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?