To Live is Christ and To Die is Gain: Exploring Suffering in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

to live is Christ and to die is gain

Paul’s statement that ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain’ is one of the boldest sentences in Scripture.

As Christians, it’s a passage that we often quote and that we readily intellectually assent to; however, most of us—if honest—sense that we are not really living it the way that Paul was. Our lives (time, money, passion) are not wholly given over to serving; and we do not face death fearlessly, longing for union with God.

I’ve wanted to really understand these words. And as someone who now has an illness, I feel it’s imperative.

This statement of Paul is found in the book of Philippians, which though a short letter, has some of the most recognized and poetic passages in the Bible. And much to my surprise, when I took a deeper look, I found that this book is all about suffering.

So why does Paul write an entire letter addressing suffering?

This is where it gets really interesting and where understanding context is critical.

The letter is addressed to the church in Philippi, a city in what is now eastern Greece. The book of Acts chapter 16 describes Paul’s initial visit to the city.

Unlike some of the other metropolitan areas visited by Paul, Philippi has essentially no Jewish settlements, and thus, no obvious place for Paul to stay and establish his ministry. Paul finds no synagogue to visit on the Sabbath, just a few Jewish women worshipping by a river.

Nonetheless, remarkable things begin to happen in Philippi. Acts tells us just three stories, but they signify a rapid and socially broad acceptance of Paul’s message. First, Lydia, a wealthy merchant accepts Paul’s message about Jesus. Then, a poor slave girl, literally a victim of human trafficking, is healed and freed by Paul. Lastly, a middle class jailer turns to Jesus after witnessing a miracle and Paul’s kindness to him. All social and economic segments of Philippian society were turning to Jesus, these stories convey. And we know from archaeologic records that the city of Philippi eventually established a large number of churches, further supporting this understanding.

The final and most dramatic story of Paul’s time in Philippi is that of Paul’s arrest. As a consequence of freeing the slave girl, Paul is stripped, beaten with rods, and thrown naked and bleeding into a dank jail cell, his body contorted into the stocks. Still chained down, Paul begins to sing and worship. Around midnight, a powerful quake opens the doors and the chains. Rather than run for his freedom, Paul cares for the jailer who comes to believe in Jesus as a result.

All of this is to say that Paul’s time in Philippi was marked by miracle. Relatively speaking, tremendous conversion and success accompanied the early church there.

So why now a letter about suffering?

When Paul writes the letter to the Philippians, he is again imprisoned. Although we cannot be certain, many scholars speculate that this letter is from one of Paul’s final imprisonments in Rome, before his execution. And although Paul is yet again in chains, this time, a miraculous escape is not coming.

It’s clear from the beginning of the letter that Paul is addressing the Philippians questions about why this has happened to him (Philippians 1:12-14). Paul’s imprisonment has obviously affected their faith. Paul was an unassailable figure to them, now he is weak and vulnerable.

Early on in his letter, Paul is quick to mention that his present suffering has given him an opportunity to share his faith with the palace guard and help embolden fellow believers in Rome (Philippians 1:12-14). However, Paul doesn’t stop here. Though the explanation is true, he knows his readers need more.

Paul makes a number of points about suffering.

1.  First, Paul emphasizes that we will suffer, and that that suffering is somehow desirable.

  • For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him. (Philippians 1:29)
  • I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

These statements straightforwardly answer the question of whether suffering ought to be present in a believer’s life. First, Paul say that followers of Jesus will not only believe in him but they will suffer for him. Those two things—belief and suffering—are part of the same package. Secondly, being made into God’s image involves suffering. Paul can’t really understand Christ in the same way without having suffered. This is not to say that Paul is recommending wantonly running toward hardship, but just as Paul wants so badly to be resurrected with Christ, he also desires deep harmony between Christ’s life and his, including in sacrifice and suffering.

2.  Second, Paul concludes that the enemy of facing suffering well is selfish ambition and an obsession with our own interests and materialism.

  • “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
  • When talking about his helper Timothy, Paul says, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 2:20-21)
  • When talking about those who oppose the message of Jesus, Paul states, “their god is their stomach….Their mind is set on earthly things.” (Philippians 3:19)

These are bold statements rejecting selfish ambition and turning our attention to the welfare of others. And it makes sense—once we turn our gaze from our own advancement, we are free to sacrifice for the benefit of others. Interestingly, Paul’s actions toward the jailer reflect this mindset. When Paul was miraculously freed from the stocks, he didn’t run but faced potential repeat imprisonment by sticking around to help his captor. This kind of behavior just doesn’t make sense without knowing that Paul is following Jesus’ example of sacrificing himself for his enemies.

3.  Lastly, Paul says something that directly touches on one of the most critical issues related to suffering—getting an explanation for why something happened.

  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

Many individuals, in fact, clearly state that they lost faith in God when faced with suffering and not able to answer why such a tragic thing was happening. As moderns, we often think that our existential questions are novel, but we see from Philippians that these spiritual questions are as old as recorded history. The Philippians want to know why Paul and fellow believers are suffering and Paul ultimately concludes his letter by saying that the kind of peace they need will not ultimately be found in reason, it will not be found in getting a satisfactory explanation. Rather, Paul encourages them to strive for a peace that transcends human understanding.

I think this last point deserves further exploration. There is so much about suffering that simply cannot be understood. Suffering is filled with paradox and Paul is willing to embrace it.

Sometime scholars point out apparent paradoxes in the Bible as evidence of flaws in doctrine, but that doesn’t seem to me to be what’s going on. In fact, paradoxes in Scripture abound and with intentionality.

In the letter to the Philippians, which is all about suffering, Paul introduces his own paradoxes. Paul talks here and elsewhere about how he is often overwhelmed with sorrow (Philippians 2:27). Yet at the same time Paul states he has learned joy in every situation (Philippians 4:11). How can these emotions coexist?

In other paradoxical language, Paul talks about being certain that everything is working toward his “deliverance” (Philippians 1:19), but deliverance to him has nothing to do with living (Philippians 1:20), as we would imagine it. According to Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

Paul’s explanation of suffering, and how to face suffering as a Christian, seems to suggest that the world is often not as we see (or expect) it to be. Sometime paradoxes express the greatest truths.

And I’ve come to see the wisdom in this. As someone who is ill, I more fully realize that paradoxes define illness. With illness, you have richer life as you more fully appreciate time and your priorities come into clearer focus, but you also have less of it.

I am deeply saddened that it is usually not so much suffering itself that turns people from God, but rather an inability to understand or reconcile that suffering into an explanatory framework. But it makes sense, the Philippians, after all, were experiencing the same challenge. We have a long history of struggle here.

Part of the danger with facing suffering is that we can be tempted to reason that if we were God, we would treat people differently. If we can be humble about it, this is an ultimate example of the elevation of ourselves to the place of God and really a defining choice, because all it takes to be redeemed by God is to humbly come to him and admit our need. No mighty works or saintly lives are demanded by God, just a statement of need. Christ on the cross, God dying for humans, is the ultimate paradox. The peace that transcends human understanding can only be found there.