“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21
When King Hezekiah was terminally ill, he prayed, and God responded by adding 15 years to his life (Isaiah 38). This prayer is natural and normal. We all would pray in this way and be grateful to God for any healing that He gave us. However, the difference between Hezekiah and a Christian is important. He feared “going down to the pit,” (Isa. 38:18), or Sheol, the hopeless place where all the dead were consigned to a kind of shadowy half-life. He wanted to live because of the dreaded afterlife he faced.
A Christian has two distinct advantages during the days when death draws near.
First, in the full revelation of Scripture, we know heaven awaits us. The difference this makes is tremendous. If we are sick we still pray for healing. If our disease is terminal we still pray for life to be extended. Never hesitate to pray like this. Asking for health or for more years is not a lack of faith in the future, but reverence for the life God has given us here.
However, we maintain a different and deeper hope than Hezekiah could ever claim when we approach the grayer days. We find this hope in Paul when he faced the possibility of death: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Hezekiah never would have seen death as a gain. Paul did, as should every Christian. In fact, Paul even found it hard to choose between death and life, seeing tremendous advantages with either option. He saw a personal advantage if he were to die (for me to die is gain), but an opportunities for continued service here if he were to live (for me to live is Christ).
That brings us to our second advantage. Belief in heaven creates in a Christian’s mind a continuity of purpose, not a longing for release. The oft-heard criticism of the Christian doctrine of heaven is that it will lead us all to stand and simply gaze heavenward. The assumption is that becoming heavenly-minded makes us no earthly good.
A fair look at the facts leads to precisely the opposite conclusion. Belief in heaven compels us to store up treasures there by serving others selflessly here. Roy Hattersley, a leading English atheist, noted this after Hurricane Katrina. In an article for The Guardian entitled “Faith Does Breed Charity” (and with the notable sub-title “We atheists have to accept that most believers are better human beings”), Hattersley noted, “Good works, John Wesley insisted, are no guarantee of a place in heaven. But they are most likely to be performed by people who believe that heaven exists.”
The “theological engine” for this engagement is the Christian conviction of a kind of continuity or connection between earth and heaven. You were created to serve God eternally, and that eternity begins now. The implication of embracing this conviction is life-changing. I say this reverently and with great appreciation for my life here, but whether I serve God here on earth or in heaven is as incidental as whether I serve God in Baton Rouge or Mobile or Houma, etc.
Adding to the exuberance of Christian service is the conviction that such service to God is not really a service at all. Serving is merely our existence, not a duty we perform. It is not something we do because we must, or because we are slaves of God. Servants and slaves are words Paul and others use to describe their work, but those are images only. Look behind them and you cannot help but note that service was a joyful obligation or even an opportunity. So also our service should be suffused with joy, a joy that continues into the timeless halls of eternity as we work for God here or in heaven. Service and loving others is simply what we are, in the same way that love defines God.
You were created to serve God and enjoy Him forever. Cherish the opportunity every day God gives you here on earth. Serve Him today with joy. And when “thy summons comes” then answer it with equal joy and hopefulness. You will still have the blessing of serving God.
Dr. Terry Ellis
March 20, 2011