Forgiveness Can Be Hard: The Story of Philemon
Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
The book of Philemon in the New Testament is one of the shortest books, at only 355 words. It contains only one chapter and its verses are seldom quoted or are its verses included in weekly church services. Yet its singular message is one of the most important messages in Christian life, that of forgiveness.
The book is a letter that Paul wrote to a person named Philemon. Philemon was a leader of the church in Colossae and the church actually met in his house. Philemon was a wealthy person who had many slaves. Paul wrote this letter in prison and intended for it to be delivered along with his large letter to the Colossians.
One of Philemon’s slaves, Onesimus, had run away and perhaps stole money. Somehow he found Paul. Now the details of how Onesimus became associated with Paul are not really known. But what is known is that Paul inspired Onesimus to deepen his Christian faith. Through this connection, Paul and Onesimus became good friends.
Paul encouraged him to return to Colossae, his home. Naturally, Onesimus was nervous as he was a runaway slave and was fearful of the retribution. So, Paul wrote this letter to encourage Philemon to see Onesimus in a different light and to remember his Christian values. Which includes an attitude of forgiveness. Paul even offered to repay Philemon any amount that was a loss from Onesimus.
What is important in this letter, is that Paul could have commanded Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but instead asked him to consider in his own heart why he should forgive Onesimus. Essentially allowing Philemon to meditate and consider what Christian forgiveness means. Simply commanding or demanding forgiveness on Paul’s part, would have made Philemon’s actual forgiveness superficial. Paul knew that having Philemon consider and working through his own anger would strengthen Philemon’s Christian character.
An interesting part of this process is that Paul says to Philemon in the letter; Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. Useful not in a material sense, but useful in a Christian way. Useful in that he was a changed person and one that should be given a second chance.
Now there is an interesting play on words here, the name Onesimus in ancient Greek means useful. As is typical in the Bible, these wordplays strengthen the story. It is unlikely this is a coincidence. And probably it is providential.
Now, this is important, for all people we have had difficult moments in our lives, where we have let people down. For some, it might be minor offenses. For others, deeper and darker transgressions; drug abuse, immorality, theft, etc.… Paul’s point to Philemon, is that he is now useful and no longer useless. Why? Because Onesimus has changed his heart and become a faithful Christian.
Essentially, Paul has placed Philemon in a position where he would have to consider hanging on to the past and being angry; or wiping the slate clean and considering Onesimus a worthy person that he should embrace.
Paul could have had Onesimus stay with him and not return to Colossae. Instead, to help two people out, Paul advised Onesimus to return and face the person he offended. Likewise, he knew the process of reconciliation would move Philemon along in his Christianity. This was Paul’s point in writing the letter and suggesting Onesimus return to face the person who was angry with him.
We have all experienced both sides of this relationship. We likely have wronged someone and had to face them with an apology. Likewise, we have all had to receive an apology.
For the person who has offended, the apology needs to be humble and speak with an attitude of repentance. Not just a sorry, but a conveyance of remorse and showing a change in heart. Not a sorry to get out of trouble, but one where change is evident. Similar to when we confess our sins to God in prayer. This part in the process of forgiveness is hard, but one in which most are familiar.
Paul also points out the second part, which is forgiveness. It is as simple as Paul’s statement, but now he has become useful both to you and to me. This is the bridge those offended must cross to truly forgive. To put away the anger of the offense, whether large or small. So that they can see the other person has become useful. This is a major step forward in maturing as a Christian; looking to the future and not being enslaved by the past.
This is not easy, and for many of us, this is a tough bridge to cross. But this is what Paul was asking Philemon to do. Not commanding him to cross the bridge of forgiveness, but to consider crossing. A far more effective way of leading people to do what they should.
So, while this short little book in the middle of other larger and more theologically profound books, it still provides an important message about our responsibilities as Christians. If God forgave us and God has, we should likewise do the same.
It is easy for God, perhaps a little harder for us mortals. And we shouldn’t just forgive because we are supposed to, we should also deeply consider how useful all people are to God and us.
Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman
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