The Art of Connecting: Crossing the Rubicon of relationships - Part 5

Philemon 17–21

The year was 49 B.C. The order came down to Julius Caesar to disband his army and give up the struggle. He stood on the banks of the Rubicon River and pondered his dilemma. If he continued his march by crossing the river there could be no turning back. He turned to his troops, tore up his orders, and led his dedicated legion across the Rubicon to march against Rome. This act of commitment to his cause brought about a declaration of war against the Senate and, for Caesar, it paved the way for his becoming ruler of the Roman world. Since that day the phrase, “crossing the Rubicon”, has been used to signify total commitment to a cause from which there can be no turning back.

There should be a Rubicon in every interpersonal relationship. That is, a line of commitment we cross from which we are “in” for the duration. Commitment is a lost word in the vocabulary of many modern relationships. Oh, some are committed alright. But, they are only committed to their own happiness. Thus, domestically, they move from relationship to relationship when their own satisfaction wanes. There is commitment at the office. But, for some, it is only a commitment to personal advancement and not to the team concept. Commitment is the missing element in many modern relationships. Not a lot of people are crossing the Rubicon of relationships today by making a commitment to one another that lasts a lifetime.

No treatise on interpersonal relationships would be complete without a word about commitment. Paul, having already addressed such vital principles as affirmation of one another, accommodation of one another and acceptance of one another, now turns his attention to the importance of allegiance to one another. He expresses his commitment to Onesimus by writing Philemon saying, “If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me” (Philem.17–18). And, in the next sentence he assures Philemon of his continued commitment to him by writing, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philem. 21).

Lasting relationships are those which are built upon loyalty and commitment to one another. There are four steps one takes in order to cross the Rubicon of relationships. Paul articulately and accurately portrays them in his letter to his friend, Philemon. The first step is openness. It is often the most difficult. However, the longest journey begins with the first step. Commitment to one another demands openness. Committed friends have no hidden agendas and feel free to ask favors of one another. The second step is obligation. Committed friends sense an obligation to one another. They stick up for each other. There is a third step in crossing this river. It is objectivity. Committed friends are objective. They get the big picture. They see past themselves to the importance of reciprocation. They return favors. The final step is optimism. Committed friends believe the best about each other and do more than is expected in their relationships with one another. They bring out the best in each other.

Openness

Crossing this river to committed relationships begins with the step of openness. Paul is open and honest with his friend, Philemon. He writes, “So, if you consider me a partner, welcome him (Onesimus) as you would welcome me” (Philem. 17). He felt free to ask a favor. Loyal friends have a sense of openness, freedom with one another. They do not play games nor manipulate each other with hidden agendas. They are open.

One of the signal characteristics of loyal friendships which endure over the years is the element of transparency. Without openness our relationships can never get past a superficial level. Honesty and openness build lasting, positive and productive interpersonal relationships. Relationships are a risky business. Some people guard against “opening up” to anyone. There are a lot of paper faces on parade today, masks which some refuse to take off. The fear of rejection is the main culprit! Therefore, there is something within many of us which guards against becoming vulnerable to anyone else. We fear we might be rejected and consequently, we never risk a relationship and step out in openness to cross our own Rubicon.

Paul takes the step of openness with Philemon. He opens up the possibility of rejection. He takes the risk. Many will never take the risk that comes with a relationship. In fact, many spend most of their time calculating why someone else can enjoy the friendship of others and excusing why they can’t. Relationships are a risky business. Ironically, the very thing we seek to keep covered up when conversing with others is the very thing, if we were open that would attract others to us. For example, my own origins are rather humble. For a time I considered this detrimental to the development of some relationships. It sounds foolish now, but in my immaturity I sometimes sought to pretend to be someone I was not. When, at this very point, I became open with others I found that what I thought was a problem was, in reality, an asset in the development of my own interpersonal relationships. We never have to be afraid of the truth and being open with others.

As we attempt to cross the Rubicon of relationships, we do one of two things. We build bridges. Or, we build barriers. If we build more bridges over the river than we do barriers we will have more loyal and committed friends. If we build mostly barriers few will want to cross over with us.

