I have had a hard time deciding before.
To break up with someone, or to work things out? To quit a job or stick with it? To move or to stay? I have been that person perched up on the fence, unable to drop off to one side or another. I have been the one who talks incessantly about the two potential choices; the one whose friends all say, “Just make up your mind!” and who keeps insisting, “I can’t! I can’t decide!”
I have had a hard time deciding before.
But I’ve never had a hard time deciding between the two things Paul is struggling with.
“I don’t know what to do!” he says. To live? Or to die?
Maybe we can understand Paul’s dilemma a little bit by remembering his situation. He is, after all, writing to the Philippians from prison. It’s not like he’s living the upper-middle-class American dream and feels torn between life and death. He’s locked up, in the clink, unable to do the ministry he is called to, resigned to mere letter writing. And he wonders: What do I want? To live? Or to die?
Prison is a bleak place to be, but strangely, Paul is not struggling with this choice out of desperation. He sees it as a stalemate between two good options. Like: To go to the lake or the beach? To play college baseball or football? To eat at Outback or Red Lobster? This is the kind of dilemma that Paul faces.
To live, obviously, is good. But for Paul it’s good, specifically, because he gets to keep up his ministry with the Gentiles, the non-Jews. He gets to keep working with the church in Philippi, helping them understand their faith.
But to die, oddly, is also good. It means he gets to go on and be with Christ. Paul writes in a way that expects Christ to return at any moment; dying would help to speed that up. Why wait?
Living is good because it means more work for Christ. Dying is good because it means actually being with Christ. Which to choose?
Without realizing it, Christians in general struggle with this same question. Some of us have even taken sides.
Some of us Christians live like we’ve decided death is the best option. But not just death – like Paul, we have chosen life after death. Our faith focuses on securing a place in heaven. When we share our faith with others, the selling point has to do with locking in eternal life, or preparing for the Second Coming.
Others of us live like we’ve decided life is the best option. But not just life – like Paul, we want to live in service to Christ. We are invested in meeting peoples’ needs now. We start feeding ministries, we build houses, we go on mission trips.
Is either wrong? No, absolutely not. Remember, we’re dealing with a dilemma between two good choices.
But either one, on its own, is incomplete.
Death is a very important thing to deal with. It’s going to happen to all of us, so we’re all pretty interested in addressing this issue. But if our faith is focused all on eternal life and none on this present life, we begin to neglect the work we’re called to now. Christ charged us to love our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to do unto the least of these as we would to him. There is more to being a Christian than just putting down a deposit for a room in God’s house.
So life is important – but this can be over-emphasized, too. Yes, we should do all that good humanitarian work; but, other people can do that work, too. Good, non-Christian people are doing some of that work, and doing it well. What we followers of Christ have to offer uniquely are the more eternal gifts: forgiveness of sin that leads to eternal life. If we meet their physical needs without addressing their eternal needs, we are falling short of what Christ calls us to do.
I’m starting to see Paul’s dilemma.
Thankfully, we don’t have to choose. We shouldn’t chose. We are called to a middle way, a faith that deals with life after death and life in this life – equally.
Almost every week, someone calls the church needing financial help. I’m not very good at telling the difference between those who are in genuine need and those who are working the system. Thankfully, we have the Good Samaritan fund here in Cherokee County – a fund that all the churches draw on and which has good guidelines in place for use. I love it when someone calls and I know I will be able to help them. I love making sure their power stays on or that they have gas to go to the doctor. I love meeting those immediate needs.
Sometimes, I’m so happy I was able to help them that I forget to ask: “Do you have somewhere you go to church?”
They need more than just for their power to stay on. They need to know that there’s more to life than just this life. They need Christ. They need a Christian family. They need all that.
Not every week, but sometimes, I am called upon to officiate a funeral. I thought that this would be a depressing part of being a pastor. In a surprising twist, I’ve found funerals to be inspiring and hopeful. It should be a dark moment but – surprise! – because of Christ, there is life after death. There is more than just this. Funerals are a great chance to tell everyone about the gift of eternal life.
But most funerals are also a chance to reflect on how a life was lived. Did they love others? Did they play a role in our community? What kind of father, sister, uncle, grandmother were they? How is the world different because of them? Most of the time, I get to brag on the decisions they made and lift them up as an example of faith in action.
We need to know what happens after death. But we also need to make good use of the time we have now.
Honestly, I still don’t feel Paul’s dilemma here. I am not torn between life and death. I look forward to meeting Jesus, but I don’t mind to bide my time here with my kids and my husband and my church family for as long as Christ lets me.
But Paul’s dilemma is a good reminder of how we need both desires in order to make our faith complete:
We need to glorify Christ with our living,
And we need to glorify Christ with our dying.
May Christ be a part of our living and our dying – our everything.