February 15, 2021
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.
At the online service yesterday, one person commented during the sermon, “I love how Paul butters people up at the beginning of his letter.” And if you read Paul’s letter to Philemon, you can see him employing the infamous “criticism sandwich” strategy. He starts with something positive, has a hard critique or request in the middle, and ends positive again. We will look at each of those three parts this week, starting with Paul’s greeting to Philemon.
Theology aside, a criticism sandwich is a great way to engage in a difficult conversation. However, apart from sincere faith, there is a distinct danger of drifting into the realm of manipulation. Instead of true positivity, we can start with insincere flattery. Then we can get to the real reason for the conversation – a harsh criticism. Wrap it up with something nice so you maintain plausible deniability, and move on. But that isn’t what Paul is doing, and it isn’t how we should engage in hard conversations, either.
Paul’s opening to Philemon serves two purposes. First, it calls Philemon to be the best version of himself, and to live into his calling from God. Paul talks about love, faith, understanding, encouragement, and refreshment. He starts a hard conversation by talking about Philemon’s identity in Christ. How about you? Do you enter into conflict with the goal of reminding someone of all of their good qualities? Do you thank them for who they are and what they’ve done? If you’re like me, I generally want people to get their crap together so we wouldn’t have to have the conversation in the first place. But as people of faith, we aren’t just trying to get our way. We’re trying to be a voice of encouragement – and to call out the presence of Christ in other people. What a different place to start an argument!
The second thing Paul’s opening greeting does is it reminds him (Paul) that he’s interacting with someone who God loves dearly and who has done tremendous good for the gospel and for others. Before the difficult part of the conversation begins, Paul re-frames his own internal picture of Philemon (and others he writes to) to align with how God sees that person or church. How often do you stop before a conflict and try to see the other person as God sees them? How might that change your next words? This week, look for opportunities to encourage and reframe another person before a hard conversation.
We can see from Paul’s letter to Philemon that this way of communicating isn’t just a tool, and isn’t about manipulation. It’s a way to engage in potential conflict with grace, faith, and hope in the reconciliation power of the gospel. On Wednesday we will look at the middle part of the sandwich, where Paul cajoles, urges, and criticizes with those same qualities at the root. See you then!