For one of my Bible classes, students are required to write their final paper on the letter to Philemon in the New Testament.
The paper asks students to trace Paul’s argument, or rather, petition, for a runaway slave named Onesimus, with a specific emphasis on several verses. One of which is verse 15 (NRSV), “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever.” The word I have students focus on is perhaps.
It’s a small word, which is used only one other time in the New Testament (Romans 5:7). It comes from the Greek word, τάχα, an adverb meaning “possibly” or “peradventure.”
However, it packs a big theological punch.
Paul uses this word to bring intentionality and purpose to Onesimus’ departure. He wants Philemon, Onesimus’ slave owner, to see that there might be a grand design behind Onesimus’ escape. Paul wants to create a thought shift in Philemon and he uses this word to do it. Rather than bemoaning his lost property (Onesimus), stewing in his annoyance and anger, or scheming for ways to be compensated, Paul wants Philemon to see that Onesimus’ separation from him was purposeful. Onesimus’ running away was divinely orchestrated, so that he could encounter Paul, and become a follower of Jesus. And as a result, Onesimus is returning to Philemon as something, or rather, someone, much more valuable. He’s no longer a mere piece of property. He’s now a brother and fellow worker in Christ.
I’ve been teaching the letter to Philemon for 4 years, and it wasn’t until last week that I realized Paul’s perhaps is just as relevant for us today.
As humans, we tend to bring a very finite perspective to life’s circumstances. In the midst of crushing disappointment, a devastating diagnosis, a massive financial loss, an unjust character slight, an unfounded accusation, or just irritating, everyday circumstances that we can’t control, we tend to eliminate the possibility of perhaps. We deny God’s ability to work amidst situations that appear wholly devoid of divine intervention. We believe only what our limited vision allows. Paul knew this about Philemon, and, he knows it about us.
Paul’s perhaps invites us to experience our own thought shift. It invites us to a new way of thinking, in which God intentionally and purposefully uses our most dire, painful, frustrating, and unforeseen situations to bring about better relationships, profound healing, and fuller lives.
Paul believed that God was capable of working through less-than-great human decisions and less-than-optimal predicaments. For Paul, God’s sovereignty wasn’t limited by our finite choices or actions. His activity wasn’t constrained by our circumstances, whether self-inflicted or other-inflicted. Paul believed that God was working for our good in every situation (Romans 8.28).
I think Paul encourages us to adopt this same perspective.
Embracing the perhaps in our lives is, and will always be, a matter of faith. Paul knew this. So did Philemon. Choosing to believe God’s ability to divinely orchestrate will always be just that—a choice.
When things are unraveling, when we feel stumped or puzzled, Paul reminds us, “perhaps there is more here than meets the eye.” It’s precisely when we’re battling life’s uncertainty and confusion, that Paul encourages us to trust the perhaps.
May we have the courage and faith to do so.