A few years back I read 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, fully trusting that being executed for his convictions was far preferable to compromise. Death did not frighten him.
That kind of attitude has always fascinated me, and the apostle 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, I’m good.”
I’ve preached a lot of funerals over the years, mostly for Christians, and this is something important for families to reflect on.
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.
There’s a cliché that I believe we should never share with a family, especially not in the days of intense grief surrounding a death—“He’s in a better place.”
Grief-stricken families don’t need to hear that in a funeral home—it minimizes the real pain they’re feeling right now.
But the cliché itself is true when spoken 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.
I think we need to work on developing that perspective.
If the Lord chooses to let us live 8, 9, or 10 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? —Chuck