What is being built on the construction site of your own interpersonal relationships? Barriers? Are you building barriers so that no one can look into your heart? Do you fear they might reject you if they knew what was really there? So you are busy at work building a barrier. Do you see the folly in this? I have known men and women who have been deeply hurt and rejected in the past and are in desperate need of someone to share their loyalty and love. But, they will not take the risk of being open again. So, they build barriers with others in place of bridges.

Many of us have sought to have relationships with those whom we could not penetrate. They left us feeling as though we were left out of the most intimate parts of their lives. They would not cross the Rubicon with us. The first step of openness was never taken. They built their barriers in order to hide their fears and insecurities from us. I have found in my own relational experiences that, often, those who appear to be most superior are, in reality, the least secure.

Are there any bridges being built on the construction site of your own relationships? I am not talking about letting anyone and everyone cross over into the private turf of the hidden things of the heart. I am not referring to “letting it all hang out.” Openness with others is not a call for us to reveal all the sordid details of our hidden secrets. We all need our private moments. I am talking bridges here, not interstate highways. I am talking about a bridge between you and someone else. I am talking about becoming vulnerable and taking the risk of opening up with someone else. Something wonderful happens when two people connect in openness and honesty. Openness has its own way of building a bridge.

This first step of openness is what made Jesus of Nazareth so winsome in His interpersonal relationships. He was transparent. He traveled with His friends. He ate with His friends. He prayed with His friends. He wept with His friends. He was a people person. He became involved in their struggles. He built bridges of commitment across which others could walk with Him. He allowed people to look into His heart and know Him. He told others of His own needs. And, though it was risky, for some rejected Him, many others opened up to this One who had built a bridge of openness to them.

Take the woman of Samaria, for example. She had spent a lifetime building barriers…until she met Him! Her past was smudged with many haunting moments she wished could be lived over again. She had known so much rejection that she was nearly void of any self-worth or self-respect. But, one day she met Him at a well. He built a bridge. And, she crossed over. She opened up and in so doing found a friend for life.

As Paul opens himself to Philemon he chooses an interesting Greek word in calling him a “partner”. It is a word describing one mutually shared life. Paul and Philemon were connected. They were “together”. Since Paul has already referred to Onesimus as “my very heart”, for Philemon to now reject Onesimus would be like rejecting Paul himself. The journey back is hard enough in itself. But, it can be made more difficult by those who do not believe in the second chance.

The first step across the Rubicon of relationships is openness. We never have to be afraid of the truth! Barriers keep people out. Bridges make the way easier for others to cross the river into a life of commitment to someone else.

Obligation

The second step across this bridge to commitment is obligation. Paul senses an obligation to his trusted friend, Onesimus. He continues the letter, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back” (Philem. 18–19). Loyal and committed friends stick up for one another. They are under obligation to each other. They are committed to each other and are quick to rise to each other’s defense in times of need.

Paul instructs Philemon to “charge” whatever is owed him by Onesimus to his own account. Paul is in no way suggesting that Philemon forget about Onesimus’ past wrongs and ignore the debt. He gives him a promissory note in his own hand with a promise to pay it. He is a committed friend. He is under an obligation that comes when we cross the Rubicon of commitment with someone else.

One of the characteristics of genuine commitment is a mutual obligation. Many bounce from relationship to relationship while always passing the blame for failure on the attitudes or actions of someone else. When a particular relationship arrives at the riverbank and it comes time to cross over in commitment, many move on to another relationship around the next corner rather than stepping out in openness and obligation. Some only want relationships where they can be on the receiving end. Commitment not only involves openness, but obligation as well. Strong relationships are built on an obligation to persevere.

There is a beautiful thing happening in this relationship between Paul and Onesimus. Paul is offering to pay a debt he doesn’t owe. Why? Because Onesimus owes a debt he cannot pay! Paul had nothing to do with his guilt. Yet, he assumed his debt. He says, “If he has done you any wrong, or owes you anything, charge it to me…I will repay it.” Paul is a true and trusted friend. Here he shows us his openness towards Philemon and his obligation towards Onesimus.

