Shakespeare’s Hamlet thinks out-loud, contemplating suicide– whether to live or die, ‘to be or not to be’– while looking at a skull (his future appearance), in one of the most famous soliloquies in literature (then St. Paul gives his view of the matter):
By Dan Simundson, Renewing Hope, 2002, pages 95-97.
Philippians 1:12-26 — I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment, and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear. Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall 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 it is to be life 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 remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall 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.
Paul’s indifference in the face of death:
Paul is in prison when he writes a letter of encouragement to the Philippians. He is in a precarious position. It is conceivable that his captors will free him so that he can continue his ministry. Then again, he may be kept in prison for an extended period of time. There is also a strong possibility that he will be put to death. He does not know exactly what the future holds for him but, from a human perspective, it doesn’t look very good. He knows that his friends in Philippi are worried about him. So he writes with the intention of supporting them. His words remain as a blessing for all of us latter day believers.
Paul begins by putting a positive construction on what has happened to him. Even his imprisonment has had some benefits for the spread of the gospel. The good news about Jesus Christ has now become known throughout the whole imperial guard (verses 12-13). What better way to preach to the jail keepers than to be in jail? Paul sees Christ’s hand, God’s purpose, in what looks to others like a terrible catastrophe for him and the cause of his ministry.
Paul’s main hope is not for his own safety, his release from prison, or even avoidance of death. Rather, his primary concern is that he will not be put to shame, that he will not weaken or in any way disgrace the message of Christ. His hope is that Christ will continue to be exalted by his speaking, by the way he lives and if necessary, by the way that he dies verse 20). Whether or not Christ is glorified is more important to him than his own life. He has put his own personal living or dying in a much larger perspective so that it is no longer what matters most to him.
He then begins to debate in a rather detached analytical way whether it would be better to live or to die. It is Paul’s version of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech. For Hamlet either possibility was negative. With Paul, both options are good ones. There is a case to be made for dying so that one can be with Christ. If Paul had his choice, he might be inclined to take that one (verse 23). Human limitations make a complete relationship with Christ impossible. That can come only after death. But there is also a strong argument for staying alive, for carrying on fruitful labor, for teaching and encouraging the struggling churches that still depend on Paul’s wisdom (verses 22-26).
There is no fear of death here. Nor is there a desire to flee from life. This is not a morbid fascination with death, and surely not a contemplation of suicide. What we see in Paul is an amazing indifference toward life or death. He is so confident in his relationship God through Christ that whatever comes will be all right. If God has more for him to do, he is willing and eager to carry on. If his earthly mission is over, that could be even better. Let God decide. Paul would have a hard time choosing if the choice were left to him. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (verse 21).
Oh, to have the faith of Paul, to thumb our nose at death and say, “You don’t scare me. I am with Christ, dead or alive, now and forever. There is nothing you can do to hurt me.”
O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed; and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Book of Common Prayer