Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live 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 will 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. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

4 thoughts on “Was Paul Suicidal?

  1. So, if someone does not work, then he should not eat? Is not that in contradiction to feeding the homeless? Or is it just those who could work, but do not work? I guess we would have to cancel all the food stamps that people receive.

    1. Paul was writing to Christians about how to manage the church. They were not to enable people who were taking advantage of the generosity of others in the church and refusing to work although they were capable of doing so. So, this is not referring to government social welfare programs. However, that doesn’t mean that the same principle can’t or shouldn’t be applied to such programs.
      With helping people who are down and out, they may very well be in their predicament because of their own bad choices, but they are in that predicament nonetheless. To help people get on their feet is one thing, and to care for ‘the least of these’ regardless of if they deserve it or not is certainly the heart of God. However, long-term enablement of people who are able but unwilling is a different story.

  2. That is an interesting interpretation I had not thought of either. I can see how one could think that by reading Paul’s words there, but I don’t think that idea fits in the context of the character of Paul or his message for living for Christ.

    I am also pretty confident Paul is telling the able bodied members of the Church they need to work. Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, how can someone do that if he isn’t working and able to feed himself? I don’t think it has anything to do with social programs from our government or other governments, especially since these programs are not put in effect by the Church.

    1. Yes, the Bible speaks to a different social setting than what we currently have in regard to the role of the government in caring for the poor. The challenge, not only for us, but for every generation of Christians is to figure out how the principles given to us in Scripture are to be lived out in our particular setting.

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