Dying is “far better” (?)

I’m reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian who lived during the Third Reich’s reign of terror. He refused to bow to the Nazis’ demands of the church, and ultimately they imprisoned and executed him.

He faced his death with remarkable confidence, trusting that being executed for his convictions was preferable to compromise. Death did not frighten him.

That kind of attitude has always fascinated me.

Paul certainly had it.

From his imprisonment he wrote these famous words:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again (Philippians 1:21-26).

He seems to be saying, “I’m okay with however this works out. If I die, I get to see Jesus. If I don’t, I get to work for Jesus. Either way is fine.”

I’ve preached a lot of funerals over the years, mostly for Christians, and I believe families should reflect on Paul’s perspective about death.

We grieve, but we’re grieving for our loss, not for the believer who died.

We shed tears, but not for the one who’s now sitting with Jesus; we cry because we miss him here.

“He’s in a better place” is a cliché that we should avoid sharing with a grieving family, especially in the days of intense grief surrounding a death. It minimizes the real pain they’re feeling right now.

But the cliché itself reflects the truth about a departed follower of Jesus, and I think that’s what Paul means in these verses.

When we die, we go to be with Jesus, and we turn our backs on a world that’s so often characterized by suffering and disappointment.

That perspective can help us.

If the Lord chooses to let us live several more decades, we’ll have many opportunities to reflect his grace to the people around us.

If he chooses to take us soon, that is “far better,” to use Paul’s words.

In no way do I mean to minimize the grief of those who are left behind—it’s real, it’s painful, it’s legitimate.

But for the Christian who dies, what could be better than falling asleep here only to wake up in the arms of Jesus?

Hope in Christ gives us confidence during difficult times

I know that many of you have faced difficult situations, and some of you are going through them right now.

It may be uncertainty at work: is my position going to be phased out? Should I make a career change?

It might be one of your children you’re worried about: life and relationship choices, immaturity, worldliness.

Sometimes it’s health problems, either your own or someone close to you.

Or it’s some other dilemma in which the uncertainty is killing you.

I think it’s normal to be concerned, to struggle at times with the uncertainty of the future.

But I also think Christians have something to cling to that can give us a sense of calm in any situation.

Paul was in prison multiple times, but I’m always amazed at how confident he was in the future.

He wrote these words from a Roman jail:

Yes, and I will rejoice, 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 (Philippians 1:18b-20).

He thought that he would probably be released soon.

But there’s more to it than that—notice his rock-solid confidence:

“I know.”

“This will turn out for my deliverance.”

“I will not at all be ashamed.”

“With full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body.”

I picture Paul kicked back in his jail cell without an ounce of worry about his future, thinking something like this: I think I’m going to be released, but I’m not terribly concerned. Whatever happens happens, and whatever happens will bring glory to Jesus. . . . So I’m okay with it.

Wow.

What an incredible perspective.

And there’s something important there for us.

I was amazed at and encouraged by the spirit of a young Christian mom whom I’ve never met, but who passed away yesterday with cancer. Like several of you, I followed her story online as she fought the disease for the last 20 months.

She desperately wanted to live . . . to be a mom to her 2 sons and a wife to her husband.

But through it all she was fully confident that God would do what was best, even if she didn’t understand why he didn’t answer her prayers the way she wanted him to.

She trusted that whatever happened would turn out to God’s glory and for her and her family’s best. She never wavered from that.

I was praying for her family yesterday morning, and I asked God why he chose to let her die.

He didn’t answer me, but just asking it helped remind me that we Christians have a different take on things.

The cancer might take a body, but it can’t touch the one God’s preparing for us.

The economy might make your industry unsustainable, but job loss isn’t an obstacle God can’t help you work through.

You may have no clue what God wants you to do with the big decision that’s in your lap, but it might be that he will be glorified with either choice you make.

God isn’t limited to things working out the way we mapped them when we were 18 or 19.

He’s got a billion ways to use you and me to his glory, so perhaps we shouldn’t let stuff get to us so much.

Eternity is what really matters, and God’s set the day when he’ll bring us home.

Focusing on that big picture will help us face our troubles down here more confidently.

What we talk about

Have you been around someone who talked about the same thing all the time?

Maybe sports or politics.

Or clothes, movies, or books.

And then some folks just talk about other people.

Paul was like that, I think, or at least he had one thing that dominated his conversations.

