etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

An Overview of Philemon

Philemon is one of my favorite books, and it’s a surprisingly relevant one — both to our spiritual lives as well as to some current cultural trends. It’s a remarkably short book, one of the five shortest in the Bible. Paul’s letter to Philemon is focused yet deep, and we would do well to fully appreciate the implications therein.

The book is also unique in that it’s one of a very few letters written to individuals instead of to congregations. The letters to Titus and Timothy are other examples, and 2 John and 3 John may also be for individuals. This letter gives us an insight into how Paul interacted with his fellow Christians on a personal level and teaches us how to do the same.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Cultural Backdrop

Paul is writing this letter in regards to his time with an escaped slave named Onesimus who rightly belongs to Philemon. There’s a complication, however. Onesimus became a Christian during his time with Paul, and this fundamentally changes the relationship between Philemon and his slave. At the same time, Onesimus has broken the law, as has Paul by harboring him.

In ancient Rome, slaves were not looked upon as citizens in any way. As with the practice of slavery in the Untied States fewer than 200 years ago, slaves in Rome were property. They were soulless objects to be bought and sold as one would clothing or produce. Many Romans viewed slaves with a certain amount of fear and distrust. According to Naerebout and Singor in “De Oudheid,” there was a common saying in Rome: “As many enemies as slaves.”

According to Professor Keith Bradley, slaves were often criticized for:

  • Laziness and Loitering– People would complain about them mulling about in public entertainment areas.
  • Being a Threat– Many officials seemed to see unsupervised slaves as a threat to national security. (“They’ll revolt!”)
  • Being Murderers– Some slaves escaped captivity by killing their masters. They were often prime suspects in any murder regardless of evidence.
  • Theft– If food disappeared from a vendor’s stall, nearby slaves would face blame.
  • Vandalism– Slaves were frequently accused of defacing buildings and monuments.

Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Historian Moses Finley recounts that the tracking and capture of fugitive slaves was almost a national obsession. There were professional slave catchers one could hire to track an illegally freed slave. Those who harbored fugitive slaves faced punishment if caught. Recaptured slaves were branded on their forehead (F, for fugitivus). Slaves would even have collars to wear, proclaiming promises of reward should the slave be returned to their rightful owner. This was the climate under which Paul encountered Onesimus.

A Quick Outline

The letter to Philemon can be broken down into three basic sections:

  1. Paul’s greeting to Philemon (vss. 1 – 7)
  2. Paul’s appeal for Onesimus (Vss. 8 – 20)
  3. Paul’s confidence in Philemon (vss. 21 – 25)

Pauls’ Greeting and Thanksgiving

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. I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ. For I have great joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.

Philemon 4–7

Before Paul gets to the reason for his letter, he reaffirms the esteem in which he holds Philemon. He reiterates their common faith and relationship in Jesus Christ. When facing a challenging conversation, we should do the same. We should recall our commonalities in Christ and put our Christian love at the center of the conversation.

Can you imagine if Paul had jumped right to the part about Philemon’s escaped slave without this opening? Too often, that’s how we approach each other. “Do you know what your problem is?” “I have something I need to say to you.” We create walls where there should be bridges. In this case, Philemon has done nothing wrong, but Paul knows his request is going to be challenging. Therefore, he starts with their common ground.

Paul’s Appeal for Onesimus

So if you consider me a partner, accept him as you would me. And if he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand: I will repay it — not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self.

Philemon 17–19

When Paul reveals that Onesimus is with him, the very first thing he covers in vss. 10–11 is that this slave is now a Christian. This sets the tone for the rest of the letter and is the foundation upon which Paul bases his request. It’s hard to know how long Onesimus had been gone, but it’s safe to assume he was with Paul for some time. After all, Paul had time to teach Onesimus the gospel, and he calls Onesismus “my very heart.” On top of that, we know Philemon was part of the Colossian congregation (putting together Colossians 4:9 and Philemon 1–2), and the trip to Rome from Colossae would have been long.

Time can often make wounds deeper, and I wonder what Philemon felt when he saw Onesimus’s name in Paul’s handwriting. However, Paul doesn’t want Philemon to dwell on the past. He wants Philemon to accept this new reality that his escaped slave is now a brother in Christ, equal heir to salvation.