Although this sense of paying a debt we do not owe because someone else owes a debt they cannot pay is manifested in our horizontal relationships, it has its roots in our vertical relationship. There is a bit of Onesimus in each of us. We, like him, have gone our own way in rebellion against the One who loves us most. The Bible refers to what we owe our Lord as “a sin debt.” We cannot pay it. Just as Paul had nothing to do with Onesimus’ guilt, neither does Christ with ours. And yet, as Paul assumed the debt he did not owe, so, Jesus of Nazareth made His way across His own Rubicon to a Roman cross to pay our debt. In essence, He said to His Father about you and me what Paul said to Philemon about Onesimus, “If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me…I will pay it back” (Philem. 18–19). It is no wonder Isaiah said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53:6).We are talking real commitment here. Commitment accompanied by a sense of openness and obligation. Those who have connected with their Source through Jesus Christ can go to the computer in heaven, pull up their names, look at their account, and read the words, “paid in full!”

Obligation to one another is the second step in commitment. Relationships stand strong through the years when friends stick up for one another. I remember an experience in my own life when I was falsely accused and a friend rose to my defense and took up for me. Although we have been separated from that experience by hundreds of miles and many years I have never forgotten it and a deeper bond between us resulted from it. How much more do you think Onesimus was committed to Paul after he got wind of the fact that Paul had risen so strongly to his defense? And, how much more would your friends be committed to you if you proved beyond a doubt your own commitment to them?

Objectivity

Openness and obligation are the first two steps across the Rubicon to a commitment to positive and productive interpersonal relationships. Objectivity is the third step. Paul was objective in his relationships. In his letter to Philemon, he challenges him to be likewise. He continues, “If he…owes you anything…I will pay it back — not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ” (Philem. 18–20).

Loyal friends are objective. They get the big picture. They see past themselves to realize the importance of reciprocation. They are quick to return favors. Commitment is a forgotten word in many relationships due to the fact that so many are bent on “getting” without ever “giving”. True and loyal friends are objective and they bring out the best in each other.

The wave of our modern day has been a rash of faddish “self-help” books which have flooded the marketplace advocating “doing our own thing.” They line the shelves of bookstores everywhere with their messages of self-assertion and manipulation. They instruct about the finer points of getting leverage over the other person in the relationship. They teach how to climb to the top of the ladder of success by intimidation of others. They may increase bookstore sales but they play havoc with a lot of interpersonal relationships. One of the reasons for the current trend of short-term relationships is a lack of objectivity. Many seem to be only interested in getting, being on the receiving end of the relationship 100% of the time. Few are objective enough to see the need of reciprocation, returning favors and giving of themselves to someone else.

When our daughters were young we enjoyed taking them to the park. They loved to ride the see-saw. I can see those two toddlers on it now…up and down…up and down…up and down. Relationships have a see-saw effect. There are times in a relationship when one of the parties does most of the giving and the other most of the receiving. Then, some circumstance of life will come along and turn the tables on us and, for a while the roles will be reversed. Anyone who has been married for a long period of time knows of this law of reciprocation. For example, I know of a wife whose husband has recently lost his job. Although he doesn’t verbalize it, he is having a real struggle with his own self-confidence and self-worth. He is contentious and on edge. He says some things he really doesn’t mean. He is not as affectionate and giving as he normally is. The money is dwindling. Fear is setting in. Quite honestly, the wife is not “getting” much from the relationship. Some women would allow this frustration to cause them to pull away from him. Some might even pull out. But the lady under consideration is open, obligated and objective. She realizes her husband needs her unconditional love now more than ever, even though he doesn’t deserve it. So she gives. And, for a time she gives much more than she receives.

Committed friends get the big picture. They are objective. They see past themselves and their momentary needs to the importance of reciprocation. They give. They understand that friends need friends the most when they do not necessarily deserve them.

The lack of objectivity is the point of breakdown in many relationships. The need to always be receiving and never giving, the inability to see that friendship is a two-way street, are key factors in the destruction of many relationships. Get the big picture. Be a giver. Return a favor. Hop on the see-saw. There may come a time when you need to make a withdrawal on the love and concern you have deposited into someone else’s account. Committed friends are objective and see the need of reciprocation in relationships.

