For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (verse 21)
I remember visiting a dear, elderly woman from our congregation who was in hospital with severe heart issues. She was full of faith, having lived a lifetime in relationship with her Lord Jesus. Before I visited, I’d heard the doctors had told her there wasn’t much they could do, that in fact she was dying. I wondered how she was taking it. Standing at the bedside, I was greeted by her sweet, warm smile, weaker than usual, but so welcoming. We chatted a bit, and then she told me the news. I commiserated, then asked the question that was hanging in the air: “How are you feeling about that?” She paused, then looked me in the eye, and with almost an impish grin, she said, “Kind of excited.”
I’ll never forget. She had embraced Paul’s own heart: “To die is gain.”
This full verse, so short, yet so loaded with riveting implications, is the boldest of banners under which we could live. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Unpacking the implications for life, here and now, I come at it from two different angles. On the one hand, it means that nothing is a higher priority than Jesus himself. Relationships, romance, family, career, wealth, property, investments, accomplishments, athletics, arts, prestige, travel, leisure, and whatever else might be in our line of sights, can only ever take second place to the one who is Lord of all. In one sense, we put it all aside for him, counting it all so much rubbish that we may gain Christ. If “to live is Christ,” then I must be willing to sacrifice any and all for his sake. As Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”
On the other hand, we gather it all up in our hands – all our activities and goals, dreams and aspirations, so much of it necessary for actually living life well – and we engage in it passionately, without reserve, but all for him. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord … It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24). This is Brother Lawrence’s principle of practicing the presence of God, taking the mundane activities of life, and living into them, offering them up as sacrifice, to the Lord. It is not necessarily the ascetic who lives best for Christ, but rather the one who lives life to the full for Jesus.
Taking the second half of this bold banner into account – “to die is gain” – means that while engaging fully in life now for the glory of Jesus, we don’t fear death. How could we? He is the resurrection and the life – whoever believes in him will live, even though they die. Indeed, the life they will then live will be with eyes wide open, no longer seeing “through a glass, darkly,” but rather seeing him face to face. And when we see him, we shall be like him, fully conformed to his image. Oh, how good! Truly, “to die is gain.”
Two final stories weave into my thinking at this point. One comes from the life of a man who preached regularly at the church I grew up in – indeed he preached across the country and around the world. In his senior years he discovered suddenly that he was terminally ill with cancer. So, he gathered his family and told them he had spent the last thirty years seeking to show them how to live – now, he was going to spend the next several months showing them how to die. Both were flip-sides of life “in Christ” – he did both with much focus and grace.
Secondly, I heard a Christian professor from a secular business school describe the process by which he engaged students in grappling with their life values. He’d ask them to identify as many as they could, and then rank them by importance, grading the highest as “things I’d die for.” He said the students would routinely turn to him with a stunned look and say, “Die for? – there is nothing I’d be willing to die for!” To which he’d always reply: “Life is a terminal disease. You are already in the process of dying. The things you currently spend life doing are, in fact, the things you’d die for.”
Doesn’t it make sense, then, to stand side by side with the Apostle Paul, and cry out passionately, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” May it be.
Lord Jesus, I embrace the Apostle’s words. I don’t understand their full implications, but I choose to submit my whole self, in life and in death, into your hands. Strengthen my hand on the plough, not looking back. To you be the glory.
Reflect: Take this short verse and commit it to memory. Turn it over in your mind again and again throughout the day. Ask Jesus to show you its meaning, here and now. Step into it.