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Rising to Surrender: Dilemmas, Disappointments, and Detours When Following God's Plan

By Sheri Ray

Sheri Ray, M.Div., is an Assemblies of God ordained minister and endorsed Hospital Chaplain. While serving at a Level One Trauma Center for seven years, she gained experience in crisis intervention ministry. Using this basis, she authored several professional presentations dealing with Christian spiritual formation and ministry to those in crisis and grief. Sheri is certified to teach Chronic Disease Self-Management classes and has been published in various ministry publications. She also founded a group for the ongoing professional development of female pastors. Sheri holds a Master of Divinity with an emphasis in expository preaching and is currently pursuing a Doctorate of Ministry. She writes inspirationally alongside her academics, continues preaching, and remains engaged in several mentoring relationships.

The other day I baked bread. I spent my day off sharing what has become a summer ritual with delightful young friends. Together we combined the right amounts of the right ingredients. The pinching, squeezing, and punching eventually evolved into kneading, shaping, and observing. Learning punctuated by laughter brought new meaning to such an old fashioned domestic art. As we watched and waited for the dough to rise, I remembered Christ's use of a loaf of bread (Luke 13:18-21) to illustrate the kingdom of God.

I considered the ways in which the Early Church was like the dough, as it adapted to the pressures in the increasingly harsh environment of the Greco-Roman world. The Early Church responded by moving, spreading, and flexing around the increasing persecutions of the day. Such adaptability required a malleable quality that allowed for an altered context without compromising the content of its integral essence.

The Example of Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon

The way each individually responds to the Spirit of God within them will determine not only the individual consequence, but will also leave a lasting influence on the growing faith community around them.

It was in the midst of this constantly changing context that Scripture brings us to encounter an odd trio: Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon. We find Paul in his usual paradoxical roles. He is an influence of the Church at its highest levels: apostle, administrator, and evangelist. A leader of leaders, he wields the solid voice of authority to proclaim God's Word. At the same time, he fills the very different, seemingly contradictory role of social outcast as a political prisoner under Roman authority. As such, he occupies a position of the lowest societal influence.

Onesimus, at an external glance appears to be at much more liberty than Paul. A former slave, he has emancipated himself from slavery by changing his external context, escaping to seek refuge in a city known to provide a friendly environment to runaway slaves. Internally, however, Onesimus remains in bondage, probably a thief, certainly a wanted man by society. Through an encounter with Paul, Onesimus is internally transformed as he accepts Christ and enters into relationship with Paul and the Early Church community.

Philemon occupies the role of an educated, wealthy leader, influential in both secular and church society. Head of a large house church, he is also the overseer of the churches of Laodicea.1 His external, societal roles position him in the exact opposite situation of Paul, the prisoner. Yet, had Paul continued on his preconversion path, it is likely he would have paralleled Philemon socially as a wealthy, respected, and influential leader.2 A view of Philemon's internal "ingredients" reveals another responsibility for Philemon, who in his church role, though a leader, comes under the paradoxical authority of Paul the prisoner who sits writing in a prison cell.

Each person was tested internally. How would Paul best steward his influence as a spiritual authority? Would a need to control a man of socially higher power motivate him to issue commands as a demonstration of his own spiritual power? How would Philemon use his societal and spiritual influence in both his house church and secular social community? Would a need to maintain control of his other slaves cause Philemon to make an example out of runaway Onesimus? And what of Onesimus? Would his desire to protect a newfound physical freedom overcome and compromise his newly discovered freedom in Christ? Would Paul steward Onesimus' trust as he comes to him for protection and guidance, or will Paul betray him to Philemon as the law required?

