Philemon and Forgiveness (Part 5)


I mentioned last time that this final posting on ‘Philemon and Forgiveness’ would (at last!) deal with the topic of forgiveness. One reason the word did not come into the first four postings is that the Greek word for forgiveness, which Paul most often used in his letters (charizomai), is not found in Philemon. This word is related to the Greek word charis which means grace; implied in this term is kindness and mercy (as also implied in the Hebrew word ‘hesed’).

Nevertheless, the Philemon text is itself a persuasive appeal for graciousness and mercy to win the day, and in this sense, it contains what I call “implicit forgiveness.” This means that while there is no language of forgiveness there still can be the experience of forgiveness. The reason I gave the word ‘forgiveness’ such prominence in the series title is because it is an essential umbrella term that unifies the emotional and relational peace that can result from good resolutions between people.

prisons_closeupDuring the past year I have had the opportunity to help with a research project on the dynamics of forgiveness between victims and offenders of crime. Most of the victims I have interviewed in this project lost loved ones due to a tragic murder. Years later they found the courage to meet with their offender in prison for healing dialogue with the presence of a facilitator. Some found it necessary to use the language of forgiveness; most found it impossible to resort to such language. But in all cases, these victims described an experiential shift whereby heavy negative emotions of the past were lifted off their shoulders and they walked out feeling lighter. Also consistent was their recognition of the true humanity of the offender, who in most cases exhibited great remorse.

In other words, these victims and offenders connected with each other on a deep ‘heart’ level and experienced a newness of life that was often too profound to put into words. Perceptions and emotions that once divided both parties were no longer in the way. The pain and shame that respectively weighed down the victim and the offender were transformed into a positive regard for the other. The lightning storm, with all of its loose energy of negative ionic charge, was over.

  Forgiveness is being unburdened from the load of unforgiveness.


man_with_heavy_load_of_old_suitcasesWhether or not the words “I forgive you” are explicitly spoken, the reality of relational forgiveness can truly happen when two sides collectively (the research term is ‘dyadically’) form a positive connection with each other that transcends the past pain. Forgiveness is experienced as a release from negative emotions stemming from real relational harms that improves the quality of inner life of the forgiver and improves the quality of the relationship with the forgiven.

What if there is no chance for a relationship to continue? What if one party is closed to any sort of reconciling dialogue? What does one do when negative thoughts and feelings persist like a leaky faucet that won’t stop dripping? Can time heal? Forgiveness in this context becomes more of an individual’s journey to reach a point where their thoughts toward another can shift from toxic negativity to wishing that person well. Empathy for the other is often a pivot point. Even so, Paul knew that a face-to-face encounter with the other person is the best remedy to ground the loose energy of unresolved matters and to wash away exaggerated feelings and speculations. He never thought in terms of people just “moving on.”

We don’t know what happened when Onisemus and Philemon met each other, but since the letter was preserved we can assume that Onisemus returned to Colossae. Hopefully, Philemon was ready to reunite with Onisemus, following Paul’s advice in verse 17: “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” The literal Greek for ‘welcome’ is best translated as ‘receive’. By receiving another person in a heart-felt way, forgiveness is implied. Receiving means that the relationship is no longer determined by past hurts as if one were to keep a ledger of another’s shortcomings. Receiving means living into the newness of the present moment.

Are there ever times when asking for forgiveness is the best thing to do? Or should the one most impacted by a harm be the first to offer forgiveness? When should forgiveness language be used? This is a complicated matter, and my intention is not to further discuss the nuances of forgiveness. My main point is that because forgiveness is not explicit in Philemon (but certainly implicit throughout), we can know that the experience of relational forgiveness need not trip over the use of forgiveness language. All we need to know is that people can profoundly reconnect with each other when they are open toward each other and are open about their own responsibilities.

philemon letterLogistically, it might have been an awkward moment if Philemon met Onisemus when the letter was first hand-delivered. A better circumstance would have been the delivery of the letter weeks or at least days prior to Onisemus’ arrival, perhaps by the hand of Tychicus, an associate of Paul who helped to carry his letters. In this way Philemon would have had some time to think about Paul’s appeal and to soften his heart ahead of meeting Onisemus.

In the end, relational reconciliation (‘at-one-ment’ in Old English) is a means to the transformation of difficult things into better things. Paul even suggests that the unforeseeable good that could come out of the whole situation is that Onisemus would now return “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (vs. 16). Imagine that: a slave becoming a spiritual brother. That’s a pretty startling thing, considering how Philemon’s past relationship was not only one based on authority but also marred by mistrust. But then God’s entire redemptive/restorative work is itself quite startling.

Colossae, still waiting to be excavated

Colossae, still waiting to be excavated in Turkey.

(end of series)

Contacting Ted Lewis

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  1. Once a slave is seen as a “spiritual brother”, that pretty much demolishes the very foundation of slavery.

    • Yes, I like all that you are adding to this study. Silence in the face of social conflict can act not only as a barrier to healthy group dynamics, but can also allow certain people to maintain power over others or over group interests. Theologically we can be glad that “while we were yet God’s enemies” (Romans 5), God was not silent, but initiated the constructive bridgework to remedy the relational distance between God and humanity. We have good precedent, therefore, to initiate resolution processes, but the key is to do this in respectful and invitational ways that empower all people involved to have a voice and participation, even, as in this biblical anecdote, they are represented by other leaders with whom they trust. Ted

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