Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus—
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 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 8-9, 12-14
My mother-in-law was bold in making requests. For example, she was famous for asking her kids if they wanted ice cream. When they said yes, she would say, “Great, while you’re up can you get me some too?” I am the opposite. I had to learn it is okay to ask for what I need. My unhealthy tendency was to expect people close to me (especially my husband) to discern what I wanted without me saying a word. Their inevitable failure to read my mind left me feeling resentful.
Experience taught me the pitfalls of insincere flexibility. I have learned it is kind to speak up and allow people to consider my needs. Over time, I have become better at voicing my wishes and saying no. While resentful compliance is problematic, so is making demands. We may get our way if we insist on it, but trust and goodwill go out the window. The alternative to both styles is making requests but letting go of the need to control the outcome. We express our wishes yet allow others to choose what to do with our ask.
Paul modeled this in today’s passage. He wanted Philemon’s runaway slave Onesimus to stay and help him while he was in prison for preaching the gospel. Paul loved Onesimus like a son, but having him stay without consent would be making the decision for Philemon. So, he sent Onesimus back with this letter. Paul’s position of authority in the church gave him the power to demand Philemon forgive or free Onesimus. However, rather than issuing an order, he appealed to Philemon “on the basis of love.” His example reminded Philemon that brotherly love, not power, should direct his decision.
In his writings, Paul never directly challenged the practice of slavery that was common in his day. Instead, he used the gospel to undermine the concepts used to justify forced labor. We do not know what Philemon chose to do, but it is hard to imagine him denying Paul’s request. Either way, the letter to Philemon is a great reminder to consider the needs of others as we make requests and to always lead with love.
- How willing are you to ask for what you need? When you ask, can you let go of the need to control the other person’s response?
- For Jesus’ perspective on leadership in the Kingdom of God, read Luke 22:24-27.