"For me to live is Christ and to die is gain." Philippians 1:21
Paul was in prison when he wrote these remarkably optimistic words. He faced the very real possibility of execution, and while he indicated elsewhere in the letter his expectation of release he could not be sure. Even if he were to once again evade capital punishment his long and varied experience with prisons, shipwrecks, beatings, and general privation I’m sure he knew that, from a worldly point of view, his life was not going to end easily or comfortably. He did not care. All death meant to him was a change of address.
So how could he maintain such a startling hope and apparently joyful (a main theme of Philippians) disposition? A greater point for consideration is why I, in the comfort and security of my present surroundings, should not possess the same divine optimism?
Or let’s take you for example. You are likely reading these brief observations with a solid roof over your head, not living in a cave or tree. The clothes you wear are comfortable, possibly even stylish. Even if you have not dressed for the day’s activities you are likely wrapped snuggly in a bathrobe with a nice pair of house slippers. You obviously have electricity, and quite probably a nice cup of coffee with which to start your day. A Golden Retriever lies curled in the corner and wags his tail every time you look his way.
Perhaps I’m off a bit, but compared with what Paul faced when he wrote Philippians 1:21 you are a Norman Rockwell painting of ease and delight.
Delight and joy, however, are not the first words that leap to mind for you, are they? One common problem we all manufacture is to set the bar of our expectations so impossibly high that we cannot possibly be contented, joyful, or peaceful (all three are themes in this prison letter). We are somewhat like golfers who take the very lowest score they have ever achieved, make that the standard, and manifest shock and even outrage that today’s game did not go as well or better.
I believe God wants us to maintain such a deep trust in His providence that we can even treat death as simply a change of address. We truly can have a “can’t lose” faith. Instead we live each day as if the end were somehow in doubt. It is not.
It is the certainty of victory that frees us to live daily with joyful optimism. One of my favorite professors is Dr. Fisher Humphreys, and I have benefited equally from his teaching and friendship. He wrote of a personal experience which served as a perfect analogy for God’s ultimate victory and the confidence that gives you today.
“I was playing in a chess tournament in which I was the weakest player. One afternoon my opponent was a mild looking young man whom I did not know. Later on I learned that he held a prestigious place among chess players in universities, but when I played him I judged from his mild manner that he was not a vigorous player.
“He checkmated me in eleven moves! After my humiliating defeat he kindly offered to go over the game (we kept records of our moves) to explain where I had gone wrong. I cannot remember his exact words, but the gist of his comments was something like this: ‘Your first move was good. Your second move was optional but satisfactory. Your third move was weak but not seriously so. But your fourth move was disastrous. You lost the game on your fourth move.’
“Because I am sometimes a literalist, I responded ‘You are mistaken. I did not lose on the fourth move; you defeated me on the eleventh move.’
“But my opponent was even more literal than I. He responded: ‘No, Mr. Humphreys, you are mistaken. When you made your fourth move, you were defeated. I won on move four. Nothing could save you then. The game was mine.’”
Dr. Humphrey’s goes on to explain that the cross was God’s fourth move.
Paul lived with a powerful conviction that Christ had defeated sin and death on the cross, and been raised from the dead. That conviction freed him to live joyously no matter his circumstances. He had no doubt about the end.
Alan Redpath sums up nicely the “can’t lose” faith you can have today: “There is nothing—no circumstance, no trouble, no testing—that can ever touch me until, first of all, it has gone past God and past Christ, right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose, which I may not understand at the moment. But as I refuse to become panicky, as I lift up my eyes to Him and accept it as coming from God or through God for some great purpose of blessing to my own heart, no sorrow will ever disturb me, no trial will ever disarm me, no circumstance will cause me to fret, for I shall rest in the joy of what my Lord is. That is the rest of victory.”
Live with joyful confidence today. The cross and resurrection are God’s promise that nothing can defeat you.
Dr. Terry Ellis
September 11, 2011