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)