At the Risk of Robbing Tim O’Brien

There are things I carry. Cumbersome things like a satchel full of work that needs doing. Things to put away and up, out and down. Armfuls of things from this store or that.

And there are weightier things too. The grief that hangs over me at the thought of my grandfather’s death. The worry that comes from lingering too long over world news. The dull panic that only an adult can know, the kind that comes with the understanding that success and security are ephemeral—the line between them and their antonyms thinner than the logical edge of Occam’s razor.

I pick them up each day and place them on the shelves of my shoulders, bear their invisible weight like Sisyphus once did his stone. And even at rest, I never quite manage to put them down. Instead, I brace myself and pick up new burdens in an attempt to lessen those I already have. A freelance job to cover the cost of that new whiz-bang-gotta-have-thing that might make life easier, safer, better, or more pleasing. A relationship that should make me feel less vulnerable. And in these things I put my trust, though they’re as costly and as ineffectual as Maginot Lines. The peace I crave is not in them, and yet I soldier on, dragging them behind me, leaving ragged scars in the earth.

But I’m not the first to think such madness wise. The prophet Isaiah (46:1-4 ESV) says:

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
    their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
    as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
    they cannot save the burden,
    but themselves go into captivity.

Old gods of Babylon—deaf and dumb as the gold that bore their image—can do nothing for the men who made them or the flagging beasts who lug them to their hollow temples. But then there is the promise of the One who tells me His yoke is easy and His burden light.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb;
 even to your old age I am he,
    and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
    I will carry and will save.

I was borne—carried, supported, held up—before the world began. Sustained eons before I took my first lungful of air. Borne before I was born. And until my hair turns gray and brittle as old paper, until the very moment I wheeze my last, He will bear me still. Why? Not because He owes me. Not because He needs the challenge. Four simple statements make the reason plain.

I have made, and I will bear. I will carry and will save.

No if you… conditions, no because you… stipulations. “You are mine,” He tells me. “Mine to carry from before birth and beyond death. And I do so because you are my treasure. I loved you before I knit you together in your mother’s womb. Before I gave you brown eyes and long fingers, a love of words and an ear for music. I carried the weight of you, light as an eyelash, in my righteous right hand.”

And so—for the moment, until I stubbornly and disobediently pick up my load again—I bask in that love. And it is so beautiful I can hardly bear it.

Waiting for Onesimus

Isaiah 55:11 reads, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” It is an oft-paraphrased verse that is usually quoted in a more stylized, King James Version kind of way—“My Word shall not return void.” Isn’t that the truth?

Every time I earnestly study God’s Word looking for a deeper understanding of Him and what He would have for my life, I come away with more than I can process in a single sitting. It provides answers…in spades! This blog may be a bit on the circuitous side, so let me apologize for that in advance. However, I felt like saying something on paper was better than letting it roll around in my head, unformulated, any longer.

This all started yesterday when I read all of Titus in my daily Bible study. I started noticing a pattern throughout Paul’s letter—the repeated use of the phrase “good works.” In fact, there are seven uses of this phrase, only two of which are variations.  The two that are different (“lover of what is good” and “disqualified for every good work”) both refer to what a Christian leader must be. The former phrase describes those fit to be elders while the latter is applicable to the people of Crete, many of whom were grossly unqualified.

Having studied Galatians, I know that works are not what “earn us a spot” in heaven. In fact, our works are nothing more than “filthy rags” before God, worthless in the scope of eternity (Isa. 64:6). However, good works are something we cannot help but produce as fruit of the spirit. Once saved, we can manifest our gratitude to the Father by serving others and bringing His light to the world.

I got to thinking about “good works” and what, for lack of a better term, “qualifies” a work to be good. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I read stories about amazing missionaries who are converting entire villages in African countries with names I can’t even pronounce and marvel. I hear about people who are fighting to stop child sex trafficking by taking in girls despite the daily threats they receive from the animals trying to sell them, and I want to stand up and applaud. THOSE are “good works” in my book. Through of actions like these, lives are lives being transformed because of the strength security in Christ provides.

What do I have to offer in return? My best example of a “good work” this week was getting a six-pack of Jello chocolate pudding down off the top shelf for an adorable old lady. How is that even comparable!?

Thankfully, we are not meant to compare our good works against others’. In fact, we are not to judge anyone’s actions, including our own. That’s God’s privilege. Paul writes:

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God (1 Cor. 4:1-5).