The answer to each man's dilemma is decided by their internal "ingredients." Each of these three men faces a decision of how to respond when obedience to God leads them to an unexpected detour. Each one faces the possibility of disappointment and vulnerability. The way each individually responds to the Spirit of God within them will determine not only the individual consequence, but will also leave a lasting influence on the growing faith community around them.3

To confront the unexpected circumstances, Paul writes a letter (Philemon 1:1-25). The law allows a slave whose life is in danger to seek asylum at an altar.4 Onesimus demonstrates trust in Paul's God and in Paul as a leader by taking this action. For Onesimus, obedience to God requires relinquishing physical freedom in order to maintain and grow in spiritual freedom, exactly the opposite of his original desire. Paul's obedience to God as an administrator means risking not only the trust of a new convert, but the possibility of his punishment and death. Yet, the trust is mutual. For the plan to resolve positively, Paul risks trusting Onesimus to return to a slave owner. He also risks trusting God for grace to win out in Philemon's heart. Philemon's obedience to God means the restructuring of his social paradigm. As the head of an entire household, he must be willing to relinquish his power to dominate, choosing instead to interact in mutuality with his spiritual "brothers" ­ a prisoner and a slave (Philemon 1:15, 20).

Though Scripture provides no direct follow up to Paul's requests, church history indicates Paul's demonstration of wisdom and trust proved effective for the Early Church and God's kingdom. Paul's requests for Philemon to welcome his slave as a brother and afterward to send Onesimus back to assist Paul must have been granted. Onesimus must have faithfully returned to deliver the letter to Philemon, because it not only survived, but was included as part of the canon of Scripture. 5

By submitting to God's Spirit in obedience through the detours, in spite of disappointments, and when facing dilemmas, He diffuses His fragrance and aroma through us.

Paul's letter accomplished the resolution of the immediate dilemma caused by the disappointments of both Philemon and Onesimus. The effects of each individual's obedience, however, were far more reaching. Their responses provided the entire Early Church an example of how obedience to the principles of submission to Christ can create a transformed Christian community.6 Evidence exists that the outcome had a still farther reaching influence, as "Onesimus did not remain a private Christian, but became in due course one of the most important figures in the life of the province of Asia ­ bishop of Ephesus. It was in his lifetime that the corpus of Pauline letters was first collected and published." 7

How do the principles from a parable about food chemistry and the dilemmas of Paul's letter to Philemon teach modern Christ-followers about adaptability? Scriptural metaphors abound describing the path or journey of following Christ. These depict the important principles of growth and movement by taking action. Yet, often Scripture chooses metaphors that indicate our growth in Christ as primarily influenced by a state of being rather than doing. Our actions are determined as we allow identity to be shaped by God in every circumstance.


We can't wrap our identity in Christ around the various roles or our perspective (or other's perspectives) of those roles. Rather, we take our identity with us into each of the roles in which He places us. By submitting to God's Spirit in obedience through the detours, in spite of disappointments, and when facing dilemmas, He diffuses His fragrance and aroma through us.

We rise to fill the space in which He places us, and adapt to the different shapes of the varying and sometimes overlapping roles we move into and out of through the different seasons of life. Like the unchanging essence of a loaf of rising bread, our lives must be malleable yet consistent in inner character. We possess the quality of adapting to the shape of whatever "container" or whatever context God calls us to fill, always willing to be shaped, molded, and formed as we trust His creative hand. Like the aroma of baking bread, the "vapor" (James 4:14, KJV) of our lives will permeate the atmosphere of whatever context in which it is present.

Such a quality is only possible when the leavening agent of the Holy Spirit is incorporated, internally nurtured, and allowed to grow. Only as we are being transformed each day by the Spirit of Christ residing within, do we possess the capability of rising to fill whatever space and environment He places us in. Then, when the heat of the fire touches our lives, His aroma within us will change the atmosphere around us.

Unlike the loaf of bread, for those who follow the call of God, such a process is not a single occurrence, but a repeated process. Continually kneaded, set aside to rise, shaped, baked, and consumed for the nourishment of others, we live in the state of surrender. We live this cycle of submission to Christ throughout the reoccurring seasons that cause us to experience and adapt to the changes of His process over and over again. In doing so, we emulate Christ, who is the True Bread of Life, nourishing all who will partake of Him.


  1. F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle to the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977), 404.
  2. Anita Koeshall, MSS 639 A Theology of Power in Ecclesial and Missional Structures (Class presentation, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri, Fall 2012)
  3. Robert B. Hughes, Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), S 654.
  4. F.F. Bruce, 399.
  5. Ibid, 406.
  6. Anita Koeshall
  7. F. F. Bruce, 406.