For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, several guys on the PCPC Youth staff drive to a house near the church to work out, but this isn’t your typical workout. This is a combination of Crossfit and our friend, Drew. We call it Drossfit. Drew, in his inordinate, yet humble strength, has graciously offered up his time and energy to help us (we will call us “the less strong ones”) get into shape. One thing I have come to realize about Drew is that he likes phrases like “muscle confusion” and “muscle failure.” I find that I enjoy them less so. However, he says that this is what makes us actually get stronger. The concept is simple: do a certain exercise until you are unable to do it, fail, so that next time you will be able to do more.
[Insert Spiritual Connection here]. The Christian life is like Drossfit. Before you get stronger and more like Christ, you must experience weakness, failure, and even death. You have to come to the end of yourself. It is in this failure that you actually succeed and become stronger. But rather than a garage workout, God uses all of life and its many circumstances to point out our weaknesses in order to strengthen us. God’s method of making us stronger is making us more like His Son, by the power of His Spirit. Jesus’ life wasn’t an American Dream success story. It was birth in a barn, a life of functional homelessness (Luke 9:58), and death by Roman crucifixion. Paul says in Philippians 1:21 that “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” What? How does that make sense, Paul? Elsewhere, Paul says similar things like in 2 Corinthians 12–here Paul is experiencing some sort of physical (or spiritual) ailment that he calls his “thorn in the flesh.” Three times Paul asks for it be taken away. Who wouldn’t think that if they were Paul, that God would want to “bless” him in this way by taking away his pain? It would have made him “more effective” in his missionary journeys, right? But what happens with Paul’s thorn in his flesh? Does God take it away? No, he doesn’t. God says loud and clear, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”(v. 9). God’s grace is the strength we need to endure weakness, to experience “muscle failure” through what the Bible calls trial, tribulation, cross-bearing, and suffering.
But in America, in Dallas, TX, we miss this often. We hear words like “to live is Christ and to die is gain” and “my power is made perfect in weakness” and gloss over them as spiritual platitudes to be “sought after.” But when it doesn’t match up with how we want to live our lives, we dismiss them altogether. We follow God when we feel good, but we really struggle to follow God in our weakness, pain, and persecution, when our lives actually look like Jesus’ life. John Calvin warns against this way of thinking in his Institutes: “Why then should we exempt ourselves from that condition to which Christ our Head behooved to submit (namely learning obedience through suffering); especially since he submitted on our account (italics added), that he might in his own person exhibit a model of patience.”
Here is the real problem. Our rebellion against God doesn’t always look like outright treason. But it is rebellion nonetheless. I realized a while back that if you switch two words in Philippians 1:21, it painted a more accurate picture of how we choose to live. My version of Philippians 1:21 reads, “To live is gain, and to die is Christ.” It’s subtle, but very different. I look at Jesus. I thank Him that I get to go to heaven when I die. But then I go about my business of pursuing my kingdom, filled with my treasure, and then I stamp “blessed” on my prosperity-driven gospel that really is no gospel at all.
Before you get on board the guilt train, feel bad for a little while, then get off and go on living how you lived before, begin by asking yourself a few questions:
1. Do I fully understand how much Jesus Christ loves me, even in my failure?
2. Am I willing to set aside my agenda, my worldview of success through my own strength, and submit myself to God’s plan of “power through weakness, trial, suffering, and pain?”
3. And am I willing to look to the bloody cross and the empty tomb for strength and the power of the Holy Spirit as I take up my cross and follow Jesus?
Fortunately for us, when we fail, when we sin, God’s grace is sufficient. AMEN? And even in the weakness of our own sin, God’s power is made perfect, and we are made stronger in Christ. As Paul Tripp says in his book Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, “The good news of the kingdom is not freedom from hardship, suffering and loss. It is the news of a Redeemer who has come to rescue me from myself.”
May Jesus Christ, who knows what it means to suffer as you do, yet without sin, rescue you, one day, one trial, and one test at a time through the power of the Holy Spirit as you see the Day drawing near. And may the strength given to you flow from your trials to help others in His body and this city to know Christ’s sufferings and the power of His resurrection!