MATTHEW 6:12, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” These words were spoken by Jesus in the familiar verses known to us as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Jesus went on to say in verse 14 of the same chapter of Matthew, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
So many times when the subject of forgiveness is brought to our attention, either from the pulpit or admonishment from a friend, we are primarily concerned with our hurt or woundedness. Someone hurts our feelings and our friend understands but knows the scripture and instructs us that we must forgive. Our pastor gives an anointed sermon on forgiveness and we are reminded that perhaps we had not quite forgiven that past injury from long ago. I admit I too have fell victim to unforgiveness, at some time we probably all are guilty of not having a forgiving heart. We are trapped in our own hurt and self centered feelings. Our self pity inhibits our willingness to forgive the injuring party. The problem could very well be we are focused on what they did to us. Perhaps we need to look in the mirror side of forgiveness.
I believe there are two window panes as we view out our souls at forgiveness. The lower pane is an unobstructed look at our wound and the person who did it! We oft use this pane because with our head down in self pity it’s the only one we see. I have also found it is very difficult to allow forgiveness to stream out this window; the down draft keeps blowing back inward.
There is an upper pane to the window of our soul, this pane is mirrored. When we raise our head from self pity, we can look straight into the mirrored pane of forgiveness. There we see what Jesus said about forgiveness and our own shortcomings before Him. Many aspects are visible in this view. We see that we all fall short daily and need His forgiveness. Often we can see that we may have had a role in the event that wounded us, actually even causing hurt to the other person. Rarely is it all one person’s fault, especially in light of our Christian view as Jesus taught. Perhaps even we have continued to cause hurt to another and have yet to ask for forgiveness. The most excellent part of the upper window pane, is while we are looking up toward Christ, forgiveness flows in and out of our souls. We can forgive and be forgiven.
There is an example of forgiveness related in a story found in the New Testament. This story contains all the above elements of forgiveness. I believe the best part of this story is that we are left to speculate on how it ends, even supplanting ourselves into each role. What would we have done? Which window pane would capture our view?
My favorite example of forgiveness found in the Bible has to be the story of Onesimus. I can’t be sure why I like it so much, there are so many different aspects to the story, but I feel I am drawn to this true story from the aspect of the guy who did the wrong, or the obvious wrong. The fellow who was prompted to do the forgiving probably has much more to display as exemplifying a biblical incident of forgiveness. Even Paul who orchestrated the whole forgiveness proceedings from start to finish was a better testimony to forgiveness. So it is not that I like this one episode in God’s revealing Himself because great spiritual men forgave but because a small man found God’s forgiveness and was able to forgive himself and seek the forgiveness of those he had wronged. Oh, I firmly believe he had considered the consequences of his wrong acts before he turned to face his wrong, but the desire to act out what he had been given was even a stronger stimulus than fear of retribution. I believe this is a great example of forgiveness in the Bible, because one little man forgave himself, capturing the heart of what he had been given, forgiveness by Christ.
I like this story in the way it was written and feels, common. I will insert the proper descriptive information for correctness, but I believe the story becomes more relative in everyday truth. Let’s look at this Onesimus fellow, even his name is a contradiction to his character. He is a runaway slave, skipped town and even stole from his employer/owner Philemon. Onesimus means useful or beneficial in Greek, he could hardly be called that in view of his current circumstances.
I want to interject here a note about slavery and Christianity. I believe scripture would lead all men to believe they are servants/slaves to Christ alone. To enslave another would contradict how Jesus instructed us to love one another. In the period of this story slavery was most common and accepted throughout the Roman Empire and the known world. It was embedded in their culture. Historians believe there were approximately three slaves to every freeman by count at this time. Slavery was not a racial issue then. The Roman government practiced enslaving its captured nations rather than killing them. Most of the domestic slaves of that time were educated. Many were paid wages, bought their way to freedom, or were made free men after a length of service. Of course not all slaves at this time were treated well. Slavery has never been good for the enslaved, then, in our nation’s past, or now throughout the world. Back to our story of Onesimus, found in the Book of Philemon, New Testament, written by Paul as a letter. In his getaway he winds up in jail, we don’t know why, in Ephesus or Rome about A.D.60 or so. No matter where he was, he meets or remeets this guy we know as Paul the Apostle, small world of coincidence that they should meet. Onesimus receives the Gospel from Paul and is forgiven for his sins. He becomes a help to Paul in ministering to his needs while imprisoned and recaptures his name of useful. Along the way of becoming a servant not a slave, Simon must have forgiven himself too.
