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  • Jared Stern

Restoring Relationships – Thoughts from the book of Philemon

God made people to be relational; to be surrounded by friends and family and have a sense of community. We are all wired this way. I don’t care if you’re an introvert of an extrovert. Everyone has an internal need and desire to want to be around people. Being an introvert/extrovert simply determines how many people we have relationships with. Because of this internal wiring, conflicts within these relationships can cause deep wounds, rob us of joy and be a heavy weight that we carry throughout our lives.

Philemon was a wealthy Greek who owned slaves. It is thought that on one of his business trips, he came upon the preaching of Paul and accepted Christ. From that point on, he was a changed man. Paul’s letter to Philemon provides ample evidence that Philemon was a man of character. Philemon later ended up hosting a church at his own house.

Years after Philemon’s conversion, when Paul was under house arrest in Rome awaiting his trial before Caesar, Paul meets a runaway slave named Onesimus. He too, after hearing the gospel is transformed. Some time after, Paul finds out that he is a former slave of Philemon. So he writes the Epistle of Philemon imploring Philemon to restore this broken relationship with Onesimus.

There is so much we can learn about restoring relationships from the book of Philemon. Here are a few of the principles that I was able to come up in my study:

Principles of Relationship Restoration

#1 –You need accountability (vs. 1-2)

Paul first addresses Philemon and then he greets others in the church. I find this very interesting. The main person that Paul is talking to, the person who is in the middle of this conflict is Philemon. This isn’t about problems the church is having. It is a specific issue between two individuals. This issue has nothing to do with the church as a whole. So why would Paul include the church in this issue? I think the best answer is to make Philemon accountable. Paul talks in the letter about knowing that Philemon will do the right thing. The church needs to witness this. Not only because Philemon is an example to the rest of the church but also because the church will make sure that Philemon does the right thing.

#2 –Christians are expected to make restoration happen (vs. 8)

Paul says he is an ambassador, a representative of Christ, and the right thing to do is to take Onesimus back. He says that he has the authority to command him but he would rather not be that forceful because he knows Philemon has a desire to do what is right. I’m guessing that he knew Philemon was a man of character and the rest of letter seems to confirm this fact. Paul has full confidence in Philemon and basically says, “Restore the relationship because Christ would want you to.” By Roman Law, Philemon had the power to execute Onesimus for running away. Typically this was only in extreme circumstances but it still needs to be said because Onesimus could have been going headlong into a death sentence. It must have taken a lot of courage for him hand Philemon Paul’s letter.

#3 –No one should need to force you (vs. 14)

Paul clearly states that he did not want to twist Philemon’s arm in this issue. He didn’t want to guilt him into it. He wanted Philemon to choose to make effort of reconciliation. It shouldn’t be a stale, “I’ll do it because I have to.” It should be, “I’ll do it because Christ did it for me and He means more to me than my bad feelings towards this person.”

#4 –Both parties are on equal footing (vs. 16)

Onesimus is a slave. Looked down upon. Ignored. Treated as “less than”. He is in the lowest social class and treated as no more than property. Yet, Paul tells Philemon to treat him as an equal, as a brother. It was because of Paul that Philemon came to Christ. Think about how Philemon must’ve felt towards Paul. In verse 17, Paul tells Philemon, look at Onesimus like you look at me. Put me in his place! That is what you should be feeling when you look at him. Not as a slave but as part of the family!

#5 – Restoration is worth the cost (vs. 19)

Paul says, “Charge his debt to my account.” I’ll pay the cost. All I want is for you two to be restored. Whatever it takes! Cost is no object. Restoring this relationship is more important.

#6 –Go above and beyond to make it happen (vs. 21)

In verse 21, Paul says, “I know you. You’re probably going to go above and beyond what I ask.” You’re not only going to free him, you’re going to set him up with a place until he can get on his feet. You’re going to give him a job. You’re going to make sure he is okay and settled. You’re going to invite him to be a part of the church. Restoring the relationship is only the beginning. There is going to be more to this story and it has a happy ending.

So how do you go about restoring a relationship?

Step 1 – Get Accountability

Find a close friend or relative you trust and tell them about the situation. Ask them to be praying and to keep you accountable so that you won’t put off attempting to restore the relationship.

Step 2 - Change your mindset about the person (see principles 2,3, and 4)

Restoration starts with the mindset that it is necessary as well as the right thing to do. It should always be voluntary and not forced by someone else. You need to make that conscious choice to do it for the right reasons, and you should never view the other party as “less” than yourself even if you are the one making all the effort. It takes two to make a conflict. They may have been the one to wrong you but in turn you might have overreacted, misunderstood, or handled the situation wrongly when the conflict occurred. Realize that you are both sinners in need of the same Savior. They need this restoration just as much as you.

Step 3 – Make an effort even if it’s at a cost to you

Maybe this person owes you money or took an item owned by you and now they claim it’s theirs. Maybe this effort will only cost you a little humility. Often conflicts cost both wounded parties. We should be willing to count the cost whatever the case may be. Invite this person to breakfast and then pay the check. The conflicts in our relationships affect our relationship with Christ. Because of this, every effort needs to be made to restore the relationship.

Step 4 – Go above and beyond to make it happen

Your first effort fails. You can either give up and call it quits or you can try again. Too often we just give up but if we really care, we will try every avenue. You’re not doing it because of your guilt. You’re doing it because you care about the other party and being bitter isn’t aiding their personal life. If you love them you will try and try hard.

This doesn’t mean you harass them until the relationship is fixed. It means you pray for them. It means you write a letter. It means you try one more time. Most of all though it means, you give it to God whatever the outcome.

What happened with the conflict between Philemon and Onesimus?

I think it’s safe to say that the relationship was restored between Philemon and Onesimus. This letter after all was included in the Bible and circulated to many of the early churches.

Relationships are important to God. So we need to make an effort to value and put care into maintaining all the relationships in our lives. Follow Philemon’s example. Go above and beyond what it takes to make things right with the people you are in conflict with.

We offended God by sinning. We were guilty in every respect and caused the conflict. Yet God made the effort to restore the relationship through Jesus.

Jesus gave his life… he gave up everything to restore the relationship. Just like Philemon, Jesus went above and beyond to make it happen.

I hope one day we can say the same about your efforts to restore broken relationships.

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