Many qualities come to mind when we think of Paul: intelligent, dedication, hard working, leadership, boldness. What Paul demonstrates often in his letters that he’s not commonly characterized by is his encouragement, and there is no better example of this than the opening verses of Philemon, a little letter shoved in the New Testament before the book of Hebrews.
Paul writes in Philemon 1:1-7 (NRSV), “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of all the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.”
Paul identifies himself as a prisoner, so he is in a dark place perhaps physically, perhaps spiritually (since he specifically says “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” and goes on to say he is encouraged by Philemon). Prison is a place of punishment, of waiting, of potential reform, and if Paul is in this place in a spiritual sense, it is surely seemingly darker than any physical prison he may have found himself in.
I don’t know that I could believe any believer in Christ if they told me they’d never been in a dark place like that. We lose faith or feel too much guilt or become disheartened. There are countless starting points to feeling this way, and I don’t know that anyone is immune to them all. It’s easy to find yourself in the dark.
Paul is a prime example here of using Jesus as a light to see through the dark. He speaks to Philemon & Co. after that identifier from a place of strength and hope and encouragement. This is because Paul never relinquished his relationship with God through all the prisons and dark places he walked through.
We accredit this to Paul at this point because he is serving as a point of encouragement for Philemon, and he could not do so unless he had it within himself to serve from. Paul can hand out this love and joy because he has it to give because he has not let his dim circumstances steal it from him. This speaks powerfully to what a true, active relationship with God can do, and both Paul and Philemon would’ve known that.
I wish we knew what spiritual state Philemon was in when he received this letter. Was he humbled? Relieved that his work was paying off? Had he been running on empty only to be refueled by these kind words and validation? Was he overjoyed because he was starting to think he and his work didn’t matter?
I wonder this because words or acts of encouragement often come when I feel this way. God sends it when I need it, when I’m in a dark place. That’s the beauty of the light and of grace: it’s there when we need it, even if we’re too busy stumbling around to notice it. Regardless of what prison you may be in, you’ll find God is with you, waiting for you to look to Him, to confide in Him, to trust in Him. He’s wanting to be your light.
By Carrie Prevette