love, and he reminds us that it should all be to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11 provides an excellent starting place for addressing love and affections, one that is holistically biblical.
The obvious culmination of this defined love is in what God has done for us on the cross of Jesus Christ, where He surrendered His life to pay the penalty for our sins. Our response to this greatest demonstration of love should be to follow that example. Passages such as this one from Philippians provide God-honoring principles to guide our actions in this pursuit. They also give us the means to recognize and clarify when we are straying from the defined path of obedience, in order to be able to objectively evaluate our own lives and the lives of our counselees when it comes to the fruit of love.