Do you have child or young adult who is not a Christian or not living for Christ? Perhaps they are hostile to the Christian faith. What can you do? In his short letter to Philemon, sent from prison, the Apostle Paul details four principles to solving problem relationships. We would do well to pay attention to these ancient principles for they apply to problem relationships with our children, relatives, or others even today.
First, some background on the epistle of Philemon. The Apostle Paul is languishing in a Roman prison awaiting his court date with Caesar. While in prison he has encountered Onesimus, a runaway slave. Onesimus had stolen money from his master, Philemon, and fled to Rome. Paul led him to faith in Jesus Christ. Now he is writing to Onesimus’ master, Philemon, to plead that Philemon not kill Onesimus, the normal fate of a runaway slave not to mention a thief, but to receive him back as a brother-in-Christ.
Relationship Principle #1:Grace is more effective than Law in interpersonal relations (1:8-12). Paul writes that he could order (law) Philemon to receive Onesimus back but chooses to appeal (grace) to him. Notice that Paul points to his age, his imprisonment, and Onesimus as “his child” and his “very heart” as reasons for Philemon to consider his request. What is true for Paul in his relationship with Philemon is true for us as well. Rather than demanding others do our bidding, we need to show them grace by appealing to them that helping us would be a gift to us.
Relationship Principle #2: Doing good should flow from freedom not constraint (1:13, 14).
Paul does not ask Philemon if he could keep Onesimus with him to minister to him because he did not want to manipulate Philemon. He wanted Philemon’s “goodness” to be from his own free will not out of compulsion. We can learn much from this principle, can’t we? How often do we manipulate others to do what we want them to do instead of leaving the decision up to them? We manipulate others because we’re afraid they might not do what we want them to do or might not do it our way. Instead of giving them freedom we manipulate them in the flesh.
Relationship Principle #3: God is sovereign over the affairs ofmen (1:15, 16).
Paul sees the big picture in all this. He tells Philemon that perhaps a sovereign God directed Onesimus to Paul in prison so that he might be saved and returned to Philemon as “more than a slave” but as a beloved brother. So often we see things only through the eyes of the flesh and don’t see God’s handiwork behind our circumstances. God is sovereign over all working to accomplish his perfect will both globally and personally. Don’t settle for simple, superficial explanations for events. Look for God’s will in them.
Relationship Principle #4: Good relationships will require sacrifice(1:18)
Paul lays out the biblical principle of sacrifice. Onesimus has runaway and stolen from Philemon. Paul pleads with Philemon to “charge that to my account.” Paul willingly takes on Onesimus’ debt and sacrifices himself for the sake of his child-in-the-faith. When we value a relationship we will have to sacrifice for it. That sacrifice may involve time, money, or effort but it will always be a sacrifice. It won’t be convenient. It will be costly but that’s what good relationships require.
As a postscript, it is of significance that Onesimus, the runaway slave, in an amazing turn of events, went on to serve Christ as the bishop of the church at Ephesus. Only a sovereign God could perform that kind of transformation!