Help for Our Relationship Problems

Last week in Alaska there were two hikers who went missing. They started hiking down what’s called the Stampede Trail in the Denali National Park, and after they didn’t come back for a while, search and rescue crews went out looking for them and eventually (just a couple days ago now) the two hikers were found in an old abandoned bus in the middle of the Alaskan wild. And one of the reasons this rescue made the news is because this old, abandoned bus is famous. It’s the same bus that hiker Chris McCandless died in back in 1992. Some of you might know about Chris McCandless. There’s a movie about his story called Into the Wild [Anyone ever seen this movie? — it’s one of my favorite.] 

His story is pretty simple. McCandless finished up college in 1990 but then he abandoned the conventional world, became a vagabond, and hitchhiked to Alaska — he was basically searching for the meaning of life. So in Alaska he hiked deep down the Stampede Trail, deep into the Alaskan wild, and he got stuck. So he camped out in this old bus, he suffered from incredible loneliness, and eventually he died in the bus from starvation, but he kept a journal (this is how we know this) — and one of the last sentences he wrote was this: He said — “Happiness is only real when it’s shared.” 

So he went alone on this entire journey looking for happiness, and in the end he learned that happiness doesn’t happen alone. His story — and this is why I like the movie — his story stresses to us the importance of relationships and community and fellowship. It reminds us that other people matter. Our relationships with other people matter. And this goes for everybody. 

Relationships are one of the most central things in our lives. Right? Just think about it. Think about your life for a moment and what you do — your relationships at home, at work, with family and friends and neighbors. You were made for these relationships. Your relationships are a big part of your life. So why, then, do relationships have to be so hard? 

So we all can agree that relationships are important — that’s one thing the Chris McCandless story makes clear. But if relationships are so important, why do they have to be so complicated? Because we all know that relationships are complicated. Some of our greatest pain and most consistent frustrations are relational. In fact, I’m pretty sure that every one of us in this room have some type of relational brokenness in our lives. I know we do. I know specifics for many of you. 

Relationships are important, but they’re not easy. And that means we need some help. We need some guidance when it comes to relationships. And I think we find guidance in this short letter from the apostle Paul to Philemon. 

Background to Philemon

Let me start with some background. Speaking of relational complexity, the situation behind this letter is that. Philemon (or Phi-lemon, whatever you want to say) — he was a Christian in the city of Colossae who hosted the church in his home (verse 2 here tells us that — some scholars think that he might even have been a pastor in the church). Either way, Paul is writing to Philemon from prison and here’s why — here’s the deal: Paul has recently met a man named Onesimus, and Paul explained the gospel to him and Onesimus believed, he became a Christian, and has been helping Paul in his ministry. But — and here’s where it gets complicated — Onesimus is a runaway slave who used to work for Philemon. And we talked about the issue of slavery in the exhortation, but to say the least of the situation between Philemon and Onesimus is that there’s some type of relational strife going on here

We don’t know the full details, but we know that things are not in good shape between these two men. Some even think that Onesimus may have stolen from Philemon because in verse 18 Paul says that he would pay back whatever Onesimus owes. But whatever it is, a relational rift has happened here, and I think it’s a good thing we don’t know the details. There are so little details said about the specifics with Philemon and Onesimus that therefore this letter applies to all kinds of relational situations — and that’s why I think this letter is in the Bible. 

So here you go: if you have any relationship problems, I think this little letter can help. And I mean non-Romantic relationships. This is not a sermon about marriage or dating. I’m talking about friends, family, co-workers, people like that — if you have any relational tension there, this letter to Philemon can help us. So let’s get there. 

There are two main lessons I want us to see, and then there’s some implications for each one: 1) Everybody Can’t Stay Friends, and 2) The Gospel Really Is for Relationships.

Let’s start with the first. This is the lesson, the category.

1. Everybody Can’t Stay Friends

Verses 4–6, 

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, 5because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, 6and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.

So everybody can’t stay friends, or to say it in a more positive way is to say that relational restoration requires common ground. And I want to start here because I think it’s where Paul starts, and it really helps us at the level of expectations. As far as expectations go, one question we should ask is whether we should expect that every relational rift be mended? 

And there are plenty of relational problems out there. We’ve said that. And the goal, we would assume, is that these relational problems go away, that things be restored — and I’m asking if that’s right. Is it right to expect and hope that all of your relational woes go away?

I think the answer is no. That’s because relationships really can’t be restored unless there is a shared starting point. There needs to be common ground, and that’s what Paul establishes right away. 

Notice what he says to Philemon in verse 6. He prays that that “the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ.” That is actually a clunky way to translate this verse. The word for “sharing” here is the word koinonia, which means fellowship or partnership. And that is more what Paul means. He intends to say that he wants the fellowship (or partnership) of Philemon’s faith to be effective. And so we should ask: Okay, Philemon’s fellowship and partnership with who? Well, Paul is talking about the fellowship and partnership that Philemon has with him and with Onesimus because of their faith in Jesus. Paul is praying that the fellowship Philemon shares with him and Onesimus because of their faith will then lead Philemon to do the right thing. In other words, Paul starts with their common ground.