Let’s now consider Philemon, the namesake of the letter written by Paul from jail. Philemon was a prosperous Christian, a member of the church in Colossae, perhaps even a minister. Probably personally known by Paul and converted by hearing him preach. It is feasible to think Onesimus might have even seen Paul or known who he was while enslaved in Colossae. He was a gentile believer not necessarily a Roman citizen, so his legal claims to Onesimus as a runaway may not have been a matter of Roman law. Under Roman law Onesimus crime would have been punishable by death. The church may have met in Philemon’s house. Colossae was a well known market city in present day Turkey. Philemon undoubtedly grew up taking slavery as common in this area and culture. When Onesimus runs away taking some of what belonged to Philemon, he considers himself the injured party as would law and public opinion.
Paul in his letter to Philemon is presenting Onesimus back to him as rightful and even promises to make restitution for what was taken from him. Paul has hand written this letter to be carried back by Onesimus and personally presented to Philemon. There is more to this brief letter than returning a slave, much more. Paul sets about to plead with Philemon on Onesimus behalf. In his letter are several arguments to this end. Included in these, sometimes subtly, are admonishments and advice to Philemon to look at the mirrored pane of his own soul. Enslavement of Onesimus would be a big one, but Paul also makes him aware that he too was a sinner, now forgiven.
We must look at Paul as the playmaker in this story. As with many of Paul’s converts Onesimus takes on hardily the task of ministering to Paul for the sake of the Gospel. From Paul’s on writing we see that he preferred to have Onesimus stay and work with him. This is where we can only speculate what happened. I tend to think Onesimus was happy to be where he was but there was this inner nagging about the wrong he had done and he longed for forgiveness from Philemon and reconciliation. I like to think in Paul’s wisdom he saw that this was a God opportunity to reveal the practice of forgiveness and make plain the teaching of Christ, so he encouraged Onesimus to return and ask for forgiveness. As a measure of trust Paul inserted himself into the plan for Onesimus’ sake as well as Philemon. He could face punishment by returning and Philemon would be presented with a test of his faith to forgive and accept him back as his brother in Christ. Paul does not discount the wrong done by Simon nor try to minimize it. Paul realized that their transformation should have impact on their social interaction as well as their spiritual one. Paul does remind Philemon that he has the right to demand forgiveness but he does not. He chooses rather to appeal to his knowledge of God’s grace and love.
This story is a great example of forgiveness in the Bible and shows some practical application. Three stages of forgiveness, restoring humanity to the wrong doer, surrendering our right to get even, and blessing the one we forgive are all revealed in this story. The fundamentals of the healing process are told here. We see that wise counsel can reveal our own need to take the mirrored view, accounting our failures as well. We are reminded that it takes one to forgive but two to reconcile, maybe with the help of a third. Also we see that there are strings attached to forgiveness with reconciliation, just asks Philemon. This bible story reminds us that forgiveness is fair, a statement of severe honesty, and it is natural in our new creation. We saw Paul recognize God’s view of forgiveness as a must opportunity to be taken even with risk. Blame and judgment are recognized and not discounted so forgiveness can occur. Forgiveness can only truly occur when both panes of the window to our soul are opened before Christ.
In closing I do believe the best part of all the practical truth told in this story is being able to forgive ourselves. I hold that most important of the lessons of Philemon and forgiveness. How did Onesimus learn to forgive himself? We see the right of telling it to ourselves, over and over. We keep it to ourselves; we don’t flaunt it especially in front of the one we wronged. We do act like it though. We do something extravagant, to honor what we have been forgiven. I can’t tell you for sure how the story ends with Onesimus. One account says he not only was accepted, reconciled, and freed but that he went on to be a bishop and the head of the church in Ephesus after Timothy. This account also says he was imprisoned and martyred in Rome. The Eastern Orthodox Church recognizes him as Saint Onesimus. I don’t know. He may have been forgiven and returned to his social level of slave in Philemon’s household. He may have been reconciled and set free. He may have become Philemon spiritual partner and great things for the kingdom were done. I don’t know but I believe he was forgiven by God and himself. Now that’s the Gospel!