“To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
For a long time, I misquoted Philippians 1:21 as if it was a sanctified YOLO. “You only live once, but I know where I’ll be after that! I’m good either way!” Often, the joking words followed some kind of minor inconvenience. “To live is Christ, but to die is gain. Life is annoying – I’m ready to get where I’m going.” Actually, this one might be closer to Paul’s original intent… but it’s still only a shadow. Paul’s words to the Philippians, written from prison, carry something deeper for the Christian life than a flippant dismissal of our woes. These words reveal, at least in part, what it means to truly live.
To die is gain.
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.… I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far….” – Phil. 1:21, 23
For the Christian, for the one who is saved in Christ by grace through faith, death is gain. We have nothing to fear, but everything to look forward to!
Just a couple weekends ago, I was able to participate in a spiritual formation retreat as part of a church residency. It was a beautiful opportunity to get away from normal routine, spend several hours with God in silence and solitude, and connect with our residency community in ways that regular life makes difficult. The biblical focus of this retreat was on John, one of four Gospel authors and, later, a prominent leader in the early church. (If you know me, you know I love John. And not just because I think he was a Four on the Enneagram, although that’s a contributing factor.) On the last morning of our retreat, sitting on the dock at the lake’s edge, we concluded with John’s words in Revelation 1:
“I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos [in exile] because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice…. I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.”
In the midst of suffering and endurance and continual faithfulness to God, John heard a voice. Revelation says this voice sounded like a trumpet, but I wonder if he still recognized, even before turning around, the voice of the Friend he hadn’t seen in decades. The voice he had fought hard to remember, to recreate through imagination. The voice he had longed for and dearly missed. The voice of Jesus.
This reunion is what we have to look forward to – the reason that to die is gain. When I finally get to turn toward that voice, leaving behind me everything else, “it won’t break my heart to say goodbye.” 1 Leaving that weekend of retreat, though, my heart did break a little at the thought of returning to normal life. It’s still wrestling with that, to be honest. It’s obvious and easy to accept that to die is gain; in the meantime, I struggle to understand the truth that
To live is Christ.
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body…. 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.” – Phil. 1:20, 22-24
I admire Paul’s optimistic description of life in the body as an opportunity for “fruitful labor!” I would have written something closer to “Life in the body sucks, and I’m tired of it,” which is probably why God didn’t choose me to write anything into His Scripture.
Life in the body means difficulty, affliction, and burden. It means stubbed toes, broken bones, and cancer. It means an internal war with unsanctified desires, a battle against the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It means the ache of loneliness and the sting of loss. It means groaning with all creation for eventual unmediated union with Christ and the redemption of our bodies.2
I’m reminded of the two angels who appeared after Jesus left the disciples in Acts 1. “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Again, I admire that the apostles got to work after that; I want to say, “What else can I do in the midst of this mess besides wait for Jesus?” Somehow, we work in the world even as we wait for his return – only by his power in us.
To remain in the life of the body, we must depend on the Spirit of God, who fills our emptiness and gives voice to our wordless groans. He is the source of our “sufficient courage” to remain faithful and, in doing so, exalt Christ in our bodies. Even when thorns persist in our flesh, the nagging pain serves as a reminder that His power is made perfect in our weakness.3 Therefore, remaining in the body requires us to remain in Christ.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love…. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:9-10, 12-13
Jesus set the example for what life in the body looks like, and he calls his followers to remain – to μένω, the same word Paul uses in Philippians. This word isn’t about persevering or just muscling through, but about dwelling, abiding. To remain means to follow Jesus’ example of life and love. Mere hours after giving this command, Jesus went to the cross for his friends. He took on death so that we could live. Therefore, if to live truly is Christ, we find our lives when we lay them down.
This doesn’t mean we should all be in a hurry to find a way to die (although, as we’ve established, death is a gain). Henri Nouwen, in his book In the Name of Jesus, offers another method of laying down our lives. He writes, “Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life.” In other words, in the ongoing labor of life, laying our lives down for others more often means laying them bare before others. Such vulnerability might be as frightening as actual death! But through the offering of our honest and broken lives, the love of God is made tangible in our relationships.
“Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body, not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit.” – Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus
“It is not good for man to be alone,” God said upon observing Adam’s isolation in the garden – the first “not good” of creation, prior to sin’s introduction and influence. Nouwen echoes the sentiment, now under the consequences of the fall: “I have found over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone.” God’s answer for Adam in Genesis 2 was Eve; His answer for His people today is… His people.
For Christians, to live in the body means to live in the body of Christ. In living the Incarnation, we imitate Jesus in his humble (and even humiliating) vulnerability, purposed for and gifted to others. This is the mutuality of ministry; this is the core of community; this is the path to nurturing abiding friendships.
Nouwen provides a clear framework for this kind of vulnerability with the discipline of confession. “Through confession,” he writes, “the dark powers are taken out of their carnal isolation, brought into the light, and made visible to the community. Through forgiveness, they are disarmed and dispelled and a new integration between body and spirit is possible.”
In vulnerability and confession, we love our friends by trusting them – by giving our lives to them, in a way, as Jesus laid down his life. In forgiving our brothers and sisters, and in shouldering burdens alongside them, we make Christ’s love tangible and visible to them. In imitating the Incarnation, we encourage others as living testimonies to the goodness of God.
“…it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” – Phil. 1:24-26
Like Paul, our remaining in the body is for others. This is why “to live is Christ,” in spite of (and even because of) our many struggles in this world. Even sharing the ache to depart and be with Christ is an encouragement, if it inspires the community to boast in Jesus all the more.
In all of this, in all our remaining, we are motivated first and foremost by our love for Jesus, whose voice we long to hear. Out of love for him, we care for his Bride until the day we finally see his face.
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.” – Philippians 1:20
“And now, dear children, remain in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” – 1 John 2:28
2 1 Jn. 2:16-17; Rom. 8:22-23
3 2 Cor. 12:6-10