There are a handful of different English translations of the Bible, and I really like the way the New International Version puts verse 6. Listen to what Paul says: “I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ.” So see it’s out of their shared fellowship in the gospel that restoration can happen.

Paul says that the resources needed to mend the relational rift between Philemon and Onesimus are found in the faith they share — and that’s why everybody can’t be friends. Not every relationship can be put back together, because not everybody shares the resources needed to put relationships back together. 

Or, to be more specific here, what Paul says in this letter is really about Christian relationships — because only Christian relationships share the common ground necessary for restoration. It’s Christian relationships that have this shared fellowship in the gospel. And that leads us now to two implications.

Two Implications for Relationships

  1. Typical relationships lack resources for restoration, and therefore, restoration is nearly impossible. 
  2. Christian relationships have the gospel as the resource for restoration, and therefore, restoration is not just possible, it’s essential.  

So take the first implication, by “typical relationships” I’m talking about any relationships where the people involved are not Christians. I’m talking about relationships where believing the gospel is not held in common. The point is that the two people in typical relationships do not share a common faith in the gospel, and therefore, they don’t have access to the gospel’s resources to heal and restore. And I’m not talking about after silly disagreements; I’m talking about after serious wrong has been done. 

Without the gospel’s resources to heal and restore, without the authority and incentive of the gospel, I’m saying that it’s going to be really hard to put relationships back together.

And in fact — and this is going to sound a little harsh, but stick with me — without the gospel, the only reason I can imagine we’d ever do the hard work of putting broken relationships back together is because of either what we get from the other person, or because we find our significance in what others think about us. 

I know that sounds harsh, but think with me for a second. Unless God has told you to do it, unless we are embracing the gospel, the only reason I can come up with for fixing broken relationships is because we’re either selfish, or we’re like Michael Scott.

Either it’s that the other person has something we want, and we need to keep things smooth in order to get that something. [This is what we mean when we talk about “not burning bridges.” You ever heard of that phrase? It means that we don’t want to mess things up relationally because we don’t want to cut off access to what that other person can give us.] That is conventional, worldly wisdom, and at heart, it’s selfish. So, apart from the gospel, that’s one reason for fixing broken relationships.

The other reason is that we’re like Michael Scott, which means that we just can’t bear the thought of someone else not liking us. So Michael Scott is the main character in the TV show, The Office, which ran for nine seasons. [Any fans of The Office in here?] Well, in the show Michael Scott’s character is the boss of a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and he’s known for craving the approval of others. He said it best in Season 4. In an interview, Michael Scott said: 

Do I need to be liked? Absolutely not. I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need to be liked, like my need to be praised.

Then another time he said, 

As a boss, do I want to be feared or loved? I want both. I want people to fear how much they love me.

This is comedy, and it’s good. That is supposed to be laughed at. And on some level it’s true for all of us. A lot of times we just like being liked. And without the gospel, unless God has told us to do it, I think the craving to be liked is a big reason we try to solve relational strife. We just can’t stand the thought that someone thinks badly of us, and that’s when our attempts for restoration becomes more like a reputation recovery project. 

So without the gospel, we either try to solve relational tension because the other person has something we want, or we crave to be liked, and that’s why, most of the time, it doesn’t work. Without the gospel, without a shared faith in the gospel, we lack the resources needed for true restoration, and therefore, restoration will be hard.

Now, to the second implication: Christian relationships have the gospel as the resource for restoration, and therefore, restoration is not just possible, but essential. 

And I say this almost tongue in cheek because in reality, there are a lot of Christian relationships that act like typical relationships. There’s a lot of “Christian” restoration that operates out of selfishness and the craving to be liked. So hear me: we Christians don’t have this all figured out, although there is a way it should be. The gospel leads to restoration, and actually makes restoration non-optional. Because of the gospel, restoration between Christians is essential. And that’s because the gospel faith that Christians share doesn’t recommend restoration, it accomplishes restoration.

And to really see this, let’s move to the second lesson in this letter. This is the second category.

2. The Gospel Really Is for Relationships

Now, we read this earlier, but notice verses 8–9 again: 

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, 9yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you. . . .

Then notice verse 14, 

But I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.

So let’s track with what Paul is saying here. Paul is an apostle in the early church, which means that he has a special authority given him by Jesus to help lead the church. We have seen this in the Book of Acts. Paul had a big part in spreading Christianity; and he also wrote 13 books in the New Testament. So he’s kind of a big deal. 

He has the authority, the right, to just tell Philemon what to do. This entire letter could just be a sentence or two: Dear Philemon, you must make things right with Onesimus! He could have done that. He could of just said that. But he didn’t. Instead, he appeals to Philemon for love’s sake. He’s not mechanically forcing Philemon to restore the relationship with Onesimus. He wants to win Philemon’s heart. Paul is gently prodding Philemon to do what is right because of their shared faith in the gospel.

