It’s a moment rich in pathos as the wizened apostle pours his heart out to the Philippian believers. The words flow simply from his pen: “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” It is doubtful Shakespeare himself wrote anything so poetic. Yet beneath the poetry rests a profound reality.
To live is Christ; to die is gain.
What believer can read these words without feeling the tug of eternity, the longing for home? And while to die is a notion rich in hope and comfort for the believer, to live is a notion even more compelling for most. We feel deeply, with the apostle, that we have a mission here and that it is good for us to be here for now.
Yet to stop at this is to miss the depth of the conundrum the apostle faces. The creed that Paul here enunciates comes not as a stabilising conclusion to his struggle, but as the introduction to it. No sooner has the apostle made the statement than he proceeds to wrestle deeply with the dilemma. “Which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two.” And it is here, quite often, that our identification with Paul’s struggle ends.
We understand the desirability of being with God. We do. But we’re also quite happy to stay here for now. If we were honest with ourselves, we’d have to admit that we’d prefer to stay here. For now, of course. But it is not so for all.
For the believer afflicted with poor mental health, the preference may be otherwise. And in this, he aligns more closely with the apostle than do others. Listen to Paul’s preference: “My desire is to depart.” That’s what Paul really wants. Why does he want that? Because “that is far better.” Paul has come to the settled conclusion that death is better than life. Far better. And in this, he is perfectly aligned with the Christian who longs—longs—for the sweet relief of death.
It is at this point though, that the suicidal believer often parts ways with the apostle for it is at this point that he begins to wonder if he might find some way to justify suicide. He reasons, perhaps, that since Paul agrees with his conclusions about the desirability of death, perhaps Paul might condone his methodology. Yet for all his searching, he will find no such approval from Paul’s pen. Indeed, he will find contradictory concepts wherever he turns. Contentment in whatever state. Rejoicing in all things. Pouring out of self in love for others. He finds himself, therefore, in confusion. “I want what Paul wants. But Paul won’t let me have it.”
It’s a conundrum only the few will appreciate. But it is real and intense to the believer for whom suicide is a symbol of comfort, relief, and blessing. What, then, is the solution? How can a desire (death) so aligned with the apostle’s desire lead to a temptation (suicide) so opposite of everything the apostle stands for?
The solution, I suspect, is found in the words I left out of my original iteration of Paul’s words. I quoted Paul’s statement as “My desire is to depart.” But Paul goes on. “My desire is to depart and be with Christ.” He then goes on. “For that is far better” (emphasis added in both quotations).
The solution is in the motivation for wanting to die. Paul doesn’t want to depart merely so he can be free of earthly suffering, even though he had a lot of that. No, the motivation for him was Jesus Christ. He wanted to stand face to face with his Lord and Saviour and enjoy him forever! If to die is gain primarily because it frees us from earthly suffering, then suicide is a semi-rational approach to getting the job done. But if to die is gain because it means full and forever joy in Jesus, then to pursue this end through the means of sin against Jesus is unthinkable.
There’s a corollary truth to this. If to die is gain primarily because of what will not be present in heaven (pain), then we must face the reality that to live, for us, is not Christ.
For the suicidal Christian pursuing death as a means of escape from suffering, to live is pain and to die is the gain of evading pain. We must not confuse this with the apostle’s passion. For Paul, to live is Christ and to die is the gain of even closer fellowship with Christ. Two different gains. If your gain is merely the absence of pain, you are pursuing so much less than your calling implies.
The problem is not wanting to die to be free from suffering. We know that the creation itself has been groaning until now under the weight of the curse. You and I groan under the same weight sometimes. No, the take-home message is not condemnation for wanting relief. Rather, the message is that God is better than relief. In your sadness and suffering, pursue Christ. Love him better than relief so that for you, too, to live will be Christ and to die gain.
If you are a believer who struggles with temptation to suicide, you are not alone. There is hope and there is help. See your doctor. See your psychologist/counsellor. See your pastor. Both/and. Not either/or. God’s grace may flow through each of these.
Grace to you.
NOTE: If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, or a church nearby.