Really? Forgive?

Scripture: Philemon 1:17-25

Series: Philemon

In her book, Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens introduces her readers to a young girl named Kya who lives in Barkley Cove, NC. The locals of Barkley Cove refer to Kya as “Marsh Girl.” She had lived a hard, lonely life, abandoned and forgotten by virtually everybody. As her story unfolds, one of the characters returns to the marshes of North Carolina, which Kya calls home. The returning character is Tate. Tate was her first love and had become the only family she knew. He had left the swamp for success elsewhere, promising to return for her but never did, and he never wrote to explain why.

One night, Tate came up to her front door. Kya is enraged at the sight of him as he attempts to apologize:

“Kya, leaving you was not only wrong, but it was also the worst thing I have done or ever will do. I have regretted it for years and will always regret it. I think of you every day. I’ll be sorry I left you for the rest of my life. I truly thought you wouldn’t be able to leave the marsh and live in the other world, so I didn’t see how we could stay together. But that was wrong.”

Finishing his plea, Tate watched her until she asked, “What do you want now, Tate?”

He responded, “If only you could, in some way, forgive me.”

As Kya looked at her toes and thought, “Why should the injured, the still

bleeding, bear the onus (burden, responsibility) of forgiveness?”

It’s doubtful that you haven’t asked yourself a similar question when faced with the decision of forgiving someone who has hurt you deeply. Even today, as we look at forgiveness, someone’s face might be in your mind’s eye, someone whose wound still bleeds from time to time when the scab is peeled away because of a trigger experienced or name spoken. You might be able to replay the act of betrayal precisely as if it happened five minutes ago instead of decades ago. The pain you feel today could be as excruciating as it was during the first few minutes after you first experienced the injustice.

Why does God expect us to forgive others when we still carry the debilitating effects and feel the throbbing pain of someone else’s mistreatment of us?

This call to forgive others as fully and completely as our Heavenly Father has through Christ is radically different than what our culture and flesh bid us to do. 

Just think about some of the following questions and situations. 

Why does God want me to forgive someone who abused me as a child? From the world’s viewpoint, how could God even desire someone to forgive another for such a heinous act? Why should the abused forgive their abuser?

Why would I even forgive my spouse for having an affair? How can God even think it suitable for me to reconcile the marriage even though my spouse is repentant and bearing the fruit of repentance? Our flesh and culture would say to take that spouse for all they are worth and inflict as much pain on them as possible to avenge the wrong. Why should the cheated forgive the cheater?

For students, you might wonder how why you would forgive your sibling, friends, or peers for the harsh and even degrading words spoken to you or about you. You may have the opportunity to forgive someone for sending or posting an embarrassing picture or video of you around the school. In both instances, the students and parents might find it difficult to even think of a reason to forgive the other offending students. Why should the bullied forgive their bully?

Many injustices cause us to ask why we should even attempt to forgive. Yet, even for believers who understand why we should forgive others because we have experienced God’s gracious forgiveness in our own lives, we might wonder and wrestle with, how can I forgive such a wrong?

Philemon may have been asking himself similar questions after finishing Paul’s letter that asked him to forgive Onesimus radically for every wrong committed against him. He might have found himself in the wrestling match of his life, wondering how he could receive unfaithful Onesimus in the same way he would receive his faithful friend Paul (v17). If Philemon chose to forgive Onesimus, it would be an encouragement to the church but an enigma to those outside the church. If he were too gracious, it could foster a rebellious attitude amongst his other servants towards him. If he chose to punish Onesimus and demand him to pay for the losses himself, it would have been a discouragement to Paul and the church at Colossae but deemed appropriate by the culture at large.

Then again, maybe he didn’t ask questions; could it be that he understood why he was to forgive Onesimus, now a brother in Christ, in such a way? Perhaps, Philemon already understood why Paul’s request for forgiveness was sensible and possible. Given Philemon’s character and depth of relationship with Christ, the Holy Spirit might have been able to very quickly connect the dots in his heart and mind to the man who positioned himself to make this kind of forgiveness possible and reasonable – Jesus. 

Either way, as we finish Philemon, Paul reminds us why God expects us to forgive others and how we can forgive others for even the most head-shaking acts against us. 