He spent quite a bit of time in jail, and it’s interesting to think about what it must’ve been like to be his jailer, or maybe his cellmate.

I’m sure they talked about some of the stuff that everybody talked about—the emperor’s economic policies and the upcoming chariot race.

But I can almost guarantee you what Paul talked about the most.

Here’s what he wrote from one of his jail cells:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ (Philippians 1:12-13).

Notice he says that his imprisonment for Christ had become known throughout the whole imperial guard—the people guarding him.

And then there’s this verse at the end of his letter:

All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household (Philippians 4:22).

Do you see the implication?

Paul wasn’t sitting around carving pictures in the wall of his jail cell, and neither was he spending all of his time shooting the bull with other prisoners.

He was telling everybody within earshot about Jesus.

The whole imperial guard knew.

Paul had led some of Caesar’s staff to Christ.

I think it was probably quite difficult to spend too much time around Paul without getting an earful.

An earful of Christ.

Most of the prisoners talked about how bad the food was, how hard the cots were, and how long their sentence was.

All the while, Paul shared the good news about Christ.

I suppose most of us are guilty of not being as vocal as we should be.

It’s easy to talk about the weather (“How bad will Isaac be?”).

Or sports (“My team will be great this year.”).

Or movies or books or politics.

Not so easy to talk about Christ.

Let me challenge you.

Wherever you are right now, pause for a few seconds and ask God to give you the courage to say a word about Christ today.

Then make the commitment to bring up faith in a conversation.

God’ll open the door, and if you’re looking, you’ll see it.

If Paul could talk about Christ to his prison guards, surely you and I can do it with a friend, co-worker, or neighbor.

Poor ole me

Why is this happening to me, God?

Most of us have cried those words at some point.

After a job loss, perhaps, or mistreatment from someone at work.

Or maybe it was a sick child, or even a loved one’s death.

Why me?

It’s a huge question, of course, and much too big to address adequately in a short devotional.

But it’s something we need to think about, and it’s better to gain perspective before we face difficulty than to try to develop it in the middle of the storm.

Paul had been thrown into prison, and his pity party is fun to watch.

Actually, I think I’d be seeking sympathy if I were in prison, but Paul’s attitude is remarkably different:

I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ (Philippians 1:12-13).

Incredible, isn’t it?

Where’s the woe-is-me talk?

Where’s the look-at-how-much-I’m-suffering-for-Christ pity plea?

If I get a runny nose I want to get at least a little concern from the people around me, but Paul?

He’s just excited to see what God is doing through his difficulties.

I love that attitude.

Maybe today you and I can focus on cultivating a God-focused spirit when times are tough.

Health problems? Difficult co-workers?

Irritable spouse? Relationship struggles?

Instead of inflating the balloons and sending out invitations to the pity party, maybe we should first sit down and talk to the Lord and ask him to help us see what he’s planning to accomplish through whatever difficulty we’re in.

Instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we should first consider that, to use Paul’s words, maybe this “imprisonment is for Christ.”

Maybe God has planned this to accomplish something huge for his glory and our good.

Overflowing with love

Some things you just can’t have too much of.

Like ice cream.

Or college football.

Or precious kisses from your baby son or daughter.

Of course Paul wasn’t talking about any of those things in Philippians 1, though I doubt he’d disagree with me.

Here’s what he says:

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:9-11).

Our English translations struggle to communicate Paul’s emphatic language in this passage:

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more . . .” (NRSV)

“I pray that your love will keep on growing more and more . . .” (GNB)

“That your love may abound more and more . . .” (ESV)

The verb “abound” itself is strong, meaning “to be present in abundance,” and the way Paul uses it here means “to keep on abounding” (R.R. Melick).

But then he adds this phrase: “still more and more” (though most translations leave the “still” out).

He could’ve prayed that our love might abound, or that it might “abound more.”

If he wanted to add a little more emphasis, he could’ve asked that it “abound more and more.”

But that wasn’t good enough, so he asked for their love to “abound still more and more.”

I think what he’s telling us is clear: you can’t have too much love.

Ever felt like your spouse loved you too much?

Have your kids ever loved you too much?

Ever felt there was too much love in your life?

Probably not, and Paul says he prays that our love will just keep on growing.

If you’re married, he’s asking God to multiply your love for your spouse.

If you’ve got kids, he wants you to love them more every day.