Look at the ways Paul seeks to help Philemon accept this:

  1. Paul admits that he wants to keep Onesimus with him, but he says he doesn’t want to force his friend’s hand (vs. 14).
  2. Paul makes the case that it might even be God’s will that Onesimus escaped and found Paul (vss. 15–16).
  3. Paul offers to repay any debts Onesimus might have to Philemon (vss. 18–19).

That we would advocate for one another so deeply! Paul wants Philemon to truly understand that Onesimus is now his equal brother in Christ, that their relationship has forever changed. This requires Philemon to set aside generations of tradition and possibly even prejudice. This requires Philemon to set aside the way things are “supposed to be” to accept a new reality in Christ. We can quote that there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, no male and female in Christ Jesus, but how would you or I react in a situation like this? That’s the real test of Christian love.

Paul’s Confidence in Philemon

Yes, brother, may I have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Since I am confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Philemon 20–21

Paul assumes the best of Philemon, and we should assume the best of each other. Remember when Paul wrote that love “hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7)? This is what that hope looks like. Paul is confident that Philemon will set tradition and hard feelings aside to accept Onesimus in Christ.

Other Notes

  • Paul is under guard while all of this transpires. It’s another example of Paul’s selflessness. He’s more concerned about Onesimus’s spiritual freedom than his own physical captivity, and he undertakes the risk that harboring this slave could make matters worse for himself. This is self-sacrifice in action.
  • This is the same Paul who wrote Romans 13, stating that Christians should submit to and live peaceably with their government. Yet he’s breaking the law by keeping Onesimus around. Let that sink in.
  • Onesimus was baptized by Paul before returning to Philemon. He was able to make things right with God before fixing everything in his life. We don’t have to be perfect to respond to the gospel call.
  • The end of the letter contains some hope that Paul will be released. Unfortunately, this will not happen.
  • Based on Colossians 4:9, I like to think Onesimus delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossian church upon his return, further cementing his new relationship with them in Christ and the esteem Paul had for him.

In the coming days, I’m going to share a few more posts about Philemon, specifically about what Philemon teaches us about Romans 13, about earthly citizenship versus spiritual citizenship, and about God’s grace.

etching of Paul in prison studying with the slave Onesimus

Onesimus and Perfection

The letter to Philemon is one of the most fascinating books in the New Testament. It’s among the shortest books in the Bible, but it’s incredibly dense in terms of practical applications. It’s also a book that stirs my curiosity; there’s so much unspoken backstory that I really want to understand.  But there’s only one thing I want to focus on right now: Onesimus’s legal status when he was baptized.

Onesimus, Paul, and Roman Law

Onesimus didn’t just break household rules when he fled Philemon’s household. He broke the law. The Roman government was paranoid about the possibility of a slave rebellion, so laws regarding slaves were harsh. Not only was it illegal for a slave to travel any distance without permission from their master, but it was also illegal for slaves to gather in groups, and it was illegal to harbor an escaped slave. A Roman’s civic duty was to immediately turn in any slaves suspected of escape.

It was illegal for Onesimus to be with Paul. That’s important to understand when thinking about the implications of his conversion since it’s obvious that Onesimus was baptized by Paul before he reconciled with Philemon. Verse 10 says, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment.” So what does this mean for us when we come to Christ for salvation?

Baptism, Repentance, and Perfection

We often break salvation down into tidy steps: hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. I don’t think it’s wrong to put repentance before baptism, but I think we need to consider what repentance really means. We often associate repentance with being sinless; nothing could be farther from the truth. Repentance is a process; it doesn’t mean that we have fixed everything. If it did, we could never repent enough before baptism.

Onesimus had not yet fixed his legal status or his relationship with Philemon when Paul baptized him. He was still a fugitive. He was yet to completely correct these sins in his life when baptized, but Paul did not let that stand in the way of salvation. Onesimus was not perfect when baptized, but he did have this: he had repented. He had a plan to set things right.