After Paul requests Philemon to accept Onesimus just as he would receive him, Paul offers to pay him for any losses he accumulated because of Onesimus’ actions. 

Read Philemon 1:18-22

We aren’t exactly sure how costly Onesimus’ run away was to Philemon. Philemon might have spent money on Onesimus’ replacement due to his absence. Verses 18 and 19 indicate that Onesimus probably stole money and other resources from Philemon to fund his getaway. Since Onesimus was assisting Paul in Rome, it is unlikely that he could have saved an amount of money that would have come close to making restitution to Philemon.

Paul knew that the law required restitution to be made by the offender to the offended party (Numbers 5:6-8). Restitution is an essential component of forgiveness. Philemon would have been right to demand Onesimus pay an amount equivalent to the losses incurred by his actions. But remember, it isn’t wrong to be gracious. When we do extend grace, we are acting like our Heavenly Father (Exodus 34:6; Ephesians 5:1). Paul, though, acting as peacemaker, offered to fully pay the debt that Onesimus owed Philemon to relieve Philemon of any pressure in deciding how to handle the situation (1:14, 18).  

In Paul’s willingness to pay Onesimus’ debt to restore his relationship with Philemon, we see a vivid picture of Christ’s work. Philemon, like God, had been wronged. Onesimus, like the sinner, needed reconciliation. Paul offered to absorb Onesimus’ debt by paying it himself to reconcile Onesimus to Philemon. Reconciler is the same role that Jesus fulfills in the relationship between sinners and God. Paul, like Christ, was willing to pay the price to make reconciliation possible.

In his book, Searching for Christmas, Pastor and author J.D. Greear shares a conversation he had with a Muslim that explains why the price required to make us right with God was Christ Himself.

J.D. Greear writes,

I remember a Muslim asking me when I lived in Southeast Asia, why would God need somebody to die in order to forgive our sin? He said, “If you sinned against me, and I wanted to forgive you, I wouldn’t make you kill your dog before I forgave you. Why would God require some kind of sacrifice to forgive?”

Here’s how I answered him:

Choosing to forgive somebody means that you are agreeing to absorb the cost of the injustice of what they’ve done. Imagine you stole my car and you wrecked it, and you don’t have insurance and or the money to pay for it. What are my choices? I could make you pay. I could haul you before a judge and request a court-mandated payment plan. If you were foolish enough to steal my $1.5 million Ferrari (No, I do not actually own a Ferrari), you might never pay it off, and you’d always be in my debt.

But I have another choice. I could forgive you …. What am I choosing to do if I say, “I forgive you”? I’m choosing to absorb the cost of your wrong. I’ll have to pay the price of having the car fixed. … You have no debt to pay—not because there was nothing to pay, but because I paid it all. Not only that, I’m choosing to absorb the pain of your treatment of me. … I’m choosing to give you friendship and acceptance even though you deserve the opposite.

This is always how forgiveness works. It comes at a cost. If you forgive someone, you bear the cost rather than insisting that the wrongdoer does. And that is what Jesus, the Mighty God, was doing when he came to earth and lived as a man and died a criminal’s death on a wooden cross.

Through J.D. Greear’s conversation with this Muslim and Paul’s words and example, we see why God commands us to forgive others in such a way that leaves onlookers puzzled and the forgiven befuzzled. The command for the wounded to bear the burden of forgiveness because Christ bore the burden of our sin to make forgiveness a reality for the sinners that wounded Him (Isaiah 53:4-6, 11; Colossians 3:13). 

Paul called Philemon to radically forgive Onesimus because God had radically forgiven Philemon through Christ (Ephesians 4:32; Philemon 1:5). He asked Philemon, the wounded, to forgive the sinner that wounded him. Paul asked Philemon to receive Onesimus, restore Onesimus to service, and either accept Paul’s payment on Onesimus’ behalf or, though unspoken, Philemon to absorb his losses because of Onesimus. This totality of forgiveness is costly, but this is what Jesus did for us and, thus, why we are to forgive others in the same way. 

1:18-22 shows us why we are to forgive others, but how can we find the strength to forgive others? Let’s finish the letter to find out.

