Most of us have complex problems and relationships. That’s why it’s good to run into people with the spiritual gifts of exhortation (encouragement), prophecy, and wisdom. There are differences between these gifts but they all work toward the same basic purpose: revelation. They reveal Jesus. They bring hope and clarity to the messy and the mundane. They demonstrate the gist of what God is doing: reconciling all people to himself and to one another through Jesus.
Paul was doing this with two men who met Jesus through him. One man (Onesimus) was a slave to the other (Philemon). Slavery was not based on race in Roman times but it was no less evil. Paul’s encouragement to Philemon was to forgive Onesimus, who had stolen money from him and run away, and receive him back as brother, no longer a slave. Paul was appealing to the Really Real (as some people call the Holy Spirit) in them: that through faith in Jesus they were brothers already. And that this identity supercedes all history of offenses and cultural boundaries. It was possible to be reconciled and live a new life together as partners in mission. Onesimus risked his life and freedom in going back to Philemon with this letter.
People who get into the mess with others like this bring the facts of God’s presence and the facts of salvation to bear on the situation at hand. It’s not making a moral appeal to someone to “do what is right!” It is asking them to stand firm in grace because it is based on the saving power of Jesus. People who exhort stand with others and encourage their life of faith with words of comfort and conviction. Their words are based on the present and future acts of God, like God is with you in this and will lead you into what is best. They are banking on the fact that salvation has been accomplished in Christ, and that that reality makes a difference for everything.
Some people are very artful about their words of wisdom and prophecy and exhortation, and that can be beautiful. But more than waiting to give our gifts perfectly, I think that God needs people to take the risks to step into the mess of people’s pain and isolation, stand with them, and offer the word of comfort or conviction that comes to them. (As our world leans toward the machine, we need this from real humans even more.) My cell tried it last night and it was beautiful. On the fly, we pointed out to one another how we see God working in each of our lives. It was good to see ourselves through one another’s eyes, and to hear the encouragement to keep going with Jesus together.