Perhaps you recognize that line from the 1982 song by The Clash. Did you know that the apostle Paul said something very similar over nineteen hundred years before this British rock band was even in existence? Paul's quandary, however, concerned something far more important than choosing whether or not to end a relationship with his girlfriend. Paul's decision was a matter of life and death:
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 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! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
Philippians 1:21-24 (New International Version)
At the time of this writing, Paul was in prison. Biblical scholars debate which prison he was in (he was in so many prisons). Most agree, however, that this letter to the Philippians was written in A.D. 61 during his first imprisonment in Rome. History lesson aside, what I find so remarkable about this passage is Paul's unwavering joy and his devotion to Jesus Christ. His declaration, "to live is Christ," makes it known in no uncertain terms that true life, the abundant life, can only be realized through a personal relationship with Jesus. Paul's entire being was deeply rooted in who he was in Christ. Because he had this vibrant relationship with his Lord, he could endure mockery, imprisonment and beatings and still have joy. No he wasn't a masochist; Paul just saw the big picture - the true picture: Jesus Christ is life. Moreover, Paul was inspired by what awaited him in his permanent home: heaven. He not only knew about heaven, he got the rare chance to see it firsthand (see 2 Corinthians 12 for details). That is why he could boldly proclaim, "to die is gain."
We can all learn a great deal from Paul. Many of us are so consumed with the pursuit of the American dream or preoccupied with the struggles of life, that we lose focus on what truly matters. That's why we need a constant reminder that life in the here and now is but a vapor and we need to make each day count. Count for what you might ask? Count for eternity. Pastor Rick Warren sums it up like this: "I may live 60 to 100 years on earth, but I'm going to spend trillions of years in eternity. This is the warm-up act - the dress rehearsal. God wants us to practice on earth what we will do forever in eternity."
Paul, ever the faithful and selfless servant, certainly lived one great dress rehearsal. Towards the end of his life, he set aside his desire to join the Lord in paradise to continue serving Him here on earth – even from prison. Talk about a “whatever it takes” attitude! This apostle made every day count and as a result, God worked miracles through him and Gentiles far and wide were saved. We know from history that Paul was released from this prison in A.D. 62/63. He continued to spread the Gospel for another four or five years before getting imprisoned under Emperor Nero. Paul would never physically leave that prison, but his spirit would go on to paradise to be with his beloved Savior.
Although I have not come close to experiencing Paul’s trials and tribulations, I can totally relate to “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Having cancer can do that to a person. And I can especially relate to his dilemma: “I am torn between the two” (going home to the Lord now or staying on to serve Him here on earth). I guess you can call this the ultimate “win-win” dilemma. With Paul’s example in mind, I’m choosing to serve this same Lord as He directs me, for as long as He needs me on this planet. No matter what that road ahead may bring, I too will find my joy in Christ. The good news for all of us is that we don’t need to have cancer or a life threatening illness to live our lives this way.