CHOOSING LIFE OVER DEATH
Philippians 1: 21-30
Listen to this description written by an American Psychoanalyst:
Try as we may, it is difficult to conceive of our universe in terms of concord; instead, we are faced everywhere with the evidences of conflict. Love and hate, production and consumption, creation and destructions—the constant war of opposing tendencies would appear to be the dynamic heart of the world. [People] run the eager gamut of life through hazards of sickness and accidents, beasts and bacteria, the malignant power of the forces of nature and the vengeful hands of [others.] ….Time and time again in the past few years, the swollen waters of the Ohio, the Mississippi, and other rivers have poured over the fields and cities of populous areas, sweeping away the homes and the gardens, the books and the treasures, the food and factories of a million people. Almost at the same time and in the same country, trees died of drought, grass withered in the heat, cattle perished of thirst and starvation, birds and little wild beasts disappeared and a brown-grey crust replaced the usual verdure of landscape. And recently again, the Pacific Coast was shaken by earthquakes …while the Atlantic Coast was wept with hurricanes and devastating storms.
These are conditions that can make any of us feel very jaded about the world; about life; about living through such horrors or sorrowful events. It can even make people long for days gone by, sometimes called “the good old days.” When were those days exactly? Because the words I just read were written by Dr. Karl Menninger from Topeka, Kansas. He wrote them in 1938! 1938. [Man Against Himself, Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc. New York; 1938; Harvest Books. Edition 1966, p. 3.] So why do I share this? There is a temptation for people to see the times in which we are living—with extra hate, extra storms, and extra conflict—as a product of our modern age. But instead it is a product of the human race and nature’s swings from light to darkness. What’s good to learn are the attitude and outlooks that bode well for our good life on this earth. We think things are bad; but they have been worse, and may very well get worse. How will we cope with that? What will be our life choices?
Perhaps you, like I, were asked to read Victor Frankl’s work of non-fiction called Man’s Search for Meaning. I read it in both college and seminary. It is now quoted in the current Ken Burns television series on Vietnam. The book is not mainly about life in a Nazi concentration camp; it is about what Frankl learned about people and their desire to live or die.
Listen to this description of that book:
Frankl never gives the reader a linear narrative of his time in the camps—instead he is more focused on how the daily struggles of camp life affected the mental state of its inmates. As a result, he only gives details about his experience when those details can be used as evidence for his psychological theories. [He said he observed that] the typical prisoner passes through three mental stages: shock in the first few days of his arrival, apathy and “emotional death” once he has become accustomed to life in camp, and disillusionment with life after he has been liberated….The core of Frankl’s philosophy is that a [person’s] deepest desire is to find meaning in his life, and if he can find that meaning, he can survive anything. [LitCharts Summary]
What makes you desire to live; to keep going against hardships? Or do you secretly wish you could die? In Hospice rooms around the country, people afflicted with an illness can gain hope spiritually and endorphins physically if they are surround by or kissed by those they love. Many of them want to live another day. The human will is powerful in the struggle for life or the desire for death. In World War II, men would often have a picture of a girlfriend, his wife, or their children to give them the will to live in the midst of war. On the other end of the spectrum, teenagers who have been jilted by a boyfriend or girlfriend might consider taking their own lives because they can’t see any happy way forward. Who decided that it is a good idea to have high school and college students read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its tragic final scene? It seems that when we are focused on a purpose for living—a reason for living—many people can continue against mounting odds. Those who lose that focus—like with the death of a spouse, or a child, or a friend—can go through the stages I listed—shock, apathy or “emotional death,” and disillusionment. That is truly the low road, leading people to lose their will to live. But the high road can even lead a man in a concentration camp to see his way forward.
The Apostle Paul gives us yet another example of a man who discovered meaning in his life. This man, Paul—sometimes hounded by local officials—found meaning in the shortness of the time he had to get the Word out about Jesus. And, in his letter to the Philippians, which is my text today, Paul shows us how, in speaking to the Philippians—he expressing his joy in them. Hewas writing from prison; hewas being held under a capital charge, meaning that if he were found guilty, he would be put to death! Can you tell that by reading or hearing his letter, when he says things like: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Have no anxiety about anything!” [4:4,6] Had Paul discovered what Frankl had discovered? Who do you know who has figured out the secret of life well lived? And who do you know who seeks death?
