When Dying is Gain
I think it was John Piper who said it, but even if not I still agree: The art of living well comes from knowing that dying is gain. Contrary to what many may think, that is not morbid. In fact, there is nothing quite as exhilarating and life-giving and joy-filled as pondering death. At least that’s true for the Christian.
For most people, death remains a mystery, a dreaded, unexplored black hole in the future that threatens in the present to suck out of one’s life all lingering joy and hope. The questions that come my way regarding death and dying are almost too numerous to count: What precisely is death? When does it occur? Is it irreversible? Is there anything that awaits us on the other side of life? Should I fear death or embrace it?
The Apostle Paul thought long and hard about death. He had to, given the fact that he faced the possibility of it at virtually every moment of his life, something he describes quite forthrightly in Philippians 1. He had been threatened with execution. Even if he were to be released, his enemies had plotted against him and were determined to rid themselves of his presence.
But what makes Paul’s comments in Philippians 1:19-26 so helpful for us isn’t simply that he talks about dying but the way he talks about living in the light of dying. Paul had one and only one ambition. He passionately yearned and desired that Christ be honored in his body, whether in life or by death. And what he will tell us in this remarkable text is that, for the Christian, the art of living well comes from knowing that dying is gain.
In vv. 19-20 he said this: “for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Paul never sought out suffering, persecution, or deprivation for its own sake. If in God’s providence it should turn out that he was imprisoned, he intended to take full advantage of his circumstances to preach the gospel to those who otherwise might never have heard it. But Paul was not a masochist and was not opposed to taking reasonable steps of self-preservation. He did not suffer from a martyr complex! But he was also willing to endure whatever hardship and opposition might come his way as the result of his faithful proclamation of the gospel.
He longed for his release not because he feared suffering but because he knew that it would demonstrate his innocence and show that the gospel was not a subversive force in society.
But most important of all, regardless of what might happen to him, whether he is set free or is executed, he prayed that he would be an instrument of glory to Christ. Whether he continues to live or should he die, in either case he wants only one thing: that Jesus be seen as glorious and great and sufficient!
Notice also how he puts his hope in the passive voice: “Christ will be honored in my body” (v. 20b). I think he does this because he cannot bring himself to say, “I will honor Christ in my body.” With characteristic humility he makes Christ the subject of the verb and himself only the means by which such action will be accomplished.
Thus his expectation and hope is that if he lives on in the body, Christ will be honored. And if he should die from his imprisonment or by execution, Christ will be honored. He doesn’t want to do anything that might bring reproach on the name of Jesus.
To say that Christ will be “honored” is to say that he will be magnified and praised and shown to be glorious. “So what Paul is saying is that his earnest hope and passion is that what he does with his body, whether in life or death, will always be worship” (John Piper). Can we say that about ourselves? Think deeply on what you do and how you live and the use of your body and mind and spirit and money and time and where you go and with whom you associate and ask yourself: “Do I have one simple goal in all things, that Christ be honored, both in how I live and in the way I die?”