“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). Rather shocking words. Death, according to the apostle Paul, could actually be a good thing.
Some people feel this way because life is so bad that they want escape from it, but that’s not what Paul was thinking at all.
He was not tired of life, and he had no morbid fascination of death. Instead, his desire for death was based in his firm belief that death would bring him closer to Jesus. He loved Jesus so much that he could say that being closer to Him would be “better by far” (1:23).
Paul’s thinking may seem rather strange to you. Why would anyone think this way?
In order to understand his thinking, let’s ask this question: what makes life worth living at all?
Let me suggest that it is primarily one thing: relationships. Whatever else we may enjoy, without relationships, they are pretty much worthless. We desperately need people.
However, people can never satisfy us. Even at their best, they cannot supply the love we truly need. This points us to a more fulfilling relationship with our Creator.
Jesus Christ is a human being, born 2,000 years ago, but He also claimed to be the eternal God and proved it by His resurrection from the dead.
Because Jesus is no mere man, we are not talking merely about devotion to an historical person. We are talking about a human who is also God. This is the basic claim of the Christian religion.
In light of that, here are a few reasons why someone might consider death “gain” to be closer to Jesus.
- He is our Creator. He made us and wants to have a relationship with us.
- He is the ruler of the universe. There is no one who can do more for us than Jesus Christ to whom “all authority and power in heaven and earth” have been given.
- He loves us more than anyone else could. Every other love is finite. His love is infinite, fully able to satisfy all our needs.
- He cares for us more than anyone else. When we had no interest in Him, He came into this world and suffered on the cross for our sins so that we might be brought back to God (1 Pet. 3:18).
- He understands us better than anyone else can. Everyone else knows us a little bit. He knows us every thought and intention of our hearts. Amazingly, He loves us more than anyone else does in spite of that.
These are just some of the reasons why someone would say being closer to Christ would be better than anything this world has to offer.
I am one who believes this in my heart. But I have to admit: I have a hard time saying that dying would be better than living in this world.
Why is that? I don’t think it’s just because I’m an unsanctified Christian (though I’m sure that has something to do with it). Rather, I like the connections I have down here. I want to be with my children, wife, and friends, help them, and experience my children growing up and learning to do significant things in this world.
Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthians, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided” (1 Cor. 7:32–34).
And you know what? Even though Paul was probably single, he still had a similar struggle. He wanted to be with Christ, but he also loved the churches that God had used him to establish.
He writes: “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (1:23–24).
Staying on earth meant that he could have “fruitful labor” among the people whom he loved.
From Paul’s meditation on the meaning of death and the meaning of life, let me encourage you to consider three things.
First, each one of us should prepare more thoroughly for death than we do. One day we will leave this world. Do we think about that? Do we meditate on being with Christ? This should be a regular practice.
Second, one day we will have to leave those whom we love and commit them to the Lord. They belong first and foremost to Him. Our mortality reminds us of this important truth. This is a crucial perspective in all our interactions with people.
Third, while we are here, let us make every effort to do all the good we can to those whom God has committed to our care. If leaving people behind bothers us, let us do good while have the opportunity. Let’s cut out the distractions that keep us from giving our attention to those whom God has called us to love.
I know that each of us needs rest and investments in ourselves in order to have something to give unto others, but we should always make those investments and take that rest with an eye to blessing others.
Why are we here, after all? Dying may be gain, but we are here. So, while we have the opportunity, let’s do our best to fill our time with with “fruitful labor” that glorifies Christ by investing in others (Phil. 1:22).