I just spent the afternoon in our local jail! With three groups of incarcerated men openly and frankly talking about forgiveness. I truly wish I could have recorded the discussions, the comments and the questions that came out of this afternoon’s chapel services were insightful and revealing at best. From the oldest to the youngest of these men the concept of forgiveness was obviously foreign to them. Just the thought of forgiving someone for a hurt done to them was unthinkable. I do give these men credit, they listened intently and they wrestled with the issue at hand…and hopefully…God will one day do a work of reconciliation in their hearts and lives and they will be able to forgive those who have hurt them. And let me tell you their stories are heart breaking.
Together, we looked at the letter of Paul to Philemon. When Paul wrote the letter to Philemon in 62 AD he was incarcerated in Rome. What was so fascinating this afternoon was that they were identifying more with Paul being in prison than they were with Philemon. These men today couldn’t understand why a pastor such as Paul would “only” be in prison because of merely preaching about Jesus. “That ain’t right!” said one. “That’s just not good!” said another. And yet they wanted to know how a guy in prison would dare suggest forgiving someone who has hurt them. Why do we prefer to hold on to hurts and grievances and nurse them? Is it easier to be bitter than it is to be forgiving? Is there more satisfaction in holding on to wounds than it is to allow them to heal?
More than one man this afternoon acknowledged the fact that they were where they were because of hurts that they have never forgiven. One fellow even acknowledged that what he was carrying around was “seething bitterness” and it had caused repeated altercations with the law. Needless to say Paul’s letter to Philemon appealing for the forgiveness and restoration of Onesimus was quite appealing to these men. How is it possible that Philemon or anyone for that matter can forgive?
It is easier to preach about, speak about, and blog about than it is to actually do. There are three things that Paul appeals to Philemon with in the main body of this letter…three things that are necessary ingredients to forgiving others who have caused us hurt. First of all,
1. WE ARE TO FORGIVE….for the sake of love…A key word in this letter is the word “agape“…one of the Greek words for love. It is a word that describes the love that God has for us. It is an unconditional love, there are no strings attached kind of love, it is a sacrificial kind of love, it is giving even at the expense of the giver. Forgiveness needs this kind of love. Did Philemon “feel like” forgiving Onesimus? Probably not. Forgiveness and love is not dependent on feelings,…because feelings fluctuate all the time. Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive Onesimus for the sake of love. God loves us and demonstrates it by sending His Son to die for our sins…sacrificial, unconditional intentional. He didn’t do it because He felt like it…He did it because He loves us. True forgiveness is really a matter of love. Love those who hurt you, love those who persecute you. That’s what God did for us in Christ. So we too must forgive because we have been forgiven.
2. WE ARE TO FORGIVE…for the sake of Christ’s work…Onesimus had unwittingly made his way to Rome where somehow he came into contact with Paul who shared with him the opportunity for a second chance, how he can be forgiven by a loving God and be restored. This was good news for Onesimus who accepted it by faith and became a believer. He was made new. But he still had a past to deal with. So Paul convinced him that he needed to return to Philemon and make things right with his boss. Thus the occasion for the letter. Paul appealed to Philemon that Onesimus has been changed , no longer was he useless, but now he was useful. Paul told Philemon to receive Onesimus back because he is needed for the sake of the Gospel. What a tough situation for Philemon, but a necessary thing for him. What would have been the outcome had Philemon carried a grudge? Not only would Onesimus have been crushed but the church that was meeting in Philemon’s house would have had a different perspective of their host who had been known for his love. True forgiveness is an act of the will that chooses to be obedient to the will of God and not the will of self.
3. WE ARE TO FORGIVE…for the sake of God’s plans and purpose…The first word in v.15 “Perhaps” suggests a mystery…he is not dogmatically saying this is how God works…but Paul does suggest for Philemon that just maybe…Philemon was hurt for God’s purpose of bringing Onesimus to faith in Jesus Christ. Ouch! The possibility that God uses our pain, inflicted by other people, for His own plans and His own purposes? This is not new in the working of God. Genesis 50:20 records what Joseph said to his brothers after many years of being mistreated and then sold into slavery…he said to the ones who had hurt him deeply “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.” And then there’s Romans 8:28 “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” Everything includes even our pain and our hurts. Trusting God’s plan and His purposes in the midst of our hurt and pain helps us to forgive those who have hurt us and who meant it for evil.
In each of the sessions this afternoon the men wanted to know how the story ended. God doesn’t provide it in His Word, But if Philemon had not forgiven Onesimus and had remained entrenched in bitterness and unforgiveness it is doubtful that God would have included the letter in His Word. So, I would suggest that Philemon forgave Onesimus for the sake of love…for the sake of what Christ had done and for the sake of the plans and purposes of God. And so should we.