Optimism

Paul is optimistic. He concludes his paragraph on the importance of commitment saying, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask” (Philem. 21). Paul is very wise and winsome. He knows how hard it is to feel good about others if we do not feel good about ourselves. He is letting Philemon know, without question, that he believes he will do the right thing. This optimistic approach has incredible results. It brings out the best in Philemon. We bring out the best in others by letting them know we are confident they will come through. Optimism is the key. Committed friends believe the best about each other and they come through in the clutch. In fact, as Paul reveals, they do more than is expected of them.

Can you imagine Philemon’s emotions as he reads this letter from his trusted friend. Think about it. Paul has dropped the Onesimus bomb, laid the whole situation out, asked for a favor, and called in some chips. Having advocated the position of Philemon’s adversary, he now affirms his confidence in Philemon with the assurance that he will do even more than he is asked. He lets Philemon know he believes he will do what is right…and all in advance of the fact.

Paul lets Philemon know he believes in him. He says, “I know you will do even more than I ask.” There are two different Greek words he could have used to indicate this particular knowledge. One of them is indicative of a type of knowledge which comes by way of the mind through the senses. This type knowledge is grounded in personal experience. It says, “I know because I have experienced it. I have touched it. I have smelled it. I have tasted it. Thus, I know.” The other word is indicative of seeing with the mind’s eye. That is, we do not have to experience it to know it is true. We just know. And, this is the word Paul chooses when he lets Philemon “know” he is optimistic he will do even more than he asks. In essence, he is saying to his friend, “I don’t have to see it first. I have confidence in you. I know you will do the right thing.”

Are you optimistic? Do your friends and family know you have confidence in them? Or, do you always have to experience their performance before you affirm them in some way? Susie and I have raised our daughters to young adulthood. Since the day of their birth there has not been one single day in either of their lives when they did not hear me say, “I am proud to be your dad.” In a thousand ways we have sought to let them know we believe in them, we are confident they will do the right thing in life, and, in fact, we know they will do even more than we ask. Letting others know you believe in them brings out the best in them far quicker than berating them over their short-comings.

Paul does not command nor coerce Philemon to receive Onesimus. It is his call. Loyalty and commitment must be voluntary if they are to be effective. Thus, he simply presents his case, expresses his confidence in both parties and leaves the ball in Philemon’s court. He knows that people have a way of becoming what we encourage them to be…not what we coerce the m to be. Expecting the best in others and expressing confidence in them to do more than is expected goes a long way in helping them to do the right thing.

It is not too difficult to drown out the fires of enthusiasm. Just pour on the cold water. Throw in your two cents worth of discouragement. The whole world is full of negative pessimists. But, how many times has a simple word of confidence given someone the strength to go on? Optimism brings out the very best in every one of us. When an athlete knows the coach believes in him he tries harder. When an employee knows the boss believes in him he works harder. When a child knows his parent believes in him he climbs higher. Optimism is what ultimately gets us across our own Rubicon of relationships.

What do you suppose Philemon did? I think he did what Paul asked and even passed on the principles to Onesimus. I think he, in turn, let Onesimus know he still believed in him. Guess what happened to this former runaway servant. History has preserved another letter written in 115 A.D. from Ignatius of Antioch to the Bishop of Ephesus. And the Bishop’s name? Onesimus. Our Onesimus would have been in his seventies when the letter was received. Many scholars believe Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus was, indeed, the same Onesimus who returned to Philemon. If so, his success and fulfillment in life was due, in large part, to the optimistic encouragement he found in his interpersonal relationships with his loyal friends, Paul and Philemon. Their commitment to one another was built on openness. They were open and honest with one another. It was built on obligation. They were unconditionally committed to one another. Their relationship was built on objectivity. They reciprocated with each other and saw past their own individual needs. Finally, their commitment to one another was built on optimism. They believed the best about each other and challenged each other to excellence.

