By Lindsay Sampson
The unfaithful servant Onesimus fled his master Philemon. I could conjecture about the circumstances beyond that simple fact, outlined by Paul in his letter to Philemon. I could supplement the conjectures with history about slavery and bond-service within the Roman Empire, with details about the goings-on in a typical household like Philemon’s. That’s all a Google search away, and it’s not really what I care about.
Onesimus fled Philemon. He abandoned his vocation. He sinned against his fellow believer in Christ.
I have recently had to revisit the wounds of an old break-up. The details are unimportant, and it would certainly be unkind to my ex-boyfriend to share them with a broader audience. It wasn’t the break-up, however, that hurt me most, but a slow realization that this man had not treated me kindly throughout our relationship. The relationship had left lasting scars on not only my identity, but my faith. I felt deeply betrayed, unloveable, and I despaired of my worth before God and men, in no small part because of his words and actions.
I struggled to forgive this man. The days after it ended with him, I was catatonic with near-physical pain. It reads like the diary of a teenage girl, but the hurt was very real. It was a constant pain in my chest. I wanted to retch because of it, to scream loudly and forcefully enough to match the tone of my thoughts. But I lay still for hours, staring at the popcorn ceiling of my bedroom.
Months after it ended, I was only ever a memory away from being reduced to a sobbing heap. I would remember a comment he had made to me or just a place where some hurt had transpired, and in an instant I was gone. I was wrapped up in my hurt, I was only the sound of my convulsive crying and mumbled prayers to God to take the pain away or to deal justice against him. An image I frequently conjured to comfort myself was crying on Jesus’ lap or feet. I would imagine myself like the woman who washed His feet with her hair, my own hot tears falling off my nose and onto Him. I would imagine this most vividly at the Lord’s Supper. At that table, I reminded myself that indeed Jesus was physically present, comforting me with His very body–– Christ, in all His gentle mercy, given for me.
Now, years after that relationship, I still smart with the hurt, but by God’s grace I have moved on. Yet only a few days ago, some news reached me through the grapevine, and the man I struggled to forgive was thrust into the forefront of my mind.
“I am sending him back to you,” Paul wrote. “Sending my very heart.” What Paul wrote to Philemon is certainly what Christ says to me. He wrote, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you.”
God unquestionably commands us to forgive. I think of Jesus, whom I physically cling to in my mind’s eye. I clutch His legs, like the woman who bathed his feet, and I imagine the man who hurt me so deeply, my ex-boyfriend, approaching us. Christ is the Lord of my ex-boyfriend, too, his comfort and refuge from sin. I don’t want to share Jesus with that man. I want Jesus to list out all the hurt that man caused me, and then cast him from His presence.
Instead, as Paul appealed to Philemon for the sake of his son in Christ Onesimus, so Christ appeals to me for the sake of his child and my ex-boyfriend. “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account” (Philemon 18).
I am not God. I am not capable of blanching my mind of any stain of sin or hurt against me. Like all humans, I relive most every wrong committed against me, harboring hate and ill-will toward my enemies. I wish God would be angry at them and punish them for my sake.
For the sake of Christ, I forgive my ex-boyfriend. I put “forgive” in the present tense, because it is a daily struggle. When he comes to mind, I pray for him and for my own bitterness, to not give any opportunity to the devil. When the hurt resurfaces, I charge it to Christ. In Him are rich stores of mercy and forgiveness. His love does not run out, nor has His Spirit ever abandoned me in my struggle. In my own failure to forgive, He is good enough to forgive me.
I longingly await the time when He brings a perfect healing. Both I and the man who hurt me will stand before Him with the joy of those forgiven much, in perfect peace.
Lindsay Sampson is a senior at Concordia University Nebraska majoring in Secondary Education and English. She is (impatiently) engaged to Andrew Bloch, an M. Arts student at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, to be married June 2018. Together they nerd out over video games and philosophy and videos of babies and puppies. View Lindsay’s education and writing portfolio at lindsaybloch.weebly.com.