Read Philemon 1:23-25

Philemon was most likely already convicted of his need to forgive Onesimus, just like we are often aware of our need to forgive others because of the Spirit’s convicting work. However, despite knowing what he needed to do and probably even feeling compelled to forgive Onesimus, Philemon might have been at a loss on where he would find the strength to forgive Onesimus. Honestly, anyone who has ever agreed that they needed to forgive someone and desired to do so has also wondered where they would get the strength for their will to forgive to override their emotions of anger, hurt, vengeance, and bitterness.

Paul knew what he was asking Philemon to do would be impossible in his own strength. It was an impossible request because our flesh seeks vengeance. And even though paul referred to the law of Moses in Numbers to find wisdom on how to handle the conflict at hand, the law itself couldn’t provide forgiveness because Onesimus couldn’t fulfill his debt to Onesimus. Since Onesimus couldn’t meet the law’s requirements, justice was required with no margin for grace and forgiveness. 

In verse 25, Paul closes with a prayer for Philemon, his household, and the Colossae church would receive the grace needed to forgive Onesimus. Paul knew Philemon couldn’t forgive Onesimus in his power, but he knew that Philemon could forgive Onesimus if he relied on Christ (Philippians 4:13) to supply his strength. Knowing this truth, Paul prayed that Philemon would have the same grace that allowed Jesus to forgive those carrying out his execution (Luke 23:34).   

In November 1984, Wilma and Cliff Derksen’s 13-year-old daughter, Candace, went missing on her way home from school in Winnipeg, Canada. Six and a half weeks later, her body was discovered at a shack not far from her house. On the night their daughter’s body had been found, friends visited that evening with food and stayed on into the night. At 10:30 pm that evening, after most of their friends had left, the Derksens heard a knock at the door. 

As they opened the door, a man introduced himself as a parent of a murdered child. He said they now belonged to an exclusive club no one wants to join. They invited him to the kitchen table, and for the next two hours, he told them vividly everything he’d lost – his health, relationships, concentration, and ability to work. He’d even lost all memory of his daughter because now he could only think of the murder, the trauma, and the hate that followed.

Cliff and Wilma went to bed that night terrified by the graphic picture he’d painted. Having just been through the pain of losing their daughter, it now seemed they might lose everything else. They decided that night that they would respond differently and chose the path of forgiveness.

Their decision was set in concrete the next day at the press conference when a reporter asked them what they thought of the offender because they expressed their intention to forgive their child’s murderer. From then on, they became known as the couple who had forgiven. They were in the public eye expressing their desire to forgive. Looking back, Wilma admits that she and her husband didn’t know what forgiveness looked like in the face of murder. Still, they learned from their encounter with the father, who had also lost a child, the devastation not forgiving their daughter’s murder would bring. 

Three decades after the tragic loss of their daughter, their decision to forgive their daughter’s murderer aroused the curiosity of author Malcom Gladwell. While writing his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, he traveled to Winnipeg to visit Wilma. Gladwell just had to know where the Derksens found the strength to say the things they were saying in public. He had to know where two people find the power to forgive in such a tragedy. 

The short and sweet answer was their Christian faith. Their faith and example had a powerful influence on Malcom as it caused him to return to the Christian faith of his childhood that he had drifted from.

Jesus paid the ultimate price to make us right with God, and it will cost us when we obediently forgive others too. However, the cost to forgive is less than the bankruptcy that unforgiveness produces.  

Christ calls us to absorb the wrong hurled against us and forgive because He has absorbed the evil we hurled against God, forgiving us and hurling our sins into the depths of the sea (Psalm 103:12; Micah 7:19) to restore us to God!

This video illustrates the power of God in forgiving us, resulting in our ability to forgive others.

Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae was written and arrived at the same time as Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul’s general instructions to Philemon and the church in Colossae concerning their treatment and forgiving of one another had immediate implications for their relationship with Onesimus, once a runaway rebel, now a brother in Christ. If anyone had any questions about how they should respond to Onesimus since his repentant return, Colossians 3:12-13 would have given them clear direction.

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.

As we close the book and series Philemon, please memorize Colossians 3:12-13 and turn it into a prayer for yourself. Determine to be the type of disciple described in these verses, modeled by Philemon, and made possible by Jesus and His Spirit in us (2 Corinthians 1:21, 3:6 & 18; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). 

May we be people used by God whose examples and stories of forgiveness encourage others, inspire others, and glorify Jesus like Philemon. 

Sermon: Really? Forgive?  

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