When you or I come to Christ, we don’t have to have our lives in perfect order. All we need is a heart ready to make things right. We need to repent — meaning we recognize the error in our lives and are willing to change. Onesimus would return to Philemon; with Paul’s support, he would fix his standing with his owner and with the law. But that repentance was a process for him, and it’s a process for us.

If some standard of perfection is holding you back from baptism in Christ, I would invite you to go forward with it despite any shortcomings. Christ wants you to come to Him broken, in need of His grace, and willing to start anew. Baptism is the beginning of your journey, not the end. Wherever you are, take that first step, knowing that Christ will forgive you in your imperfections and that your new family in Christ is there to help you on your journey.

 

Day One

This is a sermon I recently delivered at the Westfield Church of Christ.

Paul’s Moment

In Acts 9, Paul wasn’t planning on his life changing. In fact, it was quite the opposite, for Paul had been traveling to Damascus with one thing in mind – to capture and imprison as many Christians as he could.

Acts 9:1 – 9:

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

And he said, “Who are you, Lord?”

And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

The road to Damascus became a road to change for Paul, but this was not enough. Sometimes, we refer to these events as the conversion of Saul, but his true conversion did not happen for another three days, and that’s recorded in verses 10 – 19.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

From this point forward, Paul’s life took an entirely different trajectory. The moment he came out of the waters of baptism, Paul was made new. And he lived like it. He would even write later that his past counted nothing to him compared to his new life in Christ. That day Paul confessed the name of Jesus and submitted to baptism became his Day One moment. It became Day One of a new life.

Introduction

A Day One experience is an event that changes the course of your life forever. It’s a moment when you take control of your own story to take it in new and exciting directions. For Paul, it looked like rejecting all that he had been raised to believe and striking out on a path he had formerly rejected and even persecuted. It was a complete one-eighty.

Esther’s Moment

Another example of a Day One experience happens in Esther.

Ester 4:12 – 16:

Then Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think to yourself that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews.  For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”  Then Esther told them to reply to Mordecai,  “Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my young women will also fast as you do. Then I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther does more than resolve to go to the king. She sees it through. In Esther 7 not only does she reveal the plot against the Jews, but she reveals at last to the king that she herself is a Jew! Then she accuses Haman, the king’s highest officer, of orchestrating the impending genocide. Think of the the risks she took! Think of the consequences that could have befallen her. But she boldly steps into the first day of the rest of her life, and, in so doing, she not only changes her own life forever, but she saves the lives of countless others. Their lives hung on the resolve of one person and her willingness to take the control of her story out of the hands of others.

The salvation Esther brings to God’s people is still memorialized in an observance called Purim, as is written in Esther 9:23 – 29:

So the Jews accepted what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them.  For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them.  But when it came before the king, he gave orders in writing that his evil plan that he had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.  Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them,  the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year,  that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.

That remembrance comes from the selfless and courageous actions of one woman in a day when women were hardly empowered. Esther stands an as example to all of us that one voice can shape great events.

Peter’s Moment

Not all Day One moments are visibly momentous, however. Some are quiet but every bit as powerful. Take Peter as an example in John 21:15 – 19:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter  said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus  said to him, “Feed my lambs.”  He said to Peter a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”  He said to Peter the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”  (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

This comes after Jesus appears to the other apostles. This is after Jesus strengthens Thomas’ faith. Think of the pressure on Peter. Yes, Peter runs to the tomb when he learns it is empty. Yes, Peter jumps from the boat when He sees Jesus, but there is still something big between them – the fact that Peter had forcibly denied Jesus in His hour of need. In these verses, Jesus and Peter mend their relationship, and it becomes a Day One moment for Peter.

From this point, Peter will go forward to preach the first gospel message to the assembly at Pentecost. He will be the first to preach to the Gentiles. He will live a life dedicated to Christ, and he will write, near the end of his days in II Peter 3:8 – 9:

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.  The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

Peter could write so confidently of the Lord’s patience for repentance because He was once a recipient of that same patience. To him, that restoration was his Day One moment.

