Do you know what a wishbone is? I'm not referring to the football formation, but rather to the forked bone in the front of the breastbone of many birds. I can remember as a kid when my mother would often cook fried chicken for Sunday dinner. If someone found the wishbone, our meal would suddenly get interrupted by a brief competition.
Two of us would each grab an end of that wishbone and pull until it snapped into two pieces. The goal was to be the person who came away with the longer piece, because that supposedly meant that your wish would come true. It's been a long time since I've been in a wishbone-pulling battle with anyone. But that's OK, because as the youngest in the family I tended to lose most of the time anyway.
In Philippians 1:19-26, Paul's description of himself reminds me of a wishbone being pulled in two different directions. It was his own desires that were in conflict. On the one hand, he wished to depart this life and be with Christ. On the other hand, he wished to keep on living.
Don't mistake Paul's battle as one of trying to choose whether to live or die. He knew, as we should, that such a decision is in God's hands. He wasn't presuming to take the responsibility of life or death on himself. He was just expressing his wishes about what he preferred God to do.
Why did Paul have a desire to die? It was because he saw all that he would gain from the experience. We usually think of dying in terms of loss. We contemplate on what we're going to leave behind, such as family, friends, possessions and activities that we enjoy.
But Paul focused on what he would gain through death. It will mean no more sorrow, sickness, pain or death. It will result in being with Jesus and with other believers, living in heaven, and all that goes along with our glorious inheritance as children of God. If we know the Lord as our Savior, death is about gain, not loss.
But Paul also possessed a competing desire to keep living. That wish didn't center on not wanting to leave family or the things of this world behind. It was based on God's purpose for Paul and how he could continue to be a help to others in this life. He said "to live is Christ." To keep on living would give Jesus an opportunity to live in Paul, shining His light and showing His love through him.
The desire to keep living isn't so much about us as it is about others. It's about how God may want to use us to touch the lives of those around us. So until God decides to take us home, we should want to fulfill His purpose for us and let Christ be magnified in us.
Paul is describing a win-win situation. If he lived, he would win -- he would be able to continue to minister to people and share the gospel. And if he died, he would win -- he would get to be with Jesus and enjoy all the blessings of heaven.
It's like pulling on that wishbone we mentioned earlier and no matter which piece you get, you win -- you get your wish. If you're a follower of Christ, you can't lose when it comes to the matter of living or dying. So there's no need for us to worry about when we're going to die or if we're going to live. That's all in God's hands.
The main thing is that we put our trust in Jesus as the One who can save our soul. If we do that, whether we live or die, it's all good.
The Rev. Tony W. Elder is pastor of Wesley Community Fellowship Church. He can be reached at 770-483-3405 or by email at RevTElder@aol.com.