God knows why we do good works, and that is even more important than what we do. Buying one homeless man a meal is just as “good” as running a twenty-four hour soup kitchen if it is done with the right intentions—to show kindness to others and share the love of Christ with them.

I’ve been asking God to show me what good works He would have me do. I’ve even told Him, “Father, even if I’m afraid or what You ask makes me uncomfortable, I know You will help me to see it through. I’m willing.” When in prayer, that sounds all well and good, but I would like to think I genuinely mean it. I want to be a “good and faithful servant” and do things that honor my Savior (Matt. 25:21).

But then I read the book of Philemon and swallowed audibly.

After reading the twenty-five verses of this short epistle, I realized that there are times when God gives people moments in their lives when they have to “put their spiritual money where their mouth is” and show that their faith is more than window dressing, some sort of Christian Kabuki theater.

Here’s the backstory—Philemon was a wealthy Christian living in Colossae. His slave, Onesimus, had run away from him and attempted to hide in Rome. However, God had other plans, and Onesimus was brought to Paul who was under house arrest at that time. Paul, who had likely led Philemon to Christ, led the slave to salvation as well. Paul enjoyed Onesimus’ company and desired to keep him nearby, but he knew that healing the breach with his former master was more important and that more spiritual good could be accomplished by sending him back with a letter.

Under the law, Philemon had the right to kill Onesimus. In fact, beating him within an inch of his life would have been viewed by many as merciful in the extreme. However, Paul doesn’t suggest that. Instead, he asks his friend to receive his runaway slave as “a beloved brother” because they were both a part of the family of God.  What he was asking was unheard of at that time! To show mercy to a slave, a person you had previously owned? It was nearly unthinkable.

Paul might have made it easier if he’d ordered the master to forgive the slave, but he does not. Paul writes, “…I wanted you to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion as it were, but voluntary. . . .Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Phil. 1:14, 20-21).

In essence, Paul tells his friend, one of the many he brought to a saving knowledge in Christ, “I know you understand the concept of forgiveness because you have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. That’s all well and good, but now I am asking you to practice it as well.” Philemon had every right to abuse, starve, and kill this man that Paul was sending back to him. The world would not have condemned him for any of those actions. In fact, he would draw more ire for doing what Paul was asking him to do—“Receive him as you would me” (Phil. 1:17).

I’m sure Paul sent the poor slave home, letter in hand, hoping that his fellow Christian would do the right thing having been given the choice. And that is what God does with us. He offers salvation to all, but only a few receive. He gives us the choice to heed or disregard His will, all the while earnest that we’ll choose the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13). However, the asking does not stop there. God will continue to push us, to present us with moments and times where we can choose to follow His leading and His will for our lives, leaving it up to us as we grow in faith.

According to all the records and commentaries on this epistle, Philemon did indeed accept Onesimus back into his household, even freeing him from slavery. Many even claim that he “was the Onesimus consecrated a bishop by the Apostles and who accepted the episcopal throne in Ephesus following the Apostle Timothy”! Philemon was able to exercise forgiveness and allow it to strengthen his testimony, and because of it, his formerly rebellious slave became a useful servant of Christ.

The symbolism of their names makes it altogether wonderful. Philemon means “affectionate,” and it is he who shows Christ-like affection for his lost servant. Onesimus means “profitable,” and that is exactly what he became because of Philemon’s willingness to forgive.

Had the Holy Spirit not been working in Philemon and the man himself sensitive to His leading, how many others might have missed out on seeing Christian forgiveness in action? How many might not have come to know the saving grace of Christ Jesus? This is an amazing example of practical righteousness, of Christian brotherhood and love that showed many people the way to salvation who might otherwise miss out.

After all, words and mighty ideals might sound good, but many people will not be willing to sit down and listen to a lengthy scriptural argument. Many care nothing for doctrine or spirituality, those things that show what many are doing is sinful and of the world. However, if they can see it in action and realize that being Christian is more than just a slogan on a t-shirt, hearts that might otherwise be firmly shut and locked against the Word might be opened—even if it is but a crack. That’s all the Holy Spirit needs.

Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the absurdist play, I am waiting for my Onesimus. Unlike their “friend” who never shows up, I know my moment will one day arrive. I will then have a choice to make—to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and be an effective witness or to let the opportunity pass.  Perhaps, Lord willing, there will be many such times. Therefore, I ask the Lord that I may be like Philemon, affectionate and willing to humble myself in His service , to be used as only He can use me for His glory.

 Soli Deo Gloria!