Be spontaneous?

Boy, sometimes that apostle Paul could be a manipulative kind of guy.

Take a look at the letter he wrote to Philemon, one of his converts in the city of Colossae, someone he considered a friend and a partner in the work of the gospel.  Philemon had a sterling reputation among the Christians there; a house church met in his home.  But a delicate situation had arisen, and Paul wanted to make sure things went well.

The situation was this: one of Philemon’s household slaves–a man named Onesimus–had run away, and taken some of his master’s money to boot.  By law, if Philemon ever caught up with Onesimus, he would have him dead to rights.  But as providence would have it, Onesimus met Paul, gave his life to Christ, and the two men became fast friends.

Now what?  Paul knew he had to send Onesimus back to face the music.  Being a prisoner of the empire himself, there was no way Paul could harbor a fugitive slave.  But how would Philemon respond when Onesimus returned?  Paul decided to write a letter to encourage his friend Philemon to do the right thing.

And what a letter.  Here’s part of it:

Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love.  I then, as Paul–an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus–I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. … 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 will be spontaneous and not forced. (Philm 8-10, 12-14, NIV)

It sounds like a classic case of what’s been called the “Be spontaneous!” paradox, as when a wife says to her husband, “I want you to spontaneously bring me flowers every once in a while to show that you love me–but don’t do it because I told you to.”  Many a husband has experienced immediate brain freeze in such a situation.

Similarly, it sounds like Paul is saying, “I could order you to do this, but I’m not going to, because I want you to do this spontaneously, out of love.”  Paul mentions his own pitiable estate, and how much he loves Onesimus and wishes he could keep him around.  But no, he would never do such a selfish thing–it just wouldn’t be right.  So he sends Onesimus back, giving Philemon the opportunity to do the right thing.  Spontaneously, of course.

If you were in Philemon’s place, wouldn’t you feel just a teeny bit manipulated?

I still feel that way when I read that passage, at least a bit.  That’s probably my therapy training talking, and I would still be concerned if I found a husband and wife communicating with each other in this way.

But that’s not the situation here.  Paul is a spiritual mentor to both men, and his top priority is to see the gospel worked out in their relationship and in each of their lives individually.  We don’t see it here in the letter, but surely Paul has already had to do some convincing to get Onesimus to do the right thing by going back.

The letter addresses the other side of the relationship.  And the paradox into which Paul puts Philemon is no different than what we have to do in the spiritual or moral education of our children.  We want our kids to do what’s right because it’s right, and not because we told them to.  But they don’t get to that place unless they first do what we tell them to do, not because they understand what’s right or wrong, but because they see us doing the same thing, and because they trust us, love us, and know that we love them.

That’s not to say that Paul would be completely above a little verbal jujitsu if he thought the situation demanded it.  But my reaction to that passage probably says more about me than about Paul.  I don’t like being told what to do, and I like it even less when someone tries to manipulate me into doing something.

I prefer the life of the autonomous and rational moral agent, sizing up situations on my own, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to my own conclusions.  Thanks for the input, Paul–now would you just run along and let me make my own decision?

We do, of course, have to make decisions, some of them in situations as sticky as the one in which Philemon found himself.  Hopefully, we will make the wisest and best decisions we can.

But the Bible seems to suggest that wisdom comes at the price of obedience.  Sometimes we have to do what our Father tells us to do, even if we don’t understand.  We do it because we trust him and love him, and because we know that he loves us.

I’m guessing that Philemon probably didn’t worry too much about whether Paul was manipulating him.  And he probably did the right thing by Onesimus, whether out of humble obedience or spontaneous wisdom.

Because if he hadn’t, that little letter probably wouldn’t be part of our sacred text.