Elements of Day One

These individuals all had three things in common:

  • Each faced a crisis. For Paul and Peter, it was a crisis of faith. For Esther, it was a crisis of impending disaster.
  • Each took control. Esther takes control from Haman. Paul from his past, and Peter from his regret.
  • Each gave control to God. This is the important part. All of these took control, but they didn’t claim total ownership. Instead, each seized control and handed it over to God. They placed their trust in Him.

Your Day One

What will be your Day One moment? II Corinthians 5:16 -17 says:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Being a Christian is all about being new. The day you put Christ on in baptism becomes Day One of a new life, but the challenge is that we must constantly renew ourselves. We all fall. We all slip into – for lack of a better term – oldness of life from time to time. We all face crises that threaten to take control of our lives. It may be a crisis that threatens disaster to chip away at our faith. It might be a spiritual crisis where we come to question what we believe. Whatever it is, the crisis is not the end of the story. Instead, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to take control from the crisis, purge the old, and become new again.

See I Corinthians 5:6 – 8:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?  Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Paul is writing this to a congregation at the brink of destruction from within. They are divided. They are facing numerous doctrinal challenges, but no crisis is as great as the fact that they have an example of rampant immorality among their number – and not only do they tolerate that immorality, they are celebrating it.

They seem beyond recovery, yet this is the church Paul would address this way in II Corinthians 1:5 – 7:

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.  If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.  Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.

Did you hear that bit: “Our hope for you is unshaken?” This, to the same congregation that had been previously boasting in tolerance of immorality. They faced crisis. They took control away from that crisis, and they gave that control over to God. They emerged from their crisis a better and a stronger church family than when they began. What might have been the end of their story instead became their Day One moment.

Conclusion

That is the challenge to all of us. What will you do when faced with crisis? What will you do with your Day One moment? I challenge you, when things threaten to tear you down, to follow the example we see in Paul, in Esther, and in Peter. Face the crisis, take control away from it, and hand that control over to God. Let it change you for the better and make you new.

Make it Day One for the rest of your life. Step forward like Esther standing before the king. Put your past in the past and strive for a better future like Paul after the Damascus road. Or humbly repent like Peter with Christ, and trade your regrets for hope. Whatever the challenge before you, know that God wants you to succeed. Know that you have all that you need to make today Day One.

The Habit of Business

My goodness do I have a lot on my plate at any given time! I have a backlog of lessons to post and comments to moderate on my congregation’s blog. I have tons of videos to post to my school’s new YouTube account. I have web coding to clean up, lesson plans to prep, an iPod touch review that’s been sitting here unfinished for weeks, and other stuff I can’t even remember at the moment. Chances are, however, I’m no busier than you are.

We live in a culture that is always moving, that is always busy. If we have any real free time, we feel we are doing something wrong. Even our vacations are itinerary-laden and fast-paced. We can’t just stop. We have to be occupied. But being so busy often comes at the expense of our spiritual well-being and work.

Acts 18 opens with Paul coming to Corinth, and we can see his balance between secular work and spiritual work:

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.

Yes, Paul engages in gainful employment with some fellow Christians in Corinth, but that’s not the point of his trip. Nor does he fill his days with seeing every conceivable sight. His main work was with the word of Christ, and it says he is occupied with the word when Timothy arrives. Making tents keeps food on the table, but his real occupation is teaching others about Christ.

How much time does Christ’s word occupy in your life? Perhaps it’s time you and I sat back and de-cluttered the business from our lives, making more time for Him. Perhaps we are too busy because it’s a habit we’ve allowed ourselves to develop. What can I drop to break that habit? What can you?

Generalizing

Most people I know would not be happy if they heard something like…

  • Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites.
  • White people think they’re better than everyone else.
  • Women think with their hearts not with their minds.
  • Republicans don’t care about anything but their money.

I can almost feel you getting upset from over here. Or is that just the unseasonably warm weather? It’s hard to tell sometimes. Still, chances are, if you read this blog regularly, you may fall into one or more of the categories above, and chances are that you wouldn’t like any of those things said about you. We don’t like to be generalized. I’m a white, marginally conservative Christian with a background in education, and I consider myself a bit of an environmentalist. You could go to town with generalizations based on those facts, but most would be incorrect, for most generalizations are based on, not the majority of people in a category or demographic, but a very loud and noticeable minority.

