Forgive Us Our Trespasses

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You’ve been there. The pain of betrayal, wounds you don’t think will ever heal. Someone has broken your trust, hurt you deeply, and the thing you thought would never happen has become your reality. Where once was a healthy bond of strength, there’s now a gap filled with anger and sadness.

You’ve been on the other side too. You made a mistake, a poor decision, and whether intentional or not, you’ve broken someone’s trust. You’ve wounded, damaged a relationship, and now you’re at the mercy of those you’ve hurt, remorsefully wishing for things to be restored.

This is where we find Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s letter. We don’t have a lot of background regarding their situation, but from Paul’s writings there’s a few things we can surmise. It seems Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, a Christian brother. On what terms he left is uncertain, but Onesimus departs Philemon’s household and eventually meets Paul, who is in prison. Paul becomes Onesimus’ “father in the faith”, which leads him to intercede on Onesimus’ behalf to Philemon.

We don’t know what Onesimus did to Philemon. Perhaps he stole something, perhaps he ran away, and regardless of the motives behind his actions, Onesimus’ wound against Philemon merits a pleading letter from Paul. What I find so fascinating in Paul’s words is that he not only asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus, but to receive him as a brother and no longer a slave.

I think this is the true power behind forgiveness; it’s why Jesus commands this kindness of us. It’s because when we choose to forgive someone, we aren’t pretending what they did never happened. We’re allowing renewal, opening the doors so restoration can come in and place the debtor in a position of freedom. Is this not exactly what Jesus did for us?

I’ve found myself in situations like Philemon’s several times in my life. There are relationships where I’ve been wronged, someone’s sin has directly affected my life and I’ve had to suffer consequences for their actions. In those moments, I’ve had to choose whether to forgive and allow the process of restoration to begin, or to not forgive and allow bitterness and anger to fester in my heart.

I’ve also found myself in Onesimus’ position. There are relationships where I have wronged others, and those closest to me have had to suffer the consequences for my own sins and shortcomings. I can say with full confidence that there is no sweeter balm, no stronger action of healing, than when someone has experienced my sin and still chosen to extend forgiveness and grace to me.

Forgiveness is a process. In some cases it is a daily choice, and in others, specifically for those who aren’t willing to repent, restoration isn’t possible. But I believe it was possible for Philemon and Onesimus. It’s commonly thought Onesimus became a leader in the Christian church, and Paul even mentions him in the book of Colossians. I can’t help but wonder that perhaps Onesimus was able to strengthen and encourage so many lives in part because of Philemon’s forgiveness to him. What a powerful thought.

-Abby Moore Keith, Downtown Campus