How do you think Onesimus felt when he heard Paul rise to his defense and offer to pay his debt? He became more committed to him in their relationship to one another than ever before. How do you think Philemon felt when he discovered that Paul really believed in him? It spurred him on to a deeper commitment. There are four steps to loyal and committed friendships. Be open. Be obligated. Be objective. And, be optimistic.

Have you crossed the Rubicon with anyone? Do you have a loyal friend? One who is open to you? One who feels free to ask a favor? Do you have a friend who senses an obligation to you? One who rises to your defense and is committed to you no matter what may come? Do you have a friend who is objective about you? One who understands the importance of reciprocation and gives as much as he takes in the relationship? One who loves you when you least deserve it? Do you have a friend who is optimistic toward you? One who believes the best about you and does more than you expect in the relationship? If not, why not?

Perhaps a more pertinent question may be… “Are you a committed and loyal friend to someone else?” Are you open with others? Or, do you always keep your guard up. Do you build barriers in place of bridges? Do you sense any obligation to anyone? Or, do you base your relationships strictly on the basis of what you can get from them without ever wondering what you can give to them? Have you stood up for anyone recently? This is the cement of relationship. Are you objective? Or, do you soon forget the investment someone else makes in your life? Are you slow at reciprocation and returning favors? Are you optimistic? Do you believe the best about others? Or, are you suspicious of their motives?

Where can we begin to build more positive relationships? It all goes back to being well connected at the source. That is, being plugged into spiritual power. We all have a friend who “sticks closer than a brother.” Jesus Christ is committed to you. He is open. His life is an open book. He builds bridges and not barriers.

He also builds relationships on obligation. He stands up for you. He crossed his own Rubicon for you and never looked back. He is committed. He is objective. He is no respecter of persons. And, He is optimistic. He always does more than is expected. He brings out the best in us. He believes in us and helps us to believe in ourselves.

Commitment is a lost word in the vocabulary of many people. There is a Rubicon in every interpersonal relationship, a river we cross from which there is no turning back or quitting. Many move up to the banks of this relational river with someone but never cross over. It takes four steps to get across. We must become open with one another. True commitment is based on openness, the ability to be honest and to take a risk. We must sense our obligations to each other. True commitment causes us to rise to each other’s defense. We must be objective. Reciprocation is the name of the relationship game. We must be optimistic. When we believe in someone else we bring out the best in them. Genuine commitment results in our…crossing the Rubicon!

Practical pointers:

Most of us know a lot about commitment. We are committed to our jobs. We show up on time and do an honest day’s work because we have made a commitment. Some of us enjoy the fellowship found in all sorts of endeavors from bowling teams to garden clubs. We show up because we made a commitment. Many of us are in civic or social clubs. When we miss a meeting we “make it up.” We are committed. It is time some of us made the same commitment to an interpersonal relationship.

Do something for someone this week. In Paul’s words, “Refresh someone’s heart.” Do a favor that is unsolicited. Loyalty breeds loyalty in relationships. Pay someone a sincere compliment. A few suggestions follow.

  1. Refresh the heart of someone who regularly serves you at a particular restaurant this week. Pay an honest and optimistic compliment. Rise to their defense.
  2. Refresh the heart of your husband or wife. Be objective. Perhaps it has been too long since you reciprocated in the relationship. Give. Don’t just always receive. Do something “out of character” for him or her this week. Buy her some flowers. Write him a letter and stick it in his briefcase before he leaves on a business trip.
  3. Refresh your child’s heart this week. Many of us dads are committed to a lot of things…except fatherhood. Think about that. Have you crossed the Rubicon to make a commitment to fatherhood or motherhood? Let your child know you are proud of them and that you believe in them. This optimistic spirit will help bring out the best in them and, in turn, cause them to be more committed to you than ever before.
  4. Refresh a friend’s heart this week. Take a risk. Be open. Let someone look into your own heart. Build a bridge. Honesty and openness will get you started on the way across your own Rubicon of relationships. Believe in someone…and let them know it!
  5. Be open. Be obligated. Be objective. Be optimistic. Go ahead, cross the Rubicon of relationships.
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