And we need to get this: the only reason Paul can do it this way is because he knows the gospel has what it takes. Paul is so confident in the gospel’s power to restore what is broken that he doesn’t try to take things into his own hands. He simply reminds Philemon of the gospel faith they share, and he lets the gospel do its thing. 

This Makes Christianity Different

And I should say here that this is one thing that makes Christianity different from every other religion out there. The Christian gospel has this remarkable ability to captivate the heart. See, that’s not how Islam works. The word “Islam” means “submission” and it’s all about you’d better submit to Allah or else. And throughout most of world history, conversion to Islam happens because a sword is put to your neck. Islam uses power and empty promises to force people. 

But see Christianity is the gospel. It’s the good news. It’s not about what you must do, it’s about what’s been done for you by grace. That’s why it’s good news. It’s that you do not have what it takes for God to accept you. You can’t pray enough, you can’t fast enough, you can’t give enough alms. You can’t make God love you. But God does love you — not because of who you are, but because of who he is. And he loves you so truly that although you deserve his judgment for your sin, he sent his Son Jesus to take that judgment for you. That’s what the cross is about. The cross is where Jesus comes and, in your place, in our place, he takes the punishment for our sin that we deserve. And the Bible tells us in Romans 5:8 that there, at the cross, is where God shows us he loves us. Despite ourselves, and at the greatest cost to himself, God loves us. That’s the gospel. 

And that is going for your heart. 

The gospel is so good that it has this remarkable ability to win our hearts, and Paul knows that. Which is why he’s not forcing Philemon here. He just says: Philemon, remember the gospel that we believe.

The gospel, see, has the power to restore. That’s what it does. It’s about taking two parties, God and people, who are separated by an incredible relational rift, and then it brings them back together. The gospel restores people back into a relationship with God, and it restores people back to one another, and one day it will restore this entire world to what it should be. So the gospel then, really is for relationships. 

And this became very real to Melissa and me about five years ago. We were living here in Minneapolis, and all of our family were back in the Carolinas. And Melissa, growing up, had a rough relationship with her dad. He was an alcoholic, and abusive to her mom, and pretty much deserted her family when she was in 8th grade. So for a while there was no relationship there at all, but later in high school and college she sort of pieced things back together, but then after we moved here an explosion of things went wrong. There were layers of things that came up, and it seemed like we’d pull a little string and it kept getting longer and longer and more complicated. And it was almost overwhelming. And in the middle of that it occurred to me one day that the gospel is meant for this. The gospel is for this. And that as complicated as it was, in a very clear sense, we knew what to do. We knew we had in the gospel the resources to forgive. And Melissa really stepped out in this, and it changed everything.

Forgiveness Changes Things

And of all the resources the gospel gives us, forgiveness is often the main one when it comes to restoring relationships. Because when things break, something causes them to break, and that something is usually one person wronging the other. 

And there are so many practical things we could say here, and every situation is different. But when it comes to Christian relationships — when two Christians have a relational rift — repentance and forgiveness are essential. Remember that time Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, how many times do I need to forgive my brother? Something like seven times?” And Jesus said, “Try seventy times seven” — by which he means, you never stop forgiving your brother. Because God never stops forgiving us. And I think we get that. It’s still not easy, but it’s clear. We forgive. 

More difficult, though, are those situations where the person who has wronged you doesn’t share your faith in the gospel, or maybe they don’t care anything about restoring the relationship. What do you do then?

What if the desire for restoration is a-symmetrical? Or, what if restoration is on some kind of impossible terms? Meaning that you have to defy your Christian faith to make it work (because I have one of those relationships in my life). What do we do then?

Well, whatever we do, we do this: we make sure that we are not the ones who hinder the restoration. 

You know, we can’t control how other people respond. That’s not our part. That’s not our responsibility. Our responsibility has to do with ourselves, with what we’re doing. And if there is a relational rift in your life, the question you should ask is: Does this relational rift exist because of my refusal to ask for or give forgiveness? Is it because you can’t say “I’m sorry” or because you can’t say “I forgive you.” Is this on me? We have to ask that, and then make sure it’s not.

Now, there is so much to say about forgiveness. When we ask for forgiveness, we are not asking for an excuse. We are admitting that what we did was wrong, and so we make ourselves vulnerable. And when we give forgiveness it’s never wholesale acceptance of the other person, and it’s not a justification of the wrong they did. It means simply to stop holding against the other person the wrong they did. It is to, really, absorb the debt they owe. 

And if you believe the gospel, you have those resources because you’ve experienced them firsthand. That is what this Table represents.

The Table

As the pastors and deacons get ready, we need to remember that the only reason broken relationships can be healed is because Jesus’s body was broken for us. The only way you can ask for forgiveness is because you’ve already been forgiven in the most ultimate sense. And the only way you can give forgiveness is because the forgiveness God has given you is bigger and deeper than any kind we could ever give. And that is represented in this Table.

See, honestly, the resources we need for restoration are the broken body and shed blood of Jesus. And here Jesus gives you those resources.