“I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.” Philemon 1:12-14
Sometimes, when we’re convinced that what we want to do is the right thing, the just thing, the godly thing, it’s easy to feel justified in imposing our decisions on other people. But that’s not how God works. It’s true that scripture does contain the record of a number of instances in which God did compel people to submit to his will but in general these were not his first attempts at influencing there decisions and trying to gain their cooperation in the choices they were making. Most times God had attempted again and again to get through and it was all to no avail.
I could site the entire history of the children of Israel as an example to support my last statement. God was repeatedly having to send prophet after prophet to try and turn them back from their idolatrous choices and it was only after hundreds of years of repeating this pattern that he sent them into exile.
Now, in our focus text, Paul wants to keep Onesimus with him in Rome. No doubt he presence of this man, so sincere and earnest in his desire to know and learn about Jesus, is a balm to Paul, the preacher and teacher, and his presence relieves to a marked degree the loneliness of Paul’s imprisonment. Paul describes Onesimus as being one “whom I have begotten while in my chains” and “my own heart.” Paul feels for this man the same intensity of affection as a father feels for his beloved son.
But Paul knows the heart of God. God does not compel when there are other options that might satisfy. The decision as to what will become of Onesimus rests with Philemon and, other than present what ever arguments he thinks might influence Philemon to chose a path of forgiveness and liberty for the runaway, Paul will not attempt to force the decision he desires.
And so it is with Christ and his relationship with you and everyone else on the planet. He could, with next to no effort, force us into a corner, our arm twisted behind our back, and keep applying pressure until we cry, “Uncle.” Yet he sticks to his pattern of love and endeavors to convince us by demonstrating his care for us while pointing out the absolute futility of the sinful choices we so often make.
Paul’s example shows us that Christ wants us to be toward others as he is toward us. Within the church loving patience should demonstrate itself in the ways we work with and influence each other. In the relationships between husbands and wives there should be a living example of the power of love and patient reason to unite and transform. Our children ought to be shaped more by our godly examples, our love, and our instruction than they are by our commands and our anger.
Jesus has shown us the way. If we’ll abide close to him he’ll also provide the strength to live the life.