There are ways that this world teaches us to inspire others. In fact, there is even an industry for people to motivate corporate workers. We call them motivational speakers. These people are required to be energetic and full of positivity. They speak things that affirm good qualities even when they are unrealistic.
They do this because people want to be told good things. They want to be honored and reaffirmed. They want to be proud and confident. They want to hear how well they market, how well they speak, how well they negotiate. We call this “empowerment” because it is one empowering another with positive thinking.
Of course, this is nothing more than the praise of man. In God’s world, there is only one who deserves such honor. Christianity is “sola deo gloria” or to the glory of God alone. This is not to say that people are not worthy of horizontal praise. Rather, it means that the real honor is to the Lord. No good thing that is done is done by the power of man. It is by the power of God working in man. Left alone, man will only do bad even at his best.
Let me explain that briefly because it weighs heavy on issue of glory. We will get more into this later, but here is a smidgen. Hebrews 11:6 reads, “without faith it is impossible to please [God].” The writer is pointing to the fact that only those who have the divine gift of faith will do things unto the Lord. Verse 4 references Abel who gave “a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain,” his brother. He was said to have been commended righteous. He was justified in the Lord.
Without being righteous, regenerated by God, we offer all things from a sinful heart. Although we may do earthly good, be a great humanitarian, feed the hungry, volunteer in civil labor, we do so in sin. Being born in sin, we can do nothing pure (Tit. 1:15). Therefore, any good that we can do, that is good in the sense of divine pleasure, we must do from a saved heart. This is only possible after we have been given the gift of faith (Eph. 2:8). Paul concluded then that if good is done, it is done by the energizing power of God through man.
So in the Kingdom of God, this positive fluff has no bearing, at least not in the sense of the world. In the Christian world, assuring the heart (or strengthening the will and mind) is done by expressing evidences of grace. In other words, pointing out God’s signature in the life of another person is how you motivate that person to do more. It is finding those things that only God can do in a person and identifying them to see God’s handy-work.
This is what Paul does. Notice that he doesn’t thank Philemon for his good works. He thanks God. He says, “I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers” (Phile. 1:4). There is no reason to thank Philemon. He was only the beneficiary of the grace and peace mentioned back in the greeting. His good work is God’s work in him. So God should be thanked.
There are two things to notice in the original language. First of all, the word translated “remember” refers to the mentioning of something that is recollected. In other words, it is not something that is spontaneously expressed. It is something said that takes residence in the mind. In our context, Paul is mindful of Philemon and so he mentions him in his prayers.
The second thing to notice is the word “always” which, depending on your translation, is used in reference to thanksgiving unto to God (as in the ESV) or the mentioning of Philemon in my prayers (as in the KJV). Putting this word in the right place means the world to the meaning of this verse. Paul could be saying one of two things. He could be saying that he is always mentioning Philemon when he prays. Or he could be saying that when he mentions Philemon in his prayers, he is always thanking God.
I think that second is true. Not only does it make plain sense, but the original language suggests it. Paul was not using hyperbole, he was speaking literally. In other words, every time that Paul mentions Philemon in his prayers, he is thanking God. What a reputation! There are no concerns. There are no problems. There are no worries. This was a man with a good reputation.
So Paul remembers Philemon and thanks the Lord for what He is doing in Philemon’s life. He is expressing thanksgiving for the evidences of grace. In the following verses, some more detail unfolds, but for now, what an encouraging thing to say.
If you can, picture this in contrast to the positive-thinking, motivational speakers of our time, Paul is not writing words of fluff. He was the apostle of apostles. He was one of the leading disciples of Christ. He was one who was known to cut to the chase. He was one who didn’t tolerate sin and deception. Paul was an authoritative and strong believer. And when he writes to Philemon in order to assure his heart to forgive, he says, “I can’t find one thing wrong with you, so I am always thanking God for you.”
In other words, when Paul, God’s called apostle, goes to God to report, he only knows good things about Philemon. You don’t send fluff up to God – at least, you shouldn’t. This is not some empty positive-thinking affirmation. This is real. This is genuine. This is God’s divine work being manifested in a man’s life. Philemon had a reputation of good.
From the book, Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon, by Jacob Abshire