The Problem With Forgiveness

Just preached this one on Philemon… yes, the book. 21 out of 25 verses of it:

If you don’t think popular culture has an effect upon the mind, I can tell you that I’m living, breathing evidence to the contrary. Because when I was a mere tyke, 5 years old or so, I was completely fascinated by running away.

Now, lest you think that there might have been a reason for this, like family issues or anything like that, I can assure you that wasn’t the case. Granted I had three older sisters, which constituted grounds for insanity, but I really do think my fascination with running away had everything to do with cartoons.

Because have you ever noticed? Cartoons romanticize running away! They always have you sitting there with your buddy and you’ve got one of those sticks with a little knapsack at the end of it. And the knapsack has whatever you need in it, like steak or something, so you’ve got all you need right there. And you and your friends get to camp out underneath the stars by the fire.

Oh, and let’s not forget that your primary mode of transportation, aside from walking, is a train. And what kid doesn’t like a train?

You get to leap into one of those empty boxcars as it’s moving and it’ll take you all over the place, and, if you’re lucky, you might meet some new friends in one of those boxcars who play guitar or harmonica or something.

I mean, running away was practically sponsored by Looney Tunes.

So, at the ripe old age of five, I decided running away was the life for me. I convinced a friend of mine who lived down the street that it was also in his best interest, so we packed up—what we packed, I have no idea… I don’t really know what a 5 year old packs on his own—and we made out for the open road.

I don’t remember if I checked with my mom first to make sure it was okay.

Regardless, we left. And we walked and we walked and we walked some more. We made it about one block before we decided it was time to set up camp.

We found a nice little patch of open grass that seemed the perfect place for us to sleep. So we got our stuff out and made ourselves at home.

A little while after that, she received a phone call.

“Mrs. Goodlet?”


“Hi, we live in your neighborhood, and your son and one of his friends are camping in our yard and just asked us what’s for breakfast.”

I don’t remember much of what happened after that. I remember my mom showing up, much to my surprise, and I know she wasn’t too thrilled. I imagine the rest of that day wasn’t too easy.

But, then again, facing those you’ve run away from rarely is…

Philemon is an easy book to pass over in the Bible. Has 25 verses, barely a page long. You might stumble upon it if you’re looking for Hebrews or Titus or one of Paul’s letters to Timothy.

It is undisputedly a letter from Paul, meaning scholarship holds this letter up as something definitely written by Paul’s own hand.

And, as we just read, it centers around the relationship between Philemon–presumably a wealthy slave owner within the early Christian community (and someone who, as verse 19 suggests, was one of Paul’s own converts)– and Onesimus, a runaway slave belonging to Philemon who, as verse 10 implies, is also a recent convert to the faith under Paul.

The letter hinges around the fact that Onesimus has done something wrong to his master, and that Onesimus should be punished for whatever he did. We don’t know what he did.

Maybe he stole something.

Maybe he hurt someone.

Or maybe Onesimus was running away from something in his own life.

Whatever the case, Onesimus is a runaway slave and Paul takes up Onesimus’ cause, pleading to Philemon on the slave’s behalf.

“Let him come back to you,” Paul says. “Whatever the cost, let me repay it for him. Charge it to my account. Just don’t hurt the boy.”

I wonder how Philemon felt when he got this letter.

I wonder if he thought, “Okay Paul! Whatever you say. I’ll be glad to take him back, no strings attached.”

I think it’s far more likely that he thought, “What?! Take him back?  Welcome him? A slave? As a brother? Since when do you tell me what to do with my property? Who are you to tell me how to deal with my people? And you… you just want me to forgive him? For running away? For wronging me?  For stabbing me in the back? You ask a lot, Paul.”

Of course, I could just be projecting upon Philemon how I would react.

But isn’t it human for us to hold grudges when somebody runs away?

For any number of reasons, really: relationships die, people get betrayed, feelings are hurt, fallings out happen. Distance grows between people, and the natural thing is to run away from the situation… or, on the flip side, to let the person who’s doing the running to just keep on going. They hurt me, so I don’t need them. Just go!

Yet Paul’s telling us to do something completely different. He’s telling us to stop. Go back. Turn towards each other. Listen. Love one other. Welcome each other. Forgive each other…

Recently, I was watching the film Invictus. Don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a great story about how President Nelson Mandela used the sport of rugby to rebuild and unify South Africa in the wake of years of racial segregation there. Mandela himself had spent 27 years serving in prison, principally as a result of his fighting injustice in South Africa and its racially driven apartheid policy.

In that movie, Mandela, who is played by none other than our nation’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, says, “Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon.” Forgiveness liberates the soul…

Mandela himself, not the Hollywood version, once said as he was trying to rebuild that divided country, that “if there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

Yet, the problem with forgiveness is that we’re not conditioned to run those roads: We’re trained to run roads named Bitterness and Resentment. We want to run away from our guilt. We want to run away from being like Philemon and having to welcome people back because we’re human and we can do it on our own and you did me wrong so I’m going to hold it against you.

We want to run away, run away, run away… yet we’re supposed to do something completely unnatural and ignore all of that conditioning and run towards one another… and we’re supposed to say,  “You’re no longer just my brother, my sister, my classmate, my Mom, my Dad, my son, my daughter, my friend, my enemy, my ex, my addict, my betrayer, my person who I know talked behind my back, my person who stole from me or cheated me or whatever the case may be.

You. Are. Loved.”

If you were wondering, my mom did take me home. She probably didn’t want to at that point, but she did. And I quickly had to get over my fascination with running away. My parents eventually wallpapered my room with train décor, so maybe that tempered the severe lackage of boxcars in my life.

But my mom did forgive me, though she still tells that story. “What’s for breakfast?”

I know, though, that forgiving others and maybe yourself isn’t always that easy. I know running towards something or someone may be asking too much. I get that.

Just thank the good Lord for grace, right? We all need it, because it’s with difficult issues like these when we remember what a gift it really is.

To think… for all of the wrongs we’ve committed against one another and against God… God still loves us.

God is always running towards us.

Now what if we followed the lead?


~ by presbytide on September 7, 2010.

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