In this lonely, painful world, how can we have deep, meaningful relationships? How can we be true to each other?
In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Roman Emperor shouts “et tu Brute?” when he sees his close friend, Marcus Junius Brutus, among his assassins. Though most Americans are not plunging daggers into each other, relationships in the world, the United States, and even the Church are shriveling and dying. According to US Census Data in 2020, our population growth has slowed to its lowest point since the 1930s. Experts blame COVID and economic troubles, but this trend has been present for decades. Marriage is less common, and couples are having fewer children. People are having less sex, and even dating less. Research from the Barna Group indicates that Americans have fewer friends and higher levels of loneliness than in the past. Elders are less lonely than Boomers, who are less lonely than Gen X, who are less lonely than millennials. The stereotypical image of a lonely widow in our culture may be less common than that of a lonely teenage girl.
Outside of personal relationships, people are more disposable than ever. The Cancel Culture, in which someone loses their livelihood and their reputation, allows for no defense, no repentance, and no forgiveness. Cancelled victims face a lifetime with their errors or even unsupported accusations being available to the world in seconds on the Internet. By contrast, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlett Letter, the adulteress Hester Prynne was able to rebuild her life as her wrongdoing faded from memory. Those ostracized from Athens were welcomed back into society after their decade of exile with their property restored and their reputations cleared.
Regarding relationships, Christians are better off than non-Christians. They are more likely to marry, more likely to stay married, and more likely to have healthy and supportive family and friends. For example, Barna found that pastors are less likely to be lonely than the average adult. As Christians, our loves must reflect Christ’s love, and He loved people. He talked with people, spent time with people, and enjoyed people.
In Second Timothy, the Apostle Paul is penning his final instructions to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy. Verses 15 to 18 of chapter 1 contrast Phygelus and Hermogenes, former friends who had abandoned Paul, with Onesiphorus, a friend who had stayed with Paul and loved him as a brother. Onesiphorus stayed true to his mentor, Paul. These verses reveal how we can be true to one another.
In verse 15, we meet Phygelus and Hermogenes, Paul’s former coworkers in Christ, and professed friends, who abandoned Paul when he was imprisoned. The word used here, apostrephō (ἀποστρέφω), does not mean that either man abandoned Christianity but that they abandoned Paul individually. According to the Blue Letter Bible, the Greek word means:
- To turn away – to remove anything from anyone, to turn away from allegiance to anyone, tempt to defect
- To turn back, return, bring back – putting a sword back in its sheath, of Judas returning money to the temple
- To turn oneself away, turn back, return
- To turn oneself away from, deserting
Phygelus and Hermogenes left Paul in his weakness and shame, a prisoner of Rome with his reputation tattered from vicious lies. They would have been comfortable in modern cancel culture, but they were not true to Paul.
Who have you deserted? Who has deserted you? How did it feel? Who do you need to reconnect with? Is it more important to cancel others or to restore relationships with them?
What is your threshold for canceling someone in your life? How many disappointments? How large?
What role does forgiveness, or unforgiveness, play in canceling someone? Are their people that you would never cancel? What if God canceled you?
How to be true to one another
- Refresh them.
Onesiphorus refreshed Paul, revitalizing his mood, his attitude, his body, and even his faith. Anapsychō (ἀναψύχω) means:
- To cool again, to cool off, recover from the effects of heat, to refresh (one’s spirit)
- To recover breath, take the air, cool off, revive, refresh oneself.
In 1985, I served with Central America Outreach Ministries as a short-term missionary among the Maya and Garifuna peoples in Belize. We took a long hike on a hot day through fields and jungles and some in our party were so exhausted, they felt near to collapse. Hours later we arrived at a small waterfall and pool. A deadly snake was sunning itself on a nearby rock, but despite the danger, we jumped into the pool. Our need for refreshment was greater than our need for safety. This is the kind of refreshment that the Apostle Paul was referring to.
Who have you refreshed? Who has refreshed you?
- Do not be ashamed of them.
The Greek epaischynomai (ἐπαισχύνομαι) means to be ashamed. For associating with Paul, Phygelus and Hermogenes could have been excluded from their community of friends and associates. Under Nero, both men could be persecuted. Phygelus and Hermogene may have been fearful of the consequences of being associated with Paul to themselves and their families. Like many of us, they may have been happy to be Christians if it did not cost them anything. But Jesus rejected such fake believers. The Master calls His people to forsake everything, take up their cross of suffering, and follow Him.
Onesiphorus was loyal to Paul despite the potential consequences to himself. In being loyal to Paul, he was loyal to Paul’s master, Jesus.