There are those who have said to me and to others, that they just want to die; they don’t like the world and they have pain or limitations that have contributed to their loss of a will to live. The answer for them is not to pack their bags and go to an imagined celestial railway station, hoping that the train going to heaven will stop to pick them up. They may be making that choice with years of life on earth still in front of them! No. As we learn from Paul in Philippians, the action that must take place is to find new meaning, a new reason, or a new purpose for their life. Likely that will not just fall into their lap as they sit in their chair or lay in their bed. As the Reverend Mother urged Sister Maria in The Sound of Music to “climb every mountain until you find your dream,” people in the ditch of apathy or sorrow will need to find new light in their darkness. Sometimes it will take you, or me, to gently accompany them; to take their hand, as Jesus would, and lead them to new green pastures. There are green pastures. Sometimes our murky sorrow keeps us from seeing them. Paul puts it this way in Philippians 1: “What shall I choose? I do not know. … I desire to depart [meaning to die] and be with Christ, which is better by far [than this world;] but it is more necessary for you [the Philippian Christians] that I remain in the body.” Do you hear how Paul realizes that others are watching him and learning from him? There are little eyes on him, and wise older eyes, just as they are watching you. If someone knows you are a Christian, they want to learn how you handle sorrow, or war, or illness. Anyone, Christian or non-Christian, can fall into bitterness or despair. But if our hope in Christ and the guidance of our New Testaments mean anything, they point us toward Christ and His example of how life is to be lived, and how death is not just your grand day when your prison door is opened and you fly away. Instead, as Paul sees it, it is the last day you have on earth to set an example for others. Paul says it this way: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” That is our charge when we put on the armor or the clothing of Christ. We do not just disengage. We pray; we ask for help; and we fight the darkness that threatens to cloak our eyes and smother our hearts.
God has given every living creature a will to live. Sometimes human beings just think too much, or get their hearts broken, or get filled with disappointments. The Christian life offers no hope to the birds of the air, the animals on the ground, or the fish in the sea other than God created them and loves them. But this book—The Bible—is for human beings to read and use as stewards of God’s world. It is only profitable to human beings who read and follow it. It is a book of faith, hope, and love: qualities that humans desperately need in regular doses so they can assimilate them into their life choices. Paul urges the downtrodden, the weary, or the hopeless to “stand firm.” The difference between those who lived through concentration camps—like Victor Frankl as we heard, or like Corrie Ten Boom in the non-fiction work The Hiding Place—is hope in place of hopelessness.
Even John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, has a surprisingly optimistic take on Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21:
“Assuredly it is Christ alone that makes us happy both in death and in life; otherwise, if death is miserable, life is in no degree happier; so that it is difficult to determine whether it is more advantageous to live or to die out of Christ. On the other hand, let Christ be with us, and he will bless our life as well as our death….” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol XXI, Baker Books, p. 42.] Could it be that an attitude that keeps you feeling miserable and victimized on earth will go to heaven with you too?
Let me close with one of Jesus’ miracles. In Matthew 14: 22-33, Jesus had just performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. He sent his disciples off into a boat on the Sea of Galilee and he dismissed the crowds. Jesus was not, at the time, with his disciples. Without Jesus with them, winds whipped the disciples and their small boat. The Bible says those grown men were terrified, perhaps afraid they would drown and die. What was Jesus doing? Why wasn’t he with them? Jesus was praying. Could it be, friends, that when your eyes cannot see Jesus, or your hand does not feel his hand in yours, that Jesus is praying, perhaps for you; perhaps for our broken world; perhaps for your loved ones; perhaps even for your enemies? Jesus is always about the world, and always about those of us who claim to be sheep in his flock. He has not abandoned you. He is praying for you, praying that you find the faith, hope, and love: the things that he needs for us to have as the body of Christ in the world! This is not chastisement; this is encouragement for those who feel like giving up. Jesus prays for you; and we will walk with you in whatever unfolds in the next chapter of the book called “This is Your Life.” What will that chapter say about the example you set for others?
Let us pray:
Dear Creator God: we never just live for ourselves; we live for you, our Creator; we live for Jesus; we live for those we love; and we live not just for today, but for tomorrow. Clear our eyes and pull the burdens off of our souls so that, with new conviction, we can live through this life, whether it’s troubled or joyous, knowing that Jesus is behind us, before us, beside us and inside us. We show him to others. In the words of another famous prayer: “Help us to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 24, 2017