Years ago, my wife and I were house-sitting for some friends, while they were out of town. Our role was just to check in periodically, feed the cat, and maybe water the plants. Well, it was right around the Fourth of July (i.e., the United States’ Independence Day), and our friends’ house was the perfect spot to watch the fireworks. They were close to a park that had Independence Day fireworks, along with a line of bushes that provided privacy. Then, after the light show, it was a great place to stay and talk (and maybe have dessert) until the other cars had cleared out of the park, so we could go home without the traffic.
So, knowing our friends’ generous attitude, we invited some others from church over to their house to watch the fireworks. We generally stayed outside (except letting people in to go to the bathroom), but we – and others – got the chance to enjoy the fireworks from the perfect location. Still, when our homeowner friends returned from their trip, we let them know what we had done. Their response was, “Great! I’m glad that you did that.” We knew their heart, but we still gave them the opportunity to confirm their generosity.
The little book of Philemon in the Bible is a letter from the apostle Paul to a friend of his who had been wronged. Philemon, the recipient of this letter, had a slave who had run away. Now, while we might judge Philemon for having slaves at all (which is a good discussion for another day), Roman slavery was quite a bit different from European and American slavery from recent centuries. In today’s culture, we might compare this “runaway slave” situation to an rogue employee who quits in the middle of a job while under contract to complete it, or an unethical contractor who takes a homeowner’s money and leaves a house in disarray without finishing the project. It’s not an exact comparison, but this runaway (named Onesimus) owed service to Philemon, and bailed out before completing it.
Paul had shown Onesimus a better way to live in Jesus, and – as the new follower of Jesus – Onesimus was helping out while Paul was in prison. (I’m still not sure why a runaway slave in the Roman empire got anywhere near a Roman prison, though.)
Paul and Onesimus choose to have Onesimus return to Philemon, though. In this letter, we find that Paul was confident in Philemon’s character, even as Paul encouraged him to consider Onesimus as a brother (now that they had both been adopted into the family of God).
Paul and Onesimus didn’t have to do this, though. For one thing, there’s a passage (Deuteronomy 23:15-16) that – based on some interpretations – would have given Paul the right to shelter Onesimus. Paul, knowing Philemon’s nature, could have encouraged Onesimus to remain. (After all, Onesimus seems happy helping Paul out, possibly out of gratitude for teaching him about Jesus.) In fact, Paul gives Philemon the credit for the help that Onesimus is providing to Paul:
I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary.
Philemon 1:13-14 NIV
Still, Paul and Onesimus chose to share what had happened with Philemon, and to send Onesimus (probably with this letter) back to him. This gave Philemon the opportunity to willingly do the right thing with regards to Onesimus, rather than merely being unable to do anything about the situation.
Sometimes, I think that we don’t give people a chance to demonstrate their character. Whether we don’t trust their character enough, we want to take things into our own hands and have control, or we just don’t believe that they will live up to positive expectations, we box people in and give them fewer choices and fewer opportunities to do righteous things. How many people do you know who are following Jesus Christ, and have developed good habits, but who would benefit from opportunities to help their faith become more mature by exercising it?
As a result, I encourage you to give someone else a chance to do the right thing today. Ask them to help. Trust them with a responsibility, or share something personal about yourself that you need to unburden yourself from. Leave a decision up to them. Give them time, money, or goods to invest for God’s kingdom.
This may come at some risk to you, if your faith in their character proves to be unwarranted. However, there’s no righteousness (nor free will) when someone compels or forces a person to do something. If the government garnishes someone’s wages, that person doesn’t really get the chance to do the right thing and choose to pay the taxes they owe (even if it’s not fun). When we make decisions for our children or employees, or simply don’t give them a choice, we may be robbing them of a chance to bring us joy, and to develop their own maturity. (Yes, we sometimes have to make decisions for our children, but we can also give them opportunities to choose for themselves, once we’ve trained them.)
After all, isn’t that the same kind of chance that God has given us? He has provided for our salvation, which is fully paid for, but He doesn’t force us to take it. Anyone who wants to remain separated from God for eternity can choose to stay that way. And, for those who follow Jesus (having accepted salvation), God doesn’t turn us into puppets that always do the right thing. God gives us the free will to choose how we will behave (in little things and big). Like Paul, though, I think that it brings great joy to God when we take the opportunities that He gives us to do the right thing, and we make the right choice.
May we bring joy to our world today, both in doing the right thing (serving God out of love and respect, not compulsion – see 2 Corinthians 9:6-8), and in letting others do the same.
From Sunday School lesson prepared for (and delivered on) November 29, 2020.
- Christian Standard, Volume CLV, Number 11, pages 89-90. © 2020 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- The College Press Commentary, Philippians, Colossians & Philemon, by Anthony L. Ash, Ph. D. College Press Publishing Company, © 1994.
- Encyclopedia of the Bible, via BibleGateway.com.
- Theology of Work Bible Commentary, via BibleGateway.com.
- Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Matthew Henry. 1706, via BibleGateway.com.