When it's time to let go
Paul began his letter to Philemon by telling him how he’s being prayed for:
I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.
These aren’t just words of flattery. Instead, they are Paul’s acknowledgment of Philemon’s maturity and his deserved reputation for his recognizable love and faith. It is because of Philemon’s progress in becoming Christ-like that Paul can make a very personal request:
For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal, instead, on the basis of love. I Paul, as an elderly man and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, appeal to you for my child, whom I fathered while in chains – Onesimus. Once he was useless to you, but now he is useful to both you and me.
We are now introduced to the subject of Paul’s letter. Onesimus and Philemon had some sort of relationship problem…but at that time, Philemon was a Christian and Onesimus was not. Since that time, Onesimus has met up with Paul, who then taught him about Jesus. Under Paul’s guidance, Onesimus trusted Jesus for eternal life and became part of God’s family.
While Paul would often refer to the churches he planted as “his children,” there are only three people in the Scriptures that Paul directly refers to as “his child” – Timothy, Titus, and Onesimus. Given Paul’s reference to being an elderly man, it’s probable that Onesimus was, like Timothy and Titus, at the other end of the age spectrum. As the letter continues, it is clear how much Paul cares for Onesimus.
However, as a good father, Paul knows that the next step in Onesimus’ growth and development as a believer is to reconcile with Philemon.
I am sending him – a part of myself – back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that in my imprisonment for the gospel he might serve me in your place. But I didn’t want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be out of obligation, but of your own free will.
I’m certain that the tough part for Paul is that he will not be present to facilitate their meeting. Paul won’t be there to make sure Philemon and Onesimus do this right. He won’t be able to mediate their grievances. There’s no guarantee they can successfully reconcile on their own, but there little Paul can do about that while he’s in prison. So Paul does the best he can – he writes a personal letter to his dear friend on behalf of his son – and he sends Onesimus on his way.
He lets go.
Sometimes, as hard as that is…it’s for best. No matter how great our parents were, we couldn’t have grown like we did unless we left the comforts of their home. Mentors are beneficial for a season, and the best bosses can develop us for a time…but we grow the most when we have to trust God and apply the lessons we’ve learned.
Paul even admitted his struggle – I wanted to keep him with me. But he knew that Onesimus and Philemon would benefit more from this opportunity to be Christ-like after previously hurting one another. They couldn’t hold on to Paul’s hand and toddle around anymore; they needed to trust God and walk on their own. Both Onesimus and Philemon needed to choose the right thing, not out of obligation, but of their own free will.
I’ve been on both sides before. I’ve left my childhood home and the church I grew up in. I’ve had my mentor leave. I’ve also been the boss who left the team, knowing that my absence would be a catalyst for their growth. And soon, I’ll be sending my sons out into the world. Both sides are hard.
When those moments arrive, it’s best to trust God and let go.