Philemon and Forgiveness (Part 4)

Interpersonal conflicts can often weigh people down with a sense of heaviness or intensity, leaving little room for levity or humor. Paul’s letter to Philemon, however, does have a lighthearted tone to it. At one point he makes a playful pun out of Onesimus’ name, which in Greek means ‘useful’. “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” Paul also shows his optimism that Onesimus can be useful once again to Philemon. It is as if he speaks from the future. This positive outlook is one way mediators can help parties to shift away from being stuck in the past.


Since it has been a while since I wrote my last entry, I will now recap some of the main points previously made. We have seen how Paul has…

  • Used an invitational, non-coercive style that respects the free will of both parties
  • Highlighted common ground between the humanity of the parties and himself
  • Created ‘zones of openness’ that allow parties to move toward reconciliation
  • Absorbed ‘loose’ negative energy by naming the conflict in a non-threatening way

We have also seen how Paul appealed to the relational dimensions between Philemon and Onesimus, noting how the resolution of conflict is not merely a matter of settling external matters that divide people, but transforming the very quality of relational interaction between them. Without this internal dimension of peacemaking it is very difficult for people to resolve practical matters through settlements or compromises.


I want to return to this concept of parties shifting away from being stuck in the past. We might think that people stay stuck in the past because of strong emotions they can’t shake. Anger or resentment seem to be just as ‘alive’ in the present as in days past. This fits well with the electric ‘live wire’ analogy discussed in the last segment. But the deeper reason for sustaining emotions has to do with mental narratives that replay over and over. “I deserved better than what he gave to me, and he should have shown me more respect.” Such narratives underlie feelings of resentment or mistrust, and until they are modified, it is unlikely that accompanying feelings will go away. “He was useless to me. I’m glad he is now gone.”

A re-narration process can change everything.

Paul, very subtly, is helping Philemon to start a re-narration process that will literally change the way he thinks about Onesimus. He highlights his usefulness, his trustworthiness, and even his status as an equal spiritual brother. All of this amounts to a humanization of the other party which is essential in most re-narrations. In my mediation work with victim offender dialogues, re-narration can also happen for victims when offenders describe their broken or dysfunctional family backgrounds. This creates a sense of empathy or compassion that dissolves former narratives that view offenders as being evil or less than human.

Just as preparation meetings are a best-practice standard before mediation for parties of crimes or conflicts, Paul’s letter serves as a preparation stage that ensures safe, constructive dialogue between parties. The last thing a third-party helper should do is bring parties together where the ‘electricity’ will bolt out in unpredictable directions and do more harm. Stuck in prison, Paul acts as a remote mediator, doing all he can to ‘ground down’ the excess charge, and to prepare Philemon for a predictably safe reunion. Similar to the practice of acupuncture, Paul is opening up the blockages within the human soul and heart so that Philemon’s own God-givenOnesimus graphic (2) energies can flow more easily to bring about the needed healing.


A mediator’s ultimate aim is not to intervene but to get out of the way. Once good preparation has been done with both parties, once they have been brought to places of greater trust and openness, then it is their turn to face each other and go as deep as they choose to go. Mediators ensure safe spaces for resolution; parties do the work of resolution. The beauty in this work is that as one party willingly chooses to be vulnerable enough to disclose a deeper truth, this helps to alleviate some pain or mistrust in the other party. In turn, that other party is prompted to share more deeply, and this reciprocating, heart-to-heart conversation ultimately leads to a sense of relief and completion rarely experienced in courtroom settings.

YoSt.Onesimusu may be asking by now, “Why is this series called Philemon and Forgiveness, and yet after four postings, the theme of forgiveness hasn’t even come up yet?” I will take this up in the fifth and final entry to come. For now I will simply say that there is a paradoxical truth about forgiveness: the more people try to forgive with the language of forgiveness, the more it can thwart a deeper experience of inner and relational peace. Perhaps Paul knew this, too. Stay tuned as we consider what really happened when Onesimus made it back to Colossae and stood before Philemon.

Contacting Ted Lewis

If you would like to make a comment about my entries or ask a question, you are welcome to contact me directly at

Speak Your Mind