And of course, ultimately, most importantly, he’s praying that we’ll abound in love for God as we mature in faith, that we’ll be obsessively in love with Jesus, that we’ll love the Spirit of God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Paul is praying for something huge for you and me.

And it’s what I’m praying for you as we commune together today, and what I hope you’re praying for me as well.

Let’s be ridiculously, extraordinarily, overwhelmingly in love with our God.

The kids are growing up

I hope you’ll allow me a bit of introspection in today’s devotional—perhaps something in my personal reflections will be relevant to your walk as well.

We dropped our oldest child off at college last week, and—as with many significant life changes—it brings new perspectives. Like most things, you see it happening in other people’s lives and feel like you have a sense of what they’re feeling.

Then you realize you don’t.

As many of you know, God has blessed us with four children. I can’t count the number of times—particularly when they were younger—when a kind older couple would approach our family and say something like, “Now you enjoy those kids while they’re young, because you’ll turn around twice and they’ll be gone.”

I’d usually smile and say “thanks,” but in the back of my mind I’d disagree.

Eighteen years is forever.

We’ll always have one in diapers.

College is an eternity from now.

And then one day you wake up and realize they were right all along.

With his perfect timing, God has brought this psalm to my mind often lately:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate (Psalm 127:3-5).

If we’re parents, we should take these words to heart and treasure our kids as the incredible blessings they are.

But we ought to remember as well—especially in times of transition and uncertainty—that God loves our children even more than we do.

He’s their Parent, their Father, their Savior, their Lord.

Even before they were born, he knew them.

Before we heard them cry, he loved them.

And he’s still watching over them.

The first part of that same psalm says this:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep (Psalm 127:1-2).

I think this psalm speaks to all of us who are parents—God is the one who builds the house . . . he’s the one watching over the city.

If we still have children at home, we should enjoy them, love them, cherish them, teach them.

If our kids have left home, we should trust the one who’s always with them. God is a gracious Father who cherishes them infinitely more than we do. He’s their Abba, their Protector, their Guide.

It’s amazing how quickly we go from the colic to college, from diapers to degrees.

James was right, wasn’t he? “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:17).

Take advantage of the opportunities we have, but always remember our Sovereign Father who’s watching over and caring for all of his children, including the ones we send off to college.

How fear holds us back

I’m pretty sure fear holds us back in our walk with Christ.

Do you ever worry?

About your health, your kids, or your future?

Most of us do, and worry is just another word for fear.

Why do we fudge the truth?

Probably because we’re scared of what’ll happen if we don’t.

Why do we sometimes fail to say what needs to be said?

Because we’re afraid of confrontation, or what people will think about us.

Why do we so easily join in when people around us are gossiping?

Because we’re afraid of looking self-righteous or judgmental.

If you take a close look at your most common sins, I think you’ll find that you’re scared of something.

Peter denied Jesus three times because of fear.

The one-talent man buried his money because of fear.

Abraham slept with his wife’s servant because of fear.

That’s not how it’s supposed to be, of course. God doesn’t want fear to control us.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:15-17).

As you’re reading this, are you worried about something?

What fear is stealing the joy from your life in Christ?

What fear is keeping you from being fully obedient?

By God’s Spirit, cry out to him today.

Abba! Father!

Ask him to cast the fear out of your heart. Beg him to fill your life with confidence in him, to help you trust him enough to obey him no matter what.

Facing fear is part of the human struggle, but God will help you get rid of it.

We’re winning gold

These Olympic athletes are amazing, aren’t they?

Gabby Douglas. Missy Franklin. Michael Phelps. Allyson Felix.

I can’t even imagine what they felt when they stood on that platform with the medal around their necks as they played our national anthem.

You’ve seen the interviews.

“It was surreal.”

“Incredible.”

“Unbelievable.”

“Indescribable.”

I don’t want to diminish their achievements at all—I couldn’t be more proud of what our athletes accomplished—but I can’t help but think about something better.

Paul—winner of not a single Olympic sport—wrote this shortly before he died.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8).

I’m pretty sure Paul liked sports—he used them often in his writings.

But he recognized that one crown, one wreath, one award, is worth more than all the others. Shortly after he wrote those verses he stood on the platform and received his medal.

Over time the gold, silver, and bronze will lose their value.

The media smother the athletes now, but they’ll soon move on to the next superstar.