Every society has some technique to modify members’ behavior based on social pressure. The Athenians used ostracism. Every year, the Athenian government asked voters if they wanted to ostracize someone. The accusers put forth no charges and the subject of the ostracism vote was allowed no defense. If enough members of the assembly voted to ostracize the subject of the vote, he or she was banished from Athens for ten years. The penalty for returning early was death, but the ostracized person’s property was not seized, and on his return, there was no opprobrium. The ostracized person could be recalled earlier if doing so benefited Athens in some way. The Amish community in the United States shuns those it wants to influence, as the Bahai community in Persia. The Catholic Church uses excommunication. Some type for social pressure to change behavior is necessary in any society. However, compassion is the right response for those people so treated.
Who are you ashamed of? Why? Who is ashamed of you? Why? We can choose to be unashamed of the people in our lives. After all, God put them there, and He is not ashamed of us.
- Search for them and find them.
In J. Edgar Parks’ story, The Man Who Missed Christmas, banker George Mason gets locked in his bank vault on Christmas Eve. After a harrowing 36 hours, the vault opened at the programmed time and Mason walked out. George Mason worked constantly, refusing social engagements with family or friends, so no one noticed that he was gone on Christmas Day. Parks’ writes, “Grimly, inexorably, the truth closed in on George Mason. He had vanished from human society during the great festival of brotherhood, and no one had missed him at all.”
Paul, alone for much of the time in a cold, dark cell, needed someone to seek him and find him. Too often we tell each other, “I am praying for you” and then don’t do it. We say, “let’s get together” and then make no effort. We promise, “I’ll help you” and then renege on our promise. The Greek words in verse 17 convey an intense, hard search, marked by industry, dedication, and determination to succeed.
- To seek in order to find
- To seek a thing
- To seek [in order to find out] by thinking, meditating, reasoning, to enquire into
- To seek after, seek for, aim at, strive after
- To seek i.e. require, demand
- To crave, demand something from someone
Spoudaiōs (σπουδαίως) – very diligently
- To come upon, hit upon, to meet with
- After searching, to find a thing sought
- Without previous search, to find (by chance), to fall in with
- Those who come or return to a place
- To find by enquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation, to find out by practice and experience
- To see, learn, discover, understand
- To be found i.e. to be seen, be present
- To be discovered, recognized, detected, to show oneself out, of one’s character or state as found out by others (men, God, or both)
- To get knowledge of, come to know, God
- To find out for oneself, to acquire, get, obtain, procure
Who have you searched for diligently and found? What was the context? Did you work hard to capture the heart of your spouse? Do you work to maintain your relationship with your friends? With other Christians?
Who has searched for you diligently and found you? What was the context? Did your spouse work hard to capture your heart? Do your friends work to maintain their relationship with you? Has anyone, ever, searched for you with this kind of intensity? Have you searched for anyone else that way?
- Help Them
Onesiphorus helped Paul. The Greek word diakoneō (διακονέω) is the same word that is used for deacons in the church.
- To be a servant, attendant, domestic, to serve, wait upon
- To minister to one, render ministering offices to
- To be served, ministered unto
- To wait at a table and offer food and drink to the guests, of women preparing food
- To minister i.e., supply food and necessities of life
- To relieve one’s necessities (e.g., by collecting alms), to provide, take care of, distribute, the things necessary to sustain life
- To take care of the poor and the sick, who administer the office of a deacon in Christian churches to serve as deacons, to minister
- To attend to anything, that may serve another’s interests
- To minister a thing to one, to serve one or by supplying anything
My wife Nancy attended a women’s prayer group and, on only her second meeting, discovered that the leader, C, had no car to use for her family’s imminent vacation. C and her husband S had sold their car sooner than expected and their daughter wanted to bring her boyfriend on the trip. S and C needed space for seven, but had only space for six in their remaining vehicle, a pickup truck. Nancy said, “We have an eight-passenger minivan. If you loan us a car to use for the week, you can take our van.” And they did… Nancy was a genuine servant, a helper.
Who have you helped recently? Who have you helped in a way that you remember years later? Who have you helped consistently? Who have you helped despite not receiving anything in return? Who have you helped but have a resentful attitude towards them?
Who has helped you recently? Who has helped you in a way that you remember years later? Who has helped you consistently? Who has helped you despite not receiving anything in return? Who has helped you but has a resentful attitude towards you?
So many are so lonely, and so many relationships spark and then fade away. All people, especially Christians, must be true to each other. Phygelus’ and Hermogenes’ behavior is typical of twenty-first century Americans. Onesiphorus’ is not. We must refresh, not be ashamed, seek and find, and help those around us. Jesus Christ did no less.
 Nicholas Riccardi, Mike Schneider, “The great American growth engine is slowing, U.S. census numbers reveal,” 27 Apr 2021, https://fortune.com/2021/04/27/the-great-american-growth-engine-is-slowing-u-s-census-numbers-reveal/.
 U.S. Adults Have Few Friends—and They’re Mostly Alike, Barna Group, 23 Oct 2018, https://www.barna.com/research/friends-loneliness/.
 Peter uses apostrepho in Acts 3:26 when he says that God sent Jesus to turn people away from their sins.