A while ago, I settled in for my morning devotion time of studying the book of Philippians. The house was quiet, my vanilla pillar candle flickered, and I zoned in on the chunk of chapter 1, verses 21 through 24:
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 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.
This text was not news to me: Philippians 1:21 is a basic Scripture memory verse in the south. But something about the underlying emotion caught at my mind. Paul, that’s such a weird thought process, I considered. After perusing my Bible’s study notes, I opened up a commentary and read something I’ve been chewing on ever since:
“Paul genuinely considers his choice to live rather than to die to be the more difficult and sacrificial choice. We live in a culture that thinks of physical death with such dread that society’s highest goal is the postponement of death as long as possible. Physical life and death are not of ultimate importance to Paul. He hopes for the outcome that will most clearly advance the preaching of Christ (and seems to have assumed that his is the only attitude for a slave of Christ Jesus to take). This can only strike us as strange in the modern church if we have allowed the comforts of our present physical existence to usurp the place of Christ in our lives as our chief priority.”
That last sentence hit me between the eyes. There I was, nestled in my warm home (not lavish or overly expensive, but really comfortable and suited to my personal tastes), having my lifestyle shattered by the God I love. It’s not just my environment that was called into question, either; my whole life is built around me—how much time I want to spend with God, what foods I want to eat, what kinds of pain I don’t want to endure, how I want to build my mind, which people I want to be friends with. Granted, biblical truth has informed my decisions since I was old enough to think things through, but I still can’t shake that quiet nagging, the painful sweetness of conviction. If God gave me the chance, would I choose to die today and be with Jesus? Or would I check my calendar and make sure there were no more appealing offers coming up soon? Paul didn’t hesitate. His preference was Christ. But he allowed his desire to fade in the light of others’ needs.
There’s the truth, hidden among the familiar words I have memorized since I was little: to love means to die. Not in some weird emotional Romeo and Juliet kind of way, but in a very practical, selfless sense. Paul let his own wishes die for the sake of his brothers and sisters in the faith. He cast his preference aside so that those he served could be served longer. What love! It echoes Christ’s deep passion for us in that no greater love has anyone than this: that he would lay down his life for his friends. How can I expect my life to count for anything if it’s built around me and my own comfort? I was battling with that when I read this next line in the commentary:
“Why does Paul do this? Why does he debate before the Philippians his personal preference in circumstances whose outcome he cannot control? The answer lies in Paul’s desire to serve as a model for the Philippian church.”
And then my soul breathed, of course. Of course! I can’t even imagine exposing my thought life to a bunch of baby believers so that they could imitate it as an example of how a mature Christian thinks. I’m having a hard enough time doing the opposite (exposing my selfish mind as an example of how not to think—or even just keeping my mouth shut when negative things are fighting to get free). I have so much growing to do before I can lay out my inmost thoughts as a helpful blueprint to young believers for what honors the Lord.
So what is God teaching me right now? It’s a painful lesson on exactly how much I need to decrease so that He can increase (though I have a feeling He’s been gentle in not showing me exactly how much I need to decrease). This life is not mine. I am not mine. I am His. And then I am yours. I am never my own.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.