All the interviews, pictures, and endorsements must be overwhelming, but not for long. The world is already looking toward the next sport, the next election, the next big thing.

There’s always something next.

Quick question: who won gold in the men’s 200 meter butterfly in Sydney twelve years ago?

Don’t know?

I didn’t either, but the answer is Tom Malchow (I looked it up).

Better yet, can you name a single gold winner from the 2000 Olympics (without looking)?

Here’s my point: it’s glorious, it’s wonderful, it’s breathtaking, it’s surreal, and then it’s gone.

The crown that Jesus will place on your head?

The medal God will put over your neck?

They’ll never tarnish, they’ll never lose their value, and they’ll never be stolen.

You and I won’t stand on a platform in Rio four years from now.

But it won’t be long before we stand on a bigger stage in front of a bigger crowd with eternity in the balance, and we’ll look Jesus in the eye when he crowns us with gold.

Our athletes stockpiled the medals these past two weeks, but they can’t even begin to compare to the one we’ll get very soon.

What he’s doing in you

Sometimes it’s easy to see the good stuff that God is doing in other people’s lives.

Maybe that preacher or writer or godly stalwart of the faith at church—yeah, we can see what he’s doing there.

After all, those people are holy, godly Christians . . . they’re the sanctified ones.

But is he really doing anything in us?

In me?

We’re all too conscious of the ugly things we’ve shoved into one of our closets to think that God might be doing something significant in us.

The Bible says otherwise:

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

Paul is writing to the Christians in Philippi, of course, but they were just like us: followers of Jesus who loved the Lord but struggled to live as they should.

I love the apostle’s confidence: “I am sure of this.”

“I hope so”?

“I think so”?

No, Paul seems to have no doubts that God will do big things in these Christians’ lives.

Why was he so sure?

Was it because they had some kind of spiritual aptitude that you don’t?

Had they attained some level of super-righteousness that we can’t get?

Notice carefully what Paul says: “he who began a good work in you . . .”

Paul knew the work would be finished because he wasn’t thinking about human ability or human self-discipline or human will.

These people weren’t super-Christians.

When he writes, “he who began a good work in you,” he’s looking squarely at Jesus, the source of all spiritual strength.

He began it, and he’ll complete it.

That applied to the Philippians two thousand years ago, and it applies equally to you.

Pause a moment and thank God. Thank him for what he began in you a few months, years, or decades ago.

Thank him for the assurance that he won’t drop the ball.

Thank him for using you—with your struggles and weaknesses—to do a “good work.”

And ask him to help you trust in his promise that he’ll finish what he started.

God doesn’t just do good stuff in the Abrahams, Sarahs, Pauls, and Marys.

He’s doing them right now in ordinary people like me and you.

And these are the good guys?

There’s some ugly stuff in the Bible, some of it risqué enough that I’ve sorta skimmed over it in our family devotionals.

Lying, rape, prostitution, murder, adultery, drunkenness.

And those are the good guys.

Abraham slept with his wife’s servant.

Jacob stole his brother’s birthright.

Tamar dressed up like a prostitute to seduce Judah, her father-in-law.

David committed adultery, then murdered his lover’s husband to cover it up.

We often hold up Bible characters as models of faithfulness—and in some ways they were (cf. Hebrews 11)—but I’m not sure that’s the main lesson we ought to take from their lives.

I believe the main lesson is what God does through messed-up people. After all, isn’t the Bible a story of what he has done in human history to demonstrate his glory in saving us?

It’s not as much about what we ought to do as it is about what he has done.

And what he’s done is incredible.

He took sinful, messed-up, often faithless, sometimes rebellious people and worked out his plan for saving you and me.

God came to earth out of a genealogy that isn’t exactly the poster child for the Top Ten Ways to Live for God (read the genealogy in Matthew 1 for a representative sample).

He surrounded himself with a group of undistinguished, run-of-the-mill, unlettered fishermen, taxmen, and zealots.

And he used all this messiness to save the world.

He used their mistakes to prove a point: nothing keeps him from accomplishing what he wants.

That’s what Paul says here: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

I’m starting to think that we need to focus less on how we can imitate great Bible characters.

I think we ought to think more about thanking God for what he did through a bunch of people who didn’t have much to offer.

By the way, he’s still doing this today, which is why he’s doing great things in our muddled, unremarkable lives.

If he used the Bible’s remarkably flawed heroes, just think about what he might do in you.