Dying and living with Jesus in heaven is better than Life on Earth
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Phil. 1:21-24
The word that stands out to me in this text is the last word of v.22, “choose.” What’s intriguing is that it seems that as Paul was sitting in prison, he was presented with two options, presumably by God Himself – suffer martyrdom in the near future, or be released for further ministry, and suffer martyrdom later. And as Paul talks about his condition during his time in prison, what he’s doing, how he’s feeling, the ministry he’s conducting, he then begins to give us a peek into the personal wrestling behind his desires for the future.
He is “hard-pressed from both directions.” What directions? Well, apparently the directions of “depart[ing] and be[ing] with Christ,” and “remain[ing] on in the flesh.” Choosing death was, to Paul, in no way morbid, or even an escape. Death was no less than being with Christ. Staying was good too – Paul calls it “fruitful labor.” How amazing that in speaking of death, there’s no mention of the gruesome nature of martyrdom, and in speaking of life, there’s no mention of the torments endured for the sake of the gospel. No path Paul took was going to be easy, but one was better than the other.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Paul is going to make this decision based on “more necessary” rather than “very much better.” Better to be with Christ. More necessary to continue to minister to the Philippians, and by extension, all of us through subsequent writing. He’s going to tell Timothy several years later, “I have finished my course,” but the sense here is that the course is not yet finished.
The mindset here is what is so challenging to me. Dying is gain. Departing is very much better. Staying is fruitful labor. It seems that if you have that mindset, nothing can really threaten your sense of joy. Every danger is merely the potential portal to “very much better.” What is “necessary” now will give way to “better.” There’s no way but up. That’s not to say the struggles weren’t real, or that Paul was campaigning for president of the glee club. Staying meant sorrow, no mistake.
The almost automatic presumption that perhaps we make all too often is that it’s better to live and stay here than to depart. Every threat to our continuing to stay here is almost instinctively met with “God keep me here” type prayers. We have prayer chains so others can join us in that prayer. If anyone gets close to dying and departing, especially if, like Paul, they’re not yet beyond 80 years old, the “Oh God don’t take him yet!” prayers go up. I’m not sure how “hard-pressed” we would feel if God gave us the same kind of option He apparently gave Paul.
It’s not as though Paul didn’t have good reason to want to stay, either: “This will mean fruitful labor for me.” When I think of death, the thing that frightens me is that I’m pretty sure the world will fall apart when I’m gone. My kids wouldn’t have a Dad, my wife wouldn’t have a husband, and the checks would stop coming in. My clients wouldn’t have a contractor, and my church wouldn’t have a second assistant pastor. Clearly I’m a pretty necessary guy, how on earth could things possibly move along in my absence? I ask with a mixture of sarcasm and shame…
And what’s this business of “fruitful labor” anyway? I have to admit – thinking of life in terms of “fruitful labor” isn’t really second nature to me. Having a life mission so clearly defined must certainly be an incredible liberation from the burdens that God said He’d take care of but I typically try to handle anyway. Paul, why do you get up every morning? Fruitful labor. What if you don’t wake up? My labors are done. That’s pretty simple. Here’s a man in a Roman prison confident that no matter where he is, he’s going to work, and his work is going to be fruitful. Painful? yes, that too, but fruitful. Even “necessary.” But better to be with Christ. Very much better, to be more exact.
Maybe the takeaway is this: Paul’s perspective on death had to do with his philosophy of life. Since life was laser focused on “fruitful labor,” so much so that no matter where he was, what condition he was in, or what opposition he faced, he was going to labor, and bear bushels of fruit in the process. The only thing that could interrupt his labor was death. And death was better anyway, because death was “gain;” departing was to “be with Christ.”
We speak often as believers of having no need to fear death. Death where is your sting? But to me, death isn’t the issue. Departing is. Leaving a giant me-sized hole in my spheres of influence seems almost cruel! We feel irreplaceable. And perhaps we’re not as convinced as we should be that being with Christ is actually “better.” I wonder how I’d wrestle through the same choice Paul was given: Do you want to stay and work, or come home? And if I did answer it like Paul, I wonder how that would affect how I think about my health, my security, my risk-taking, and how it would affect the way I pray about myself and those I love. What if we were convinced that life boiled down to “fruitful labor” and death boiled down to “very much better”? I suppose at that point we’d say something like “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”