It's Not too Late to Change

John Hill

"Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our beloved fellow worker 2 and Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house…7 For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. 8 Accordingly,though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to dowhat is required, 9 yet for love's sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus—10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.)12 I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. 13 I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. 15 For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you,both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Conflict is hard and it affects everyone. We have all been at a family gathering, or out with friends, and felt the awkwardness of bitterness or hurt feelings. And we have all been there when sometime,s years later, that incident has become a hurt that has been nursed and is not going anywhere.

Paul, who writes a letter to his friend Philemon, knew something of conflict. He had a falling out in the early days of his ministry with his fellow missionary, Barnabus, over a perceived weakness in a young John Mark who was part of their traveling party (yes, the same Mark whose gospel we now read and study). The rift was so bad that Paul and Barnabus parted ways and it wasn’t until years later that we read in another letter that Paul had received John Mark back into his graces, but we never hear about reconciliation with Barnabus.

But we do read about Paul’s appeal to Philemon on behalf of a former slave of his, Onesimus. Apparently Onesimus did something and had run away from Philemon. But by God’s grace, he ran into a man named Paul and his life was changed. Now Paul writes on his behalf to ask Philemon to give Onesimus another chance. Talk about conflict.

In Paul’s letter, he addresses two principles that I think can help us in our relationships as we consider conflict and reconciliation:

1. Don’t deny your problems, face them. Too often, when conflict arises, no one wants to face it. We run to familiar friends like denial, busyness, or even addiction to help us escape the torture of “dealing with it.” But Paul asks Philemon to consider taking back Onesimus and then he sends the letter to Philemon’s home in the hands of Onesimus! Can you imagine what Onesimus was thinking and feeling on his journey back to the guy he wronged and ran away from? But the hard work of facing problems is the best first step to resolving relational conflict. And don’t face them alone; pray and ask God to lead you and to open doors as you face your problems.

2. Don’t focus on what was, but on what can be. Paul said that Onesimus was, “formerly useless,” but now “is indeed useful” to both Paul and Philemon. What a life change for Onesimus! And now Paul writes to ask Philemon to look past the guy who had wronged him and ran off and see the guy who God got hold of and was now preparing him to be. That had to be difficult for Philemon and couldn’t have been great for his reputation, but all indications are that he listened to Paul and Onesimus who, according to church tradition, may have gone on to become a bishop at Ephesus.

So what’s the point? Just that with God it’s not too late for even the most contentious relationship if we are willing to face our problems and focus on what can be. There is indeed hope for us as we consider how to create more health in our families. By ourselves it is a daunting and impossible task; but with God’s leading and influence, even a runaway slave can come home as a brother, useful for God and able to lead others to the same One who changed him.

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