Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will result in my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 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 for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.
At first glance, it may seem rather difficult to understand what Paul is saying here. After all, he’s talking about wishing he would die: “living is Christ and dying is gain,” “my desire is to depart to be with Christ,” etc. These sentiments feel foreign, odd, even rather strange.
Unless, that is, we’ve had a grandparent, or spouse, or friend, or someone else we’ve know well who has been so sick and for so long that he or she is just plain worn out. When I was early in my teen years my grandmother came to live with us for a time when she could no longer live on her own. I still remember times when, late in life and ill for a long time and so very tired of being ill, she would ask my mother when she could go to meet her beloved husband who had died a dozen years earlier. That didn’t seem foreign, or odd, or strange at all. It seemed understandable, even faithful. She had run her race, finished the course, and she was ready to go home.
This is where Paul is. He has, as he will mention later in this letter, already endured much, suffered much; indeed, more than most of us ever will. And he is now in prison, with no sure prospect of release in sight. And so he is ready to lay down the baton, finish the race, and go home. Such is his confidence in Christ and the resurrection that the next stage holds no fear for him, only anticipation of the next and promised part of the adventure.
Perhaps what is surprising, then, is Paul’s ambivalence. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better,” he writes, but then continues, “but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” Paul is ready to be done, but God is not ready to be done with Paul. And since he is convinced of this, he will struggle on, enduring more, suffering more, in the hope and expectation of being useful to his friends.
In this passage we are witnesses to the struggle of a soul torn between a desire to be released and the love of his friends that keeps him in the fight. It is a magnificent contest, and we are privileged to watch.
Prayer: Dear God, let us be mindful this day of all those who are tired, worn out, eager for release. Let us remember them in the nursing homes, or veterans’ hospitals, or cancer wards, or refugee shelters, or wherever they may be. And if we can, let us remind them of your love, and our gratitude, for them. In Jesus’ name, Amen.