Among their many treasures, Paul’s epistles contain a lot of prayers, which we can use as models and lessons on prayer. His shortest epistle, the one to Philemon, has a gem.
While in a Roman prison, Paul met a man named Onesimus, grew quite fond of him, and came to rely on him. Onesimus had come to Rome from Paul’s old missionary territory back in modern Turkey.
When Paul wrote letters, he couldn’t just put a stamp on them and expect the post office to deliver them. He had to enlist the help of trusted couriers. Who better than Onesimus to carry Ephesians and Colossians back to his home?
There was one problem. Onesimus was a runaway slave. Perhaps he had been insulted or mistreated by his master once too often, and that is why he ran away. Going back to Colossae meant risking his life. His master could beat him to a pulp or even kill him and no one would even sympathize. Fortunately, Paul knew Onesimus’ master, Philemon, and had led him to Christ. Now, Philemon hosted a house church.
So Onesimus carried back three letters, including one to Philemon. The newly saved Onesimus probably returned home with the intention of being the most obedient and loyal slave in town. Paul had certainly taught him to think that way. If nothing else, the passages Paul wrote to slaves in the two larger letters convey that message.
Paul’s prayer and appeal to Philemon
Paul’s letter to Philemon asks him not only to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but to love him as a brother in Christ—as his equal.
By the way, anyone who criticizes Paul for not condemning slavery hasn’t considered this request very carefully. Commanding slave owners to treat slaves as equals instead of property subverts the entire institution. No word of condemnation could accomplish as much to destroy it.
Studying the letter reveals a fascinating array of ways that Paul seeks to persuade Philemon without issuing a direct order, yet without leaving him any possibility of denying the request. For example, the letter was addressed not only to Philemon, but also to the entire church that met in his house.
Here’s the opening prayer:
I thank my God always, making mention of you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith which you have toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints; and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake. For I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother. (Philemon 4-7, NASB)
Paul writes that he always mentions Philemon in his prayers. He writes similar statements in many of the epistles. With all the churches he founded and all the individuals he led to Christ, he must have had a very large prayer list. In the days before Twitter, he could not possibly have known about very many specific needs. He also had to pray intently for his own ministry and his own discernment. He had to meet people, preach, get in and out of trouble, and so on.
Philemon, Paul’s shortest epistle, has some outsized lessons on prayer, relationships, and the meaning of Christian fellowship.
Prayer lessons from Philemon
Simply mentioning people in God’s throne room, without saying anything else about them has power. Enough power that we should certainly do it more than most Christians probably do.
We usually have someone’s needs in mind. Paul gives thanks for Philemon, remembering good things about him. That’s certainly a good way to pray for someone, especially considering that there are both good and bad things about everyone. We can easily figure that Philemon had mistreated Onesimus somehow, but we can’t learn that directly from Paul.
When we pray, it’s much more beneficial for us when we give thanks for the good instead of complaining about the bad. God already knows more about both than we can ever imagine.
Our prayers don’t inform God of anything, but as we pray, we remind ourselves. Until we all become more Christlike than I suspect most of us are, it is often easier for us to complain than to be grateful. Why drag that habit into our prayers, too?
When Paul writes of the fellowship of faith, he does not mean sharing faith by knocking on doors or shouting on street corners. He is talking about sharing faith by living a godly life. Philemon needs to know the good in him, and the people who meet him need to see it in him.
After the prayer comes a word of personal testimony. Paul knows that Philemon loves him. He also knows that Philemon’s life and words refresh other Christians. Knowledge of that love gives Paul great joy and comfort. Praying for others is good. Sometimes we also need to let them know how much they mean to us.