You and I aren’t okay with generalizations being applied to us. I don’t like the way Christians are sometimes categorized as ignorant, anti-science, hate-filled, self-righteous hypocrites any more than you do. Why then do we feel its okay to call “Mexicans” (and by “Mexicans” I’m of course referring to our propensity to apply this label to anyone whose native language looks like it may be a dialect of Spanish or Portugese) lazy or immoral? Why is it okay to generalize Muslims as dangerous? Why is it okay to call an atheist immoral? Why is it okay to call an environmentalist an Earth worshipper? Why is it okay to assume a homosexual is also promiscuous? Why is it okay to generalize the unemployed as lazy and unmotivated?

I’ll make this easy for you. It’s not okay. But we justify it to ourselves by saying that labels applied to us are unfair over-generalizations while assumptions made about others are just “hard truths.” Such justifications are worthless. Take a few examples:

  • Paul and Peter both spent time in and out of prisons (Acts 12 and 16, for instance). Paul was once a Pharisee. What generalizations could we make about them if judged by purely superficial standards?
  • David was “just a kid” who wanted to face down an unrealistic challenge, and some around him wanted to generalize him as foolish and vain (I Samuel 17). How well did that work out for them?
  • Moses came from an upper-class Egyptian society upbringing (Exodus 1). How easily could he have been entirely shunned by his people based off of generalizations?
  • Matthew was a tax-collector according to Matthew 9:9. Would Jesus have ever accepted such a one if He only listened to popular propaganda?

Take Jesus Himself as a final example. Here is a man who freely associated with tax collectors, with prostitutes, and with open sinners (Luke 5:30). Here is a supposed Savior who is unemployed. (At least, we have no record of Him holding a steady job outside of his ministry). He is also homeless according to His own words in Luke 9:58. Would you or I have associated with such an obvious deadbeat and drifter as this? Would we have listened to someone with so many unsavory companions? Would we have heard a man from Nazareth? After all, nothing good comes from a place like that (John 1:46).

If we had been around to judge Jesus the way we judge others, think what we may have missed. Think what we might have rejected. Let’s be slow to judge. Let’s be reluctant to justify ourselves, and let’s avoid adhering to broad and uninformed generalizations. People can surprise you. We just have to get over our own prejudices to give them the chance.

18,000 Light Years

I once heard an astronomer explain that we can’t help but live in the past – in a very literal sense. Every point of light we see in the sky happened in the past. If we are looking at a star that’s 18,000 light years away, then we are looking at light that began to travel from its point of origin 18,000 years ago. If we were closer to the star, it might look different. It might not even exist at all anymore, but we won’t know about any of those changes for 18,000 years.

All light takes time to travel. Even when you look up at the sun, what you see is what the sun looked like eight minutes ago. Even my talking to you is happening in the past. You are hearing and seeing everything I do after I do it. Nothing is truly simultaneous. We perceive nothing instantaneously. Even if the delay is imperceptible to our senses – for we have thoroughly adapted to the lag in which we live – it still exists. Every piece of stimuli in our environment has happened in the past, so we can’t help but live in the past.

Unfortunately, we probably spend too much time living in the past emotionally and spiritually. We still react to mistakes, stumbles, frustrations, and obstacles that should now be light years behind us are still clearly in our sights. Imagine if Paul had dwelled on the past. How crippled would he have been as a servant of Christ? Here was someone who had fought against Christianity, who had helped torture and kill Christians, who took pride in the harm he would inflict on Christians.

Here was his approach, though, in I Timothy 1:12-17:

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.

Paul makes some similar statements in Philippians 3:7-11:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul recognized his past. He recognized how he got to where he was, but he didn’t live there. His past could not be escaped, but he put it light years behind him so he could focus on the future. It should be the same for every one of us. We all have our own baggage, our own issues, our own histories. But those pasts are not what define us any more than the reality of a star 18,000 light years away is governed by what we see from our perspective here on Earth.

Instead, we should be reaching for a future ahead of us, a hope that nothing else can offer us. That future should be our reality. It should be what defines us, and that should be what motivates us every day.