I was reading Philemon this weekend, and many things stood out to me.
Paul’s tone with Philemon, acknowledging Philemon’s friendship, fidelity, and good heart.
Paul’s audacious, unapologetic request, challenging Philemon to go above and beyond what society, and even religious respectability, required of him. In fact, in a shame-based society obsessed with social and familial order, Philemon would probably have “lost face” for refusing to enforce societal norms and punish his runaway slave.
But mostly, I was impressed with how Paul prayed about Philemon’s hoped-for behavior: “And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ.”
Philemon was Paul’s friend, but he was also a very real threat to another one of Paul’s friends. Philemon was a good man, but he was also a man who made use of the advantages his privileged standing in society afforded him, at others’ expense. Philemon had been set free in Christ, but Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, apparently felt he had to flee Philemon to find freedom for himself.
Paul gushed about Philemon’s glowing qualities, but I wonder if Onesimus would have? From the pressure Paul applied, it seems even he acknowledged that a little redemptive arm-twisting may be necessary in order to save Onesimus from Philemon’s “right” to inflict cruel punishment on his “property.”
But look at how Paul does it.
He acknowledges Philemon’s heart, not calling him an oppressor, but a brother with good intentions.
He appeals to Philemon’s higher nature, giving him the opportunity to act generously, and go above and beyond religious expectations.
And he expects that Philemon will do this, will act generously, as he understands and experiences all the good things he has in Christ.
How often does our material, social and spiritual stinginess, our judgmental legalism (whether we’re acting as an “oppressor” or “activist”), spring from a deep-seated sense of spiritual poverty–of fear, inadequacy, of lack? How can we offer others abundant, grace-drenched, freeing love if we have never received or experienced it ourselves?
Perhaps, instead of yelling at our brothers and sisters in Christ to change, instead of manipulating them into doing things the way we think they should be done, or wielding shame and intimidation as steely “spiritual” weapons, we should be praying Paul’s prayer: that we would ALL understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ, and that it would compel us to spiritual, material, and social generosity.
Jenny Rae Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist who blogs about faith, social justice, and women’s issues at http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com/. She is passionate about building up the body of Christ by building up women, in her rural community and around the world. She loves making new friends, so drop by her blog and say hi, or follow her on Twitter or Facebook.