When pain is particularly tragic or terrifying, when it is permanent rather than momentary, there’s a thought that we don’t often talk about, but we need to: Why am I still alive? Why can’t God just let me die?
Why does God not take the suffering out of us, or us out of our suffering? Why does he leave his people in the midst of pain?
When Paul writes about the “death” that is “at work” in him and his Christian friends, he is speaking of the daily act of self-denial by which he joyfully and willingly follows the crucified Christ, even through suffering and sacrifice, and even to the point of death. At this time in Paul’s life, God has willed that he remain alive and fruitful for the gospel, despite imprisonment and other perpetual, brutal sufferings that resulted from his faithful preaching. Certainly, God is teaching him how to live for and depend on Christ in the midst of his daily deaths- to-self. But the “life” Paul is talking about in this verse is actually not about the life that is “in him,” but “in you.”
It is about the church.
In a different letter, to the church in Philippi, he writes:
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 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 re- main 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 v 20-26)
How does any of this help with the searing question of the sufferer: “Why can’t God just let me die?” Think about the Christian who is instantly paralyzed by an accident, and then is bedridden for the rest of her days. Or the victim of a degenerative disease who slowly but surely loses her quality of life. What about the believer who feels trapped in an abusive relationship, or a home life that brings trouble upon trouble? What about the person who has lost a loved one to tragedy and cannot fathom how to live without him?
If Paul desires to depart and be with Christ, then why does God leave him in the body, with all his sufferings and hardships?
Because it is necessary for those around him. “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.” Oh, if I had my choice, Paul says, I would be in heaven with my Lord! To be with Jesus is better than remaining in the body, for Paul and for us. When that happens what a day that will be! And what a wonderful way to look at death. To be with Christ is better by far. Yet God’s word says that if we remain, it is because our work for him isn’t finished.
Suffering Christian, you are alive today because God has a purpose for your pain that is for the good of others and the glory of Christ. Death- to-self may be at work in your suffering, but life-in-Christ is at work in the church.
Excerpted with permission from Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering (2017, The Good Book Company). Kristen blogs at www.kristenwetherell.com. Sarah blogs at www.setapart.net.