I always give thanks to God as I remember you during my prayers, hearing of your love and faith which you have for the Lord Jesus and for all the points, in order that the generous altruism of your faith may become active by the recognition of every good that is in us for Christ.
Love. Love is something that many of us think we know what it looks like. Ask people what love is and you can imagine that most people would have some portrait or picture of what love looks like. We may not be able to give a precise definition of love, but we have images of what we think is like. And yet, love seems to be far from us at times. At times, maybe our relationships, our communities, and our society can seem to be anything by loving. How is it that something that seems so intuitive and simple as love is something that doesn’t seem to really define the world around us? Because, in the end, love isn’t simple. Love isn’t natural for us. When our parents bring us into the world, they are biologically primed to give us love and we are dependent to receive and emotionally reciprocate that love (a possibility that doesn’t always come to reality, unfortunately), but to actually act in love for others, especially beyond the immediacy of the parental affection, is something we don’t naturally do. It is something we are capable of, but we have to learn how to love with our parents, within our families, without our communities, and so on. Love is more like a skill than it is a feeling, except the skill of love starts with a formation of our hearts to feel and intend to love before it then leads to the good action in loving others.
When we receive demonstrations of love from someone, or we remember the love of the past in anticipation of receiving it again, the makeup of our thinking is altered from what we might other think and do. Because we are always unconsciously surveying the world around us for potential threats to our well-being, when we feel a sense of safety and security in the (literal or metaphorical) arms of another, we feel a little bit protected from all these unconscious threats. The inclination towards stress and distress of our sympathetic nervous system is being toned down by the calming effect of our parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us to feel at peace because we feel there is someone who is there to take care of us. No longer bound by the dictates of self-protection, one begins to feel more at ease, leading to the possibility of becoming more generous and less defensive towards others.
Yet, precisely because we spend more energy monitoring how to protect ourselves rather than how to become generous and life-giving to others, it is the nature of our humanity that once we enter into this state of deeper calm in love, we have to figure out how exactly it is that we can show (more) love to others. Our brains can construct possible plans of action to protect ourselves outside of our awareness, but it doesn’t necessarily construct the same possibilities for giving love to others. As a result, even as receiving love prepares our heart to give love, but we have to figure out how exactly to do that. We don’t come with an inherent knowledge of the hopes, needs, concerns, and insecurities of other people that we can reach into to touch, nor do we inherently have knowledge as to how to effectively and meaningfully act in love to meet those deeper longings and anxieties. This basic “love-incompetence” is even more exacerbated if we have through the course of life learned how to protect ourselves from others or, God forbid, take advantage of others. As the competitiveness of society can induce pressures to get us to live in such a way in order to make something of our own selves, the more we give in to the pressures, the more we go beyond simply being love-incompetent and be moved more towards love-resistance. In such a state, to be a recipient of love doesn’t prime one to then give love, even if it may serve one’s own sense of safety and well-being, but that one’s mentality is actively held back by the attitudes one learns in entrenched self-protection or persistent self-enhancement. So, whether we are love-incompetent, love-resistant, somewhere in between, or progressing towards the depths of love, we don’t know to love by natural instinct. We may have an instinct longing for love and to love, but we have to discover and learn about this love.
This reality undergirds Paul’s letter to Philemon regarding Philemon’s slave Onesimus. Perhaps a runaway slave or simply AWOL, it seems that Philemon did not hold Onesimus in high regard, perhaps regarding him as worthless (Phm. 11). Slaves were valued primarily for the tasks they could perform, but were not regularly regarded and honored for their dutiful service.1 Instead, they were much more likely to be viewed derisively, as if they were good for nothing, incompetent, lazy, etc. because slave masters generally felt entitled to the service of their slaves. They did not feel fondness, warmth, or affection for their obedience. So, from whatever reports that Paul may have received from Onesimus, it seems word got to Paul that Philemon was something of a hard slavemaster. However, instead of trying to shame Philemon and force his hand regarding his treatment of Onesimus, Paul seeks to inculcate a sense of love and generosity in Philemon for Onesimus (Phm. 8-9, 14). In the end, Paul recognizes the potential for Philemon to act with love and to free Onesimus from any burdens he might have. including even an unexpressed hope that he sets Onesimus free (Phm. 19-21), but that he has to remind Philemon of the bond he shares with Paul first (Phm. 17).
What Paul expresses v. 6 is basically his hope for Philemon. Paul recognizes that Philemon has a generosity towards others rooted in altruisum. Often translated as “fellowship,” the word κοινωνία could be used to describe either the social reality of the associations that motivated people to share life and resources with each other or the internal attitudes that motivated people to participate in such bonds of sharing. As Paul ascribes this κοινωνία to his faith (τῆς πίστεώς) and uses the cognitive language of ἐπιγνώσει (“recognition”), most likely Paul has the internal attitude of Philemon in mind. Philemon has capacity to share with others within his heart. Yet, Paul’s prayer is that such a generosity becomes active (ἐνεργὴς γένηται), not just simply an internal matter, which will come by Philemon acquiring the knowledge that will help him to recognize (ἐπιγνώσει) the potential to do good that lives within him and the others that he is in relationship with (παντὸς ἀγαθοῦ τοῦ ἐν ἡμῖν), all for the ultimate purpose of Christ (εἰς ⸀Χριστόν). Paul’s prayer is that Philemon will learn and recognize the good thing to do, even as he has the personal capacity within himself love.
So, Paul’s letter serves to teach Philemon about this. The mastery of Paul’s letter is that he is essentially presenting himself as a model for how Philemon should treat Onesimus. Just as Paul could command Philemon but instead encourages him through love (Phm. 9: διὰ τὴν ἀγάπην μᾶλλον παρακαλῶ), Phileom could treat Onesimus from the position of power and authority over a slave, but is encouraged instead to show love the way Paul has loved Philemon. Paul presents himself as an exemplar for Philemon to imitate (cf. 1 Cor. 11.1). Having long taken advantage of Onesimus as a slave (even if the Roman society saw Philemon being entitled to Onesimus’ service), Paul is using the memory of his and Philemon’s friendship (Phm. 17) to teach Philemon a new way to regard others, not just Paul. Had Paul not said anything and Onesimus just returned home, it is hard to know what exactly would have happened, as we don’t know exactly what the issue is between Philemon and Onesimus. However, we can imagine that Philemon would have continued to regard him with an entitled and potentially exploitive mentality, even if he might not have been egregiously harsh. Paul’s letter is a teaching moment to help Philemon reframe how he should see Onesimus, not as a slave but as a fellow believer (Phm. 16).
This is the reality we all live in. Whether we are love-incompetent, love-resistant, or even in the process of growing the fruits of love, the movement towards a deepening is something that others help to bring out in us. Sometimes, we may have a teacher who is well-trained in the skill of love, much like Jesus or to a lesser extent Paul. Sometimes, we may be trying to figure it out with our fellow students of love, having to learn what needs there are and how to build up. However, we all have to learn how to love. Even if the capacity for love is within us, we must discover how to love. From parents, from communities, from friends, from churches, from spouses, even from children, and especially from the Triune God, we are set on a path where we can move from love-incompetence or love-resistance to love-skilled. To get there, however, we have to recognize we don’t fully recognize and understand this love as much as we might like to think we do nor that we are as effective at it as we might like to wish. This shouldn’t come from a place of shame, but from a place of hope and desire to live and participate in something better, even if what we have now might seem okay or good for us.
- In Luke 17.7-10, Jesus talks about the lack of honor and love that slaves did not receive for their obedience. As an aside, Jesus most certainly isn’t endorsing the idea of devaluing ourselves. Rather, in telling people who devalue others that they should devalue themselves in the same manner, the rhetorical point being made is basically that you should treat others as you would want to be treated.