How we respond to temptation this week will affect the spiritual life of someone we know. Every time we choose to sin, the tentacles of that decision crawl, often imperceptibly at first, into the precious hearts and lives of those we love. In the same way, holiness is wonderfully contagious, wreaking blessing in every direction, often quietly below the surface of what we can see.
If we could see all the subtle effects of our obedience (and sin), we would be even more motivated to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–13). What if we could see everything that happens in our child’s mind and heart when we love our wife with strength, tenderness, and conviction? What if we could see our neighbors’ thoughts when they see us loving our children with patience, sacrifice, and loving discipline? What if we knew the ripple effects in our church of the creative and intentional ways we’re caring for lost neighbors? We simply cannot see even a fraction of what God does when we love one another well.
Our personal holiness — how well we love God and others — carries the stunning power to enliven the souls of others, or to deaden them. He gives us a stunning power in this fallen world: the ability to refresh the human heart.
Hearts Need to Be Refreshed
God addresses this powerful dynamic in the 25 short verses of Philemon. The apostle writes to his friend to advocate for Onesimus, a bondservant who fled Philemon and may have stolen money from him (Philemon 18). While I believe Paul was laboring, even in this very short letter, to undermine and eventually overthrow slavery, I will not address that here (but encourage you to read others who have). What caught my attention were five words in Paul’s heartfelt appeal:
Refresh my heart in Christ. (Philemon 20)
First, the plea is uncomfortably direct — a command even. Paul commands Philemon to refresh the apostle’s heart in Christ, to invigorate his love for the Lord. Second, Paul is commanding Philemon to do something he cannot do — at least not alone. This kind of refreshment cannot be controlled or manipulated by man (John 1:12–13; Ephesians 2:8–10). If he refreshes anyone’s heart in Christ, God must do it. Third, the command reveals a wonderful and mysterious reality: our communion with Christ genuinely leans on other people.
Even an apostle needed others to stoke his love for God. You and I have the power to refresh hearts — and we have the need for our hearts to be refreshed by someone else.
How to Refresh a Heart
How, more specifically, could Philemon refresh Paul’s heart in Christ? What was Paul really asking him to do? He states himself clearly: “Receive [Onesimus] as you would receive me” (Philemon 1:17). How Philemon loved Onesimus would ripple beyond Onesimus to Paul, and then through Paul to countless others. In the previous verse, he clarifies how he hopes Onesimus will be received: “No longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” (Philemon 1:16).
Philemon, when you might be justified to seek retribution, I want you to welcome your brother with scandalous affection. When you could turn him over as a criminal, I want you to offer him something even deeper than friendship.
You can feel Paul’s heart being refreshed by the very idea of Philemon responding this way — a response the world could not explain. What if he forgave him, and with nothing in return? What if instead of treating Onesimus worse than before, he treated him far better — like his own beloved brother? What if the new bond between these two men were another seed that helped to bring down slavery? What if Philemon’s lost neighbors, appalled by his patience and forgiveness, received Christ in the light of his witness? How marvelous Jesus Christ would look on that day.
Paul let his heart enjoy, for a moment, the unfolding possibility of that mind-blowing scene — of all that Christ might do through this one startling act of obedient mercy — and then he asked Philemon to make it true: “Refresh my heart in Christ.”
How to Stifle a Heart
When Paul says, “Refresh my heart in Christ,” he could have pled the opposite: “Please don’t stifle my heart by abandoning Christ.” Paul knew what it felt like to expect refreshment and receive betrayal.
Paul mentions his friend Demas in this very letter: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers” (Philemon 1:23–24; also Colossians 4:14). Only a few short years later, Demas deserted him — and in a time of serious need.
Later Paul writes to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me” (2 Timothy 4:9–10). Paul needed Timothy, and soon, because Demas had suddenly abandoned him. Surely Demas wasn’t the first. When Paul pled with Onesimus to refresh his heart, he knew the agony of having professing believers betray his trust and renounce the faith.
When he had the power to refresh Paul’s heart, Demas walked away. He chose earthly pleasure and comfort over bearing the cross of costly love. We will face the temptation to do the same — to retreat back into the world when Christ asks more of us in love.
A Hundred Hearts Are Yours
One way Satan tempts us into lovelessness is by convincing us that the consequences are few, insignificant, and confined. He wants us to think that no one else’s life will really be affected by our decisions. You can almost hear him whispering, “How much damage could this little sin really cause, anyway?”
When you’re tempted to be unkind with your spouse or impatient with your children, when you’re tempted to indulge a lustful thought or harbor anger toward a friend, when you’re tempted to ignore the glaring need (however large or small) in your local church, when you’re tempted not to forgive, think about the dozens of hearts waiting to see Christ in you. Remember that the consequences will reach further and deeper than you can think or imagine. Ponder how many unseen needs might one day be met because you planted another seed for God’s kingdom.
The sobering (and inspiring) reality is that far more is at stake in our obedience than our own relationship with Christ. A hundred hearts hang in some real way on how we love (or not). And through them, hundreds more — now, and for years and years to come. God has made our faithfulness a catalyst for others’ perseverance. Obey for God’s sake, for your own sake, but also for their sake. Refresh their hearts in Christ.