The gift of empathy—Philemon 4-7

The prayers of Paul

This is a series on the prayers of St Paul found in the letters attributed to him in the order he is believed to have written them. Letters to the same place or person will be treated together with the first letter to that destination.

A painting of a man at prayer at a desk in front of a window with sunlight streaming in.

I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have towards the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and 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.For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you.

Philemon 4-7 ESVUK

I was on a bus journey with my wife, not one of those short trips but long-distance, probably the Coastliner from Whitby to Leeds. At the very front was a young man on his phone talking to his solicitor about some misdemeanour and as the call was on speakerphone, broadcasting his guilt (He owned up during the call) to the whole bus. I am autistic and therefore cannot turn off my hearing so have no option but to eavesdrop on conversations, but it was clear that others on the bus were transfixed also.

Reading Philemon feels like this, eavesdropping on a private conversation. This is as close to a personal letter as we have in the Bible, yet we are encouraged to read it.

Imagine someone saying, “Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, ‘Oh, thank you, God!'” For me, that does not seem even remotely realistic. Philemon must have been someone good, for his actions were celebrated even in Colossae. I got an email that ended “You are a blessing” this week. It made me feel good, even though the “you” was plural. But I find compliments difficult. Do people know how hard it is to keep acting in a good way? I also have the added pressure of being ‘normal,’ not letting people see that I am autistic.

I have to be careful here, this post is about a prayer in Paul’s letter to Philemon, not about autism. But I have spent a lifetime being told, “Do not fidget,” and being accused of daydreaming, which they say is wrong, when I am in shutdown due to being in stressful situations. These are my defence mechanisms, taking them away produces more meltdowns, which are not anger but have the appearance of rage. In shutdowns I feel God’s presence, this blog is a consequence of me having shutdowns, or as others put it, daydreaming.

Back to Philemon: There are close ties between Paul’s letters to Colossea and to Philemon. Archippus is mentioned in Colossians 4:17 and the letter to Colossae is to be delivered by Tychicus mentioned here and in Col 4:9 as is Onesimus whom this letter is about.

The Greek of verse 6, so I am told, is ambiguous. It’s not clear in the ESV translation, above, either. Is Paul really commending Philemon on his effective ministry and then following up by asking that that ministry becomes effective? Surely not.

The meaning I like best is that the prayer here is Paul praying for both himself and Philemon, praying that both of their ministries continue to be effective. Other meanings are possible, but even if I am wrong in this instance it is a good prayer to make for ourselves, for those above us, those under us and those who work alongside us.

May God continue to make what we do for him remain effective.

What is it that Philemon doing that is so effective? He is bringing people joy and comfort, refreshing people’s hearts. I think this is a fantastic ministry to have, especially as it is something I’m useless at, being unable to stay on one subject for too long. I don’t care if it isn’t in the lists of the gifts of the Holy Spirit elsewhere in Paul’s teaching, they are not meant to be exhaustive in any case, but empathy ought to be up there with the rest of the gifts.

I thank God for those with the gift of empathy, especially my